The Finnish rowhouse – from working class housing to middle-class dream

Exhibition at the Museum of Finnish Architecture, small exhibition hall, April 15 – May 17, 2015

The ‘rowhouse’ is a form of housing intimately familiar to all Finns – so much so that ‘rowhouse living’ is synonymous with a particular lifestyle. For some, owning a rowhouse unit is a dream come true – for others the very thought is a nightmare. Seldom, however, does it occur to denizens of the suburbs that they might be living next door to an architectural gem. 

Based on extensive research by Professor Riitta Nikula, the exhibition takes us on a journey back in time into the history of the Finnish rowhouse, highlighting samples of high-quality ‘everyday architecture’ from around Finland. In doing so it provides an overview of Finnish housing policy, urban planning and architecture from the early 1900s to the 1960s. How did the rowhouse become the Finnish way of living?

The Garden City ideal revolutionised urban planning in the early 20th century. Town plans were integrated with their natural surroundings, and rowhouses were initially seen as a solution to the working-class housing shortage. With a rowhouse, even the smallest home could have its own private backyard. Finland’s first rowhouse complex was Ribbingshof designed in 1918 for the Kulosaari villa district by Armas Lindgren and Bertel Liljequist. The nation’s first municipal rowhouses were designed by Birger Federley for the Tampere district of Viinikka in 1919.

Many grandiose rowhouse projects that were planned back in those early days never saw light of day in their envisaged scope. Only a small fragment of Eliel Saarinen’s meticulous town plan for the Munkkiniemi-Haaga district ever materialised. All that survives of the original plan is a small group of rowhouses on Hollantilaisentie [street]. In the 1930s, Alvar Aalto adapted the rowhouse concept into a sculptural stepped solution, the earliest examples of which are the terraced houses he designed for the Kattua ironworks village in the west Finnish town of Eura. 

It was not, however, until after the Second World War and the advent of State-subsidised loans that the rowhouse became ‘middle class’. New rowhouse districts mushroomed around the country, many exemplifying high standards of architectural excellence, as verified by the projects featured in the exhibition. The standardised prefab solutions developed by Kaija and Heikki Siren opened up new realms of opportunity for rowhouse architects. One of Finland’s most idyllic and extensive rowhouse complexes is Hilding Ekelund’s Sahanmäki in the north Helsinki suburb of Maunula.

Curated by Professor Riitta Nikula, the exhibition is based on research and material assembled for her book The Finnish rowhouse – From working-class housing to middle-class dream (Finnish Literature Society, 2014), featuring projects by famous and forgotten masters of everyday architecture, presented in a rich selection of scale models, drawings, photographs and film.

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