Three young architecture studios from Finland present their latest works in London
‘If it doesn’t evoke emotion, it isn’t architecture’. These were the resonating words of one of Finland’s most exciting emerging architects, Ville Hara of Avanto Architects, during a lecture last week at London’s Architecture Foundation (AF). The sold-out event was part of a stimulating exchange programme between the AF, the Finnish Institute in London and the Museum of Finnish Architecture, whereby three young design studios from the UK and three from Finland will partake in a series of lectures, practice meetings, workshops and tours with their foreign counterparts.
Last week, representatives from the three up-and-coming Finnish studios (Avanto Architects, ALA Architects and Anttinen Oiva Architects) travelled to London’s architectural hub to immerse themselves in the city’s buzzing design culture and gave short presentations of their work to a packed studio at the AF. The room was humming with anticipation as the city’s most eclectic young creatives gathered to learn from their Finnish peers.
First to the stand was Avanto’s Ville Hara, a charismatic young architect whose relaxed mannerisms and comedic interjections do little to betray his acute architectural edge. As with ALA and Anttinen Oive Architects (AOA), Avanto’s first realised project was the result of an open competition - a contemporary chapel on a medieval site in Vantaa. The finished structure is undeniably beautiful, subtly experimenting with the traditional preconceptions of what a religious building ‘should’ be and formulating an unobtrusive shell for both grief and prayer.
Each of the speaking practices won their first major projects through open competitions and Avanto felt it imperative to offer similar opportunities to up-and-coming artists. As such, the practice held an open competition for young artists to design installations for the interior of the Chapel of St. Lawrence - a brave move for their inaugural commission.
There seems to be a growing sentiment of camaraderie between emerging design studios in comparison to their more established counterparts, almost in response to the more austere times. This was certainly apparent when I quizzed Hara after the event and he divulged that all the architects speaking that night knew each other prior to the show and indeed were familiar with the majority of young design studios in Finland. He puts this down to the size of the country but the same sentiment can be felt in many design communities across the world regardless of population or density.
Next to the podium was Samuli Woolston from ALA Architects - not to be confused with the recently rebranded Amanda Levete Architects - a modest firm which has expanded rapidly from four partners to a 20-strong team following their first major project win in 2005 for the Kilden Performing Arts Centre in Kristiansand, Norway. This breathtaking public building opened in January 2012 with fluid timber swathes rippling across the waterfront welcoming audience members to the cavernous performance spaces within.
The beauty of many young up-and-coming architects is their potential for sideways thought and Woolston is no exception. He divulges a direct inspiration from Russian theatre director Constantin Sergeyevich Stanislavski who reflected upon the ‘invisible circus’ or ‘fourth wall’ between the stage and audience, and how this has been integrated into the design.
It is this responsive relationship with the client and end user that is so thrilling to see in the scores of exciting young practices coming to the fore, and it can also be viewed through ALA’s considered selection of materials. Of the main 1,200-seat concert hall (designed with Arup Acousticians), Woolston details: “In here we wanted to use padding material on the walls because the more we talked with the acousticians we realised that the reason classical halls have a lot of wood is sort of a psychological thing because musicians tend to think that if you have a lot of wood it feels like an instrument and it sounds good. The acousticians talk about psycho-acoustics and that is very important for us - that people feel that is sounds good. But then technically you want something heavy to be able to reflect the bass sounds.”
The variety of schemes on ALA’s horizon is certainly impressive and two worth watching are the redevelopment of a vast block in Helsinki owned by a Dutch Investment Bank, a stone’s throw from the design studio’s sausage-factory offices where a pixelated cloud is due to rise above the city, and a glittering glass dome in Tampere encasing a single Magnolia tree. ALA were given a token ‘young practice’ entry to the competition for the latter and walked away with the commission, set to inject a little colour and life into the otherwise grey Tampere winterscape.
AOA Architects’ Vesa Oiva was the last to speak and despite a very thick Finnish accent, he had ripples of mirth flowing through the gathered London architects throughout his twenty minute speech. Similar to Avanto, AOA’s first realised project was a place of worship and yet AOA’s exquisite form for Lilja Ecumenical Chapel is a much more humble affair. You will find no artist-commissioned installations here; no crystalline droplets suspended from the ceiling nor patinated copper meshing to veil the windows. Instead, three interconnected triangular prisms house an intimate, uninterrupted internal cavity, embellished only by the ethereal stencil of a leafless tree on one side. This sublime space is completely unforgettable.
On a much larger scale is AOA’s partially-constructed City Centre Campus Library for Helsinki University. Slotted into a tight footprint in the heart of the Finnish capital, this sculptural volume portrays the work of a much more experienced practice than AOA and yet was won by the firm in an open competition back in 2009. Portions of the library’s façade are peeled back to reveal glimpses of a vast elliptical void almost religious in its proportions and far removed from the glass and steel constructions that appear to be erupting at universities around the world on an almost weekly basis.
Oiva concluded his presentation with a premonition that ‘Helsinki will be the design capital next year’, and if these three young practices are anything to go by, he may just be right,