The Many Makers of a Monument
The Mall of Tripla, which was opened in Pasila, Helsinki, in 2019, is one of the largest construction projects ever launched in Finland. Now, as the last parts of the hybrid project are being completed, we sat down with five of the key designers in the large venture to discuss the experiences, observations and sometimes surprising challenges brought along by the work.
KALLE SOINI, Soini & Horto, director of architectural design.
MARJA-LIISA HONKANEN, Soini & Horto, principal designer (shopping mall, parking facilities, yard decks).
JAAKKO HASSI, Soini & Horto, principal designer (hotel, offices, culture and event venues in the main block).
ANNA BRUNOW, Sweco, steering group member (cityscape).
PEKKA OJALAMMI, Sweco, responsible building designer 2014–2017, principal designer (station).
ARK: The Mall of Tripla is an exceptional project due its size alone, and it has also attracted plenty of general interest. It would be interesting to hear your views as the designers – after all, Tripla is no ordinary project, particularly for a Finnish architect. How would you each describe your own experience of participating in designing Tripla?
Kalle Soini: I have been involved in the project from the start. In 2010, we received an invitation from YIT to examine a functional and structural solution for the area with an eye on the upcoming implementation competition. We took some six months to draw up the reports, and we were also tasked with assembling a team of architects for the competition. We contacted the Dutch firm OMA, and they were eager to join the team. Late that same year, we flew over to Rotterdam and signed the contracts.
Once the competition was launched, we were already in full swing. Six proposals were in the running at that time, three of which made it to the next round. The negotiations for the extensive implementation contract took quite some. This was also what the City was aiming for, as they wanted to guarantee a high-quality outcome. In the end, our proposal was the only one able to meet the terms and conditions presented. I would perhaps compare this type of long competition process to a marathon in which the team that is able to cross the finish line is the winner.
The actual design work started with the team getting organised. Cooperation with various authorities and planning officials commenced. At this point, the contract with OMA expired, and we were left to continue the actual design work without them. To assist us in the task, we contacted the Sweco team through Anna Brunow. For me personally, therefore, this has been quite a long story.
ARK: Were you able to expect the final scale and scope of the commission? How did you, as a firm, prepare for it?
KS: It was not something that we were able to fully grasp to begin with. I was in charge of directing the architectural design work, and I was involved in the City’s district group and project group and also participated in negotiations with investors. We took turns to participate as the designing architects in the City’s planning proceedings. Due to the long duration of the project, the challenge during the early phase was to put together a team of competent people and their deputies. There was a great deal of preparatory work, and I don’t suppose I had very much sleep around 2014 and 2015. The key was to focus on one challenge at time before moving on to the next. Still, what I took away from the collaboration was a good and positive atmosphere. The consensus among the authorities, city planning department, permit officials and investors seemed to be that the quality standards and contracts could be honoured.
Anna Brunow: Kalle already mentioned the stage at which we became involved in the project. In the eyes of the City and YIT, I perhaps represented expertise in matters related to cityscape, which meant a few particularly intensive years, particularly in the early stages. I would say that I inevitably bring to the table a perspective honed by a long career. For example, I can recall times in the early years of my design career when my proposal of adding trees to the yards of a residential site was rejected by a construction firm that considered them to be completely unnecessary. Against the background of stories and experiences such as this, I am especially impressed by the way that the Tripla project was run. At least in Helsinki, we have the mechanisms in place to guarantee that the City is able to contract works, oversee, monitor and demand. With a big and challenging project such as this, all parties take it seriously.
Marja-Liisa Honkanen: I came along in 2014 as the principal designer for the shopping centre, parking facility and yard decks. This constitutes one of a total of four project segments, and I have worked in close cooperation with the principal designers of the station, central block and residential segment regarding themes that run through the overall project. This is to say that we have all understood that we are designing one large whole. Whenever questions arose concerning the cityscape or architectural design, for example, we would convene and discuss them amongst this group. The discussions were necessary, as there is quite a strict and uncompromising logic behind the Tripla architecture and talking it out and developing solutions together proved to be fruitful and fascinating. With each of us working on our own, we would not have been able to keep the overall concept as intact.
Jaakko Hassi: I joined the project a little behind Marja-Liisa as principal designer for the central block. Kalle and Anna already described the process and responsibilities of the design work quite well. In my own section of the project, a big role was played by coordinating and reconciling the plans with the other sections, as well as the negotiations with officials and the various operators involved in the complex. I was also faced with rather unique technical questions concerning building services engineering – a large part of the utility lines for the shopping centre run through the central block area.
Pekka Ojalammi: I was the last of the team to come along, initially as the responsible building designer. The first task to appear on my desk was the so-called “Mickey Mouse” canopy at the main entrance to the station, and resolving the structure and materials of the canopy was illustrative of the challenging nature of the project; I have never come across anything quite like it during my long career. I also work
ed on the interiors of the station and shopping centre, reflecting on their functionality. Eventually, I moved to head the station section as its principal designer. The extensive task was quite challenging and required a gradual growing into. There were so many different interest groups to consider. We mulled over traffic flow, universal accessibility and wayfinding design, among other matters. Finding a balanced solution between what were at times conflicting interests took some long discussions.
ARK: Let’s move on to touch upon the different scales and their management. Tripla is visible from several locations in Helsinki, and a lot of people did not realise the scale of the complex until after construction started. What type of questions did the scaling involve as regards the cityscape?
KS: In the competition and detailed planning phase, varied vantage points were already selected within the greater landscape of the city, reflecting on what the complex would look like when viewed from these perspectives. The conscious “leap in scale” was taken in pursuit of both originality and the demarcation of Pasila’s new district centre. We were made aware of the future implementation of a neighbouring tower block area, which had to be taken into account in the massing. Between the older parts of Pasila in the east and west, the new centre is demarcated by a lift in scale, but in the north–south axis, it relies on the new phase to be built over the railway yard. On the other hand, however, the Tripla segments are in line with the already large-scale cityscape of the blocks in Pasila. The bay windows in the facades are also related to the study of scale. The grid-like exteriors are typical of Helsinki, and their scale has been designed to stand out in the greater landscape.
PO: The scale is demonstrated by the fact that, when the mushroom canopy I already mentioned had been prefabricated and the elements arrived on site, I was quite shocked. Only when the first element was erected did I begin to understand the full scale of the complex.
MLH: The large scale also posed challenges when it comes to the shopping mall. The northern facade is roughly 200 metres long. From the point of view of the functionality of the mall, the aim was to have it as closed as possible, but the perspective of the cityscape demanded that it would be as alive as possible. We put in a great deal of effort. The large scale is a powerful tool for architecture, while we also needed to institute enough life, openings and variety on the human scale. This required a constant zooming in and zooming out between the different scales.
AB: In the discussion concerning scale, we must also remember that the architect is not the one who determines the total floor area of a project. The more infrastructural elements and functions that the City programmes to be implemented, the more floor area the construction company demands to be able to utilise. Such equations are the source of many of the reasons why certain types of environments are implemented in our cities.
ARK: In terms of its scale, Tripla falls somewhere between a building and a city district. Ultimately, architects also have to consider the people who use the complex. How did you manage the larger and smaller scales in your design work?
KS: On the larger scale, Tripla’s architecture is quite economical in its gesticulation, but it was not to be dull upon closer inspection. Even though the same three motifs – ceramic tile, box windows and a steel base – are repeated throughout the complex, they have always been used in slightly varying ways.
JH: I would also add that the greenscape is an important element as regards scale. The landscape architecture brings in an organic aspect in contrast to the rather strict facade and massing.
MLH: This also relaxes the overall architectural design. In the residential yard, round shapes, skylights, pools and green areas intentionally provide contrast. But I would like to continue about the scale to say that it is significant to note that the medium scale is absent in Tripla. This was something that we needed to adhere to throughout the project, in order to prevent unintended spill and sprawl in the whole. There is an intentional tension between the super-sized and the human scale, which was something that was consciously maintained.
PO: The fine-tuning of aspects related to scale was a topic of many joint discussions among the designers – one example might be the facing tile selections. The right roughness, feel and degree of gloss at close distance were examined in cooperation with a professional ceramist. The pursuit of the right profile and surface shading was a conscious effort. The overlap of the tiles was also varied, even though the basic principle was to introduce cohesive, clean-lined surfaces.
AB: What is intriguing is that the detailed examinations related to the tilework were also of interest to YIT. For example, we travelled abroad together to familiarise ourselves with the manufacture of handmade tiles, even though using them was, understandably, not eventually possible. Ultimately, however, scale probably constitutes the most important architectural question in this project. It seems as if the rule in Finland these days when dealing with floor areas that are this massive is to rely on zigzagging window or to add different-colour zones in the facades, for instance. In the Tripla project, OMA’s initial influence is seen in the fact that the designers were not afraid to have faith in the large scale. This has also been a lesson to us. Of course, we were aided by the fact that the scale in the railway yard area is also immense, and correlations can also be found with Pasila’s public offices complex.
ARK: If you consider the choices made from the opposite perspective, what were the risks that you recognized in the design work? What did you wish to avoid?
JH: The uncompromising facade principle for the exterior architecture that was laid out by OMA was a distinctly more European genre and entailed a different working culture from what we were used to in Finland. Here, the interior comes first, and designers are more prepared to modify the exterior accordingly. With Tripla, there was a type of dogmatism that required some getting used to. For example, the plan depths of the hotel and office levels eventually needed to be adjusted, and we needed to consider how the change would fit the logic of the whole.
MLH: Although the exterior treatment of the facades is coherent, the facades hide quite different functions behind them. This cannot be seen from the outside, which was most challenging when it came to the housing units. There needed to be some flexibility and persuasion when equipping basic apartments units with floor-to-ceiling windows.
KS: As far as project management goes, one risk naturally had to do with the long duration of the project. The design team needed to be able to adapt to a possibly changing market. There was also some talk of the future of shopping centres, the need for hotels and shifts in urban life. Certain aspects of the project did remain open to changes for quite some time, which meant that we had to do some adjusting when it came to decisions and schedules.
JH: The functions were developed based on the tenants’ and operators’ wishes. As an example, the extensive multi-purpose arena originally intended for Tripla’s central block was eventually left out of the plans, since no one in Finland was willing to take on the task of operating it. Hopefully in the future the property will be developed in this direction.
PO: Another concrete example is that we also wanted to avoid people getting lost in the huge mall. A great deal of time was spent on wayfinding design and on the way in which the spaces are perceived. We wanted to give the people moving at the station the ability to maintain a sense of control.
ARK: The size and scale of the Tripla project has been a central theme in this discussion as well. Based on your experiences, what are your thoughts on the generalization of this type of projects in the wider sense? What is important from the point of view of steering such projects?
JH: I would say that an aspect that all parties can learn from is the preparation that goes into the projects. From what I can tell, preparations for the Tripla project were made by the City over a long period and in a transparent manner. Despite this, the media and thereby the public became aware of the project quite late in the process, really not until the implementation competition was resolved. The principles for the planning of the area had, however, been decided years earlier. There are a vast number of projects underway in Helsinki all the time, and the people elected to positions of trust do not have the resources to keep tabs on all of them. It is telling that when we presented the Tripla project to the cityscape committee for the first time, we were asked whether it would not have been wise to arrange a competition regarding the development.
It is important to have active societal discussions on matters affecting the lives of city residents. But we should also find ways to discuss the big issues of the preparatory phase, such as the scale of construction and floor area, before final decisions on them are made. It is difficult to influence such matters at the stage when illustrations of the plans begin to be published. The publicity should be directed precisely at the early stages of the projects. This applies not only to Tripla but to a lot of other projects as well.
KS: During the designing and construction of Tripla, however, the City was active in informing the public about the developments, and the information was well-coordinated. Any changes made during construction were made public, and hearings for residents were arranged. But like Jaakko mentioned, it was perhaps more difficult to find information during the preparatory phase. On the other hand, we must bear in mind that all projects of this magnitude entail commercial construction, and they cannot be built with public funding. This is a reality that we currently live with, and as architects we should understand these mechanisms better and learn to speak the same language as the different interest groups. A better mutual understanding also means better chances at influencing the end result.
AB: Architects often think that working for construction firms is awful. Over the last decades I have had the feeling that the developer organisations act as the agents between the architect and the construction company. Yet today, the construction companies are, in fact, developers. This is an interesting aspect to be considered, specifically in the context of big projects in Finland. In my view, the quality standards applied in Tripla could just as well be imagined in a project in London, for example. One reason for this is that immense focus was placed on the planning and monitoring as a whole. Special design services were employed. The authorities worked like clockwork. Finally, this is possible in Helsinki and in Finland because our democratic process also works well. We started this discussion with a mention of monuments, and I think it would be fair to say that Tripla is a monument to a collaboration in which the architect has a strong status but in which the City also trusts the designers and the developer.
KS: Anna’s characterization is very apt: Tripla is precisely a monument for collaboration. We have to remember that the project was the culmination of the work of thousands of people. It was in itself like a small town. Of course, there were some tough spots along the way, and the cultures of the different firms also contrasted with each other. But a prerequisite of collaboration is the ability to separate the matters from emotions – there is also room for differing opinions. Regular meetings and supervisory interactions were also a part of the project.
PO: Such a huge and high-standard project was, unfortunately, also straining. In a big project, the responsibility and pressure are sometimes overwhelming. The remedy was to engage in open discussions, but foreseeing things like this is also important in projects of this magnitude, so that they do not have a negative impact on the quality of the end result.
AB: It is true that the risk of failure was significant for us all. The pressure was always there.
MLH: In the end, as an architect and urban designer, it is naturally extremely interesting for me to see Tripla starting to become part of people’s lives. What is the impact of a complex of this magnitude? What kind of place will it become as time goes by? ↙