New Standards – A Curatorial Roundtable
After a one-year delay, the Venice Architecture Biennale is scheduled to open in spring 2021. We sat down with the curatorial team of the Finnish pavilion, Laura Berger, Kristo Vesikansa and Philip Tidwell. Their project New Standards looks into the multifaceted history and legacy of Puutalo Oy, a reconstruction-era industrial enterprise that briefly became a worldwide leader in the export of prefabricated wooden houses.
ARK / Mika Savela: At least for me personally, but probably for many others as well, the story of Puutalo Oy, or Timber Houses Ltd, is not that well known. How did you arrive on this topic – and also, how did the project receive its name, New Standards?
Laura Berger: I think each of us have some background with the topic of standardisation. I have, for instance, been researching the 1940s reconstruction era which is often seen as this uneventful time of war and scarcity. However, as I’ve read archived interviews with top architects from the era, this seems not to be the case at all. There is a lot of excitement and new innovations during this period, and standardisation is one of the many things that developed rapidly during the 1940s.
Kristo Vesikansa: As for me, a few years ago I wrote an article about architectural exports from Finland to the book TheBuilding of Finland (2017). While writing, I began to realise how important the export of wooden houses had been in the 1940s and 50s – and that very little attention had been given to the subject. So, when the open call for the Finnish exhibition in Venice was announced, Laura and I began to discuss if we might develop something out of this subject. We knew that Philip had experience in exhibition design and was also interested in the history of industrial wooden construction, so we approached him and things evolved from there.
Philip Tidwell: I must admit that I was relatively naïve in the beginning. Although I’ve studied construction and prefabrication for more than a decade, the post-war era has been largely defined by the so-called rintamamiestalo houses. Like many people, I did not distinguish between industrially manufactured buildings and those that were built on site with standard plans. I think that I suggested the name of the exhibition at our first meeting as it seemed that New Standards was a way to frame the theme and offer a kind of provocation. Standardisation remains an interesting topic because it demands that architecture be considered in relation to many interesting political and social subtexts. Puutalo for instance was not a design start-up in the contemporary sense, but it was a collective effort that utilised and mobilised existing resources and manufacturing. Most importantly, we had not yet visited the Central Archives for Finnish Business Records, in Mikkeli, which contain more than 100,000 drawings from the Puutalo records along with thousands of photos and documents. These have become central to the project and given us a much deeper understanding of the scale and ambition of the company.
ARK: Would you say that the company and its history have not been researched from an architectural point of view until now?
Tidwell: It might be arrogant to say that it hasn’t been researched, but it is clear to us that the material has not received the attention it deserves and this this is a problem of both disciplinary boundaries and the pragmatics of research. The materials were archived as business records, not architectural documents, and so relatively few people had written about the company from an architectural perspective.
Berger: It’s perhaps telling that when we first approached the Museum of Finnish Architecture we heard they might already have the most interesting documents from the corporation’s archive. But when we went to Mikkeli, we realised that the really amazing stuff is located there. This is not criticism to those who have previously studied the materials, but it was a realisation that no one had actually been able to go through all of the original drawings before.
Vesikansa: Even now, we have not still not been able to go through all of the materials in a truly systematic way. We have sifted through drawer after drawer of material to try and discover the most important moments and projects.
Tidwell: The fact that the archives are buried in basement some three hours from Helsinki is a very real problem. But the problem is as much conceptual as it is practical. Architects have not typically conceived of detached housing as a vital part of the post-war narrative. In our discipline, the heroism of this phase of modernism is told as a story about public buildings in concrete and steel, projects that became representative of national identity and public monumentality – the pragmatism and economic efficiency of wooden structures is often seen as another concern. One point we hope to make is that these mass-produced buildings are part of architectural history. They were after all designed by some of the most prominent architects of the post-war era, and in many ways, these serially produced houses are incredibly highly ’designed’ buildings in that they have been built with careful attention to every detail.
Berger: One reason for this invisibility within architectural history has also been that the names of those architects that worked on these houses are not always mentioned in the company drawings. The theme of standardisation does not lend itself easily to ideas of authorship, and it’s understandable that these topics have not always been obvious subjects for research. I have even received questions about how this project is related to architecture.
Vesikansa: It can be said that this question of inclusion relates to the way that post-war architectural history has been constructed in Finland. The houses that were exported from Finland were never really included in the domestic canon of Modernism. For instance, they were never published in the pages of Arkkitehti.
ARK: Observing all this from our time, doesn’t it also feel excitingly and even heroically modern, the story of the company with all its innovations and activities? And yet, architecturally speaking, we can say that projects like these have been mostly left out of the modern canon.
Tidwell: Without question, there is an aspect of heroism in this story, which also contributes to its relevance today. In Finland everyone knows about the resettlement of Karelian refugees, but the outcomes and legacy of this operation are not that well known. The ethos of this vast reconstruction and resettlement initiative can be seen in the Puutalo phenomenon as well, for example in the way the houses and their builders were depicted in photographs and advertisements. The project was thoroughly modern in that it aimed to solve societal problems through a systematic approach that made effective use of a limited materials and labour resources. What began as a resourceful solution to a war-time housing problem become part of the national economy and reconstruction. Puutalo products were first developed for the domestic market, but their effectiveness quickly turned into an export operation, supported by a government that needed revenue from overseas. In this way, the specific focus on wood as a material linked the company to post-war era economics and international trade. In architecture today, we talk a lot about carbon footprint, but our focus on materials is still largely aesthetic. In this project, we see a direct link between architecture and the schemes of global trade that are part of material life-cycles.
Berger: Of course, in all of this we have to remember that Puutalo was a still a business venture and not all of its operations were simply good or idealistic. For instance, Puutalo became a total monopoly in its field. The Finnish government was very involved in helping the company to achieve its success, but the company had these layers of idealism as well. The organisers carried a real motivation for solving enormous problems at a national level.
Vesikansa: And obviously, the story has its dark sides as well. Puutalo’s trading partners included the German Wehrmacht, Stalin’s Soviet Union and the US military. We should also remember that despite its rapid success, the company’s operations also declined quickly after the mid-1950s, especially as trade with Soviet Union ground to a halt.
Tidwell: Finland’s role in the post-war era struggles for power was unique. Puutalo sold products to the Wehrmacht in early 1940s, but only about ten years later it also exported huge amounts of housing, hospitals and dormitories to the newly established state of Israel. At the same time, the company benefitted from support of both Soviet and American interests as each side tried to keep Finland within its own sphere economic influence.
Berger: It’s also somewhat funny to think about the materials and goods traded in these operations. Finland had these wooden houses which it exchanged for things like coal, steel, cotton, coffee or oranges – even wine and silk…
ARK: Thinking more about the trade aspects of these houses, in your view, do you think there was also an element of architectural export in the phenomenon? Was there an actual design ethos in the background, or was it kind of accidental that the main products were houses, and therefore architectural?
Berger: There are probably two sides to this question. The company definitely had a very strong practical orientation, how it operated and how it was managed and so on. But then again, if we look at certain materials from the archive, like the perspective drawings or the advertisements, they really are quite beautiful and can definitely be read as a story about design. Also, as we are looking at a company we have to remember that the names of individual designers sometimes disappear. At Puutalo, for instance, the illustrator Kaarlo Humalisto played a leading role, but he remains quite unknown. We can see that he was a talented designer in his own right, and that he studied alongside with some of the famed Finnish designers like Kaj Franck, but his work was carried out in a more anonymous way.
Vesikansa: It should also be remembered that from a stylistic viewpoint, the Puutalo houses were extremely flexible. They could be adapted to wildly different cultural contexts and climates. But this also meant that their perceived aesthetics also varied greatly. This is probably one more reason that these houses were never included in the grander story of modern architecture, they don’t fit easily into a stylistic canon.
Tidwell: It is interesting that the Puutalo houses were often presented in trade fairs and advertisements alongside modern design objects. But in hindsight, they didn’t end up being part of that particular narrative. Instead, they remain lost somewhere between the disciplines of design and architecture. However, the surviving houses around the world are often loved and perceived by their inhabitants as part of Finnish design culture. From Århus to Barranquilla, residents are very proud of their neighborhood history, but they have not been afraid to adapt the houses as their needs change. In the exhibition, we aim to make visible this dichotomy between anonymous design and individuality, which arises from the personal modifications carried out over time.
ARK: As we are talking now, it’s November, and had this been a so-called normal year, the Biennale in Venice would be entering its final week. You’ve already described how certain things have evolved from the initial proposal, such as the project’s relationship with the archive. What other elements can we expect from the exhibition next year and how have the multiple delays caused by the pandemic impacted the project?
Tidwell: The postponement of the Biennale has been a blessing and a curse. It has given us time to think of the project’s relevance to the current moment, and to dig deeper into the archives. At the same time, it has curtailed some of our initial ambitions to document houses around the world. Before the emergence of COVID-19, Kristo and Laura managed to travel to Poland and Germany to visit sites there. I was able to visit Northern Colombia, along with our photographer in early March, just before the global shutdown. This summer, we made a short visit to Århus in Denmark and we were able to take some photos there. Now, all of that seems nearly impossible.
Regarding the exhibition in Venice, there have been changes as well. We have worked with Archinfo to develop a website which is meant to serve as a preview of the material that will eventually be shown in Italy. It is a juxtaposition of historical and contemporary views. We aim to tell the story of the company, along with its growth and global trade activities, but we also want to focus our lens on the current moment and show some of the Puutalo communities that continue to exist around the world. Our aim is not to present the houses using conventional architectural photography, but to show them through a more humanist perspective. In this respect, we should give credit to Hanna Harris, who introduced us to photographer Juuso Westerlund, who is working with us to photograph the buildings and occupants. Juuso’s work centres around people and domestic life, and by highlighting this perspective we also hope to challenge traditional modes of architectural photography and representation.
Berger: Juuso came into the project very early on, so almost from the start we’ve had the idea that one side of the exhibition will focus on history and the other will depict the contemporary perception. HIs photography also reflects the mundane and crude sides of everyday life, it is quite different from the images that are familiar to us from the pages of architecture and interiors magazines. Viewers will be able to see how different the houses have changed depending on their own individual conditions.
Tidwell: Viime keväästä asti maailma on elänyt jatkuvien muutosten vallassa. Olemme laatineet uudet näyttelysuunnitelmat jo monta kertaa. Viime syksynä oletuksena oli, että paviljonki avautuisi suurille kävijämäärille, mutta tällä hetkellä emme esimerkiksi tiedä, kuinka monta henkeä näyttelyssä voi vierailla yhtä aikaa. Tämä tietenkin vaikuttaa lopulliseen suunnitelmaan ja sisältöön tavoilla, jotka eivät ole vielä täysin selvillä. Koronapandemian vuoksi olemme esimerkiksi keskittyneet enemmän näyttelyn digitaalisiin elementteihin, joista esimerkkinä ovat hiljattain avattu verkkosivusto sekä inter-aktiivinen kartta, johon on kerätty tietoa Puutalon eri puolille maailmaa toimittamista rakennuksista.
Tidwell: The world has been in a constant state of evolution since last spring. We’ve designed the exhibition already multiple times. Last fall, we assumed that the pavilion would open to masses of visitors, but now we remain unsure how many people can for instance even visit the pavilion at the same time. This will impact the final design and the content in ways that are still not entirely clear. Due to COVID-19, we have for instance focused more on digital components, including the recently launched website and an interactive map which charts the vast global spread of Puutalo houses.
Vesikansa: The postponed schedule has also allowed us to work on a more extended publication. In some form, we also hope to continue work on this research beyond the Biennale.
Berger: Actually, we really hope the exhibition and especially the publication will serve as a kind reference point for further research on the subject. We have seen that the interest to discover more about these Finnish wooden houses is definitely out there.
Tidwell: The project has put us in touch with many international researchers who have already looked at these houses in their local environments. We now have contacts for instance in Poland, France, Colombia, Australia and so on. These researchers have been willing to share more information and material than we could gather on our own and we are now able to make this network more connected.
ARK: As you describe, the Puutalo houses and their history have both international and domestic dimensions. But at the same time, the topic somehow remains equally uncharted for everyone. And this is perhaps interesting compared to the typical viewing of biennale exhibitions as tools for promoting existing architectural knowledge.
Berger: Yes, it’s quite important to think about the context of the Biennale, where it can often feel that everyone is promoting their own nation, but also, kind of talking only about themselves. With this topic, the story has a very shared ownership. It presents the hopes and dreams that people have for housing and living. Globally speaking, we are in in a time where things like climate change bring people together in new ways.
Tidwell: The project has a strong connection to many current challenges and especially to the new era of reconstruction that we seem to be entering. In the coming years, the world will face environmental destruction just as severe as that caused by wars in the past. Therefore, it is definitely worthwhile to look closely at the methods and materials that emerged from the period of reconstruction and to ask ourselves what we might still learn from them. Today, many discussions about wood in architecture have been perhaps too dependent on carbon sequestration as means of stopping climate change. I must say that I am not optimistic about the prospect of stopping climate change by building more wooden buildings. Instead, we might seek ways to respond to the demands that climate change will bring for urgent reconstruction and a new era of mass housing for a generation of climate refugees. ↙