Squares and Slices
Helsinki’s urban centre expands with dense perimeter blocks. The residential block in Sompasaari, designed by Anttinen Oiva Architects, is one of the more successful examples.
Helsinki’s urban centre has in recent years expanded rapidly onto former harbour and industrial areas. These have been densely built with perimeter blocks, which are believed to generate a vibrant urban culture. Regrettably, the results are often gloomy street canyons and courtyards lacking city-centre-type services and diverse architecture. The residential block in Sompasaari in the Kalasatama district, designed by Anttinen Oiva Architects, is one of the more successful examples of these new urban blocks. As in many large perimeter blocks of the 1920s and 1930s, the clearly defined totality conceals a rich assemblage of different types of dwellings and thoughtful details.
The original Sompasaari island disappeared from the maps in the 1960s when it was levelled as part of the expanding container port. The area has now been redesigned as an island with the introduction of two canals, along one of which stands the city block designed by Anttinen Oiva Architects. Kalasatama’s former project manager Tuomas Hakala succinctly describes the town plan concept for Sompasaari: the seafront streets are lined with cohesive six-storey residential blocks, and the tower blocks in the central part bring variety to the skyline. In addition to the towers, the regularity of the blocks is broken up by the small-scale public squares cut into opposite corners, so that as many apartments as possible have a view, either of the sea or the Loviseholm park in the middle of the area. Raising the park three metres above the level of the strand promenade brings a welcome variation to the street views and ensures that the garages built under the yards are virtually unnoticeable. In Sompasaari, the City of Helsinki wanted to test the idea of detaching carparking costs from housing costs, and so it has been necessary to build on the plots only two-thirds of the parking spaces required by the town plan.
The construction company Lemminkäinen together with Anttinen Oiva Arcitects were awarded the design of the block through a site-allocation competition in 2015. Selina Anttinen and Vesa Oiva state that they spent a lot of time on the competition, but the effort paid off, and no major changes had to be made to the plans at any point. Tuomas Hakala is pleased that the first block to be completed set the bar high in terms of quality and served as a model for the architects of subsequent housing in the area. A unified look for Sompasaari has thus come about without detailed planning regulations.
The block comprises four building management companies, the first of which includes affordable, owner-occupied Hitas homes and the three other non-subsidised owner-occupied homes. A more socially sustainable solution would have been to invest also in subsidized rental housing in the block, but a one-sided type of ownership can be defended by allowing many exceptional solutions, which will hopefully advance housing construction in Finland.
According to Vesa Oiva, the inspiration for the design, in terms of the cityscape, was the Hanasaari coal-fired power plant (Timo Penttilä 1976), which stands imposingly at the end of the Sompasaari canal, the huge volumes of which consist of brick and metal-clad cuboids of varying heights. The same composition principle was also applied in the design of the residential block. The power plant, located at the end of the street vista, provides temporal depth to the new residential area, so hopefully the City of Helsinki will have the patience to find a new use for the plant when it ceases its operations in a couple of years’ time.
Selina Anttinen mentions how the recognizability and identity of the home was an important objective. The facades are therefore divided into “houses” the width of one residential unit, which differ in colour and fenestration. The narrowest of them resemble Central European merchants’ houses in terms of their proportions, while the wider ones resemble single-stairwell apartment buildings. Such sliced apartment-building facades have been popular in recent years both in Finland and around the world, but at least in the domestic context, the Sompasaari block is in a class of its own. The colour palette and fenestration have been kept simple enough to make clear the principles of repetition and variation. At the same time, the varying textures and finished detailing offer visual delights for both residents and the casual passer-by. Memorable details include, for instance, brick frames that give the window recesses more emphasis and wall fragments resembling bricked-in windows.
All the facades of the city block are designed on the basis of the same principles, but at the same time they react subtly to their immediate surroundings. The north side bordering the canal is relatively solid, while the residential streets are enlivened by the spacious terraces and retaining walls of the ground-floor apartments. In the courtyard, the scale is more intimate due to the garage below it, and a row of commercial premises and an in-house laundrette with a display window open onto the promenade – yet another insightful detail. To counterbalance the diverse brick facades, the three towers have been covered with a regular grid layout.
Of the 175 apartments in the block, the five two-room apartments from the final construction phase have attracted the most attention because their bedrooms receive natural light only indirectly through internal windows. A year ago, they sparked a heated public debate about the quality of housing construction and the need for stricter regulations. Windowless bedrooms can justifiably be criticized, but this should not stop us from seeing the housing block’s numerous commendable design solutions. The size of the apartments varies between 29 m2 and 117 m2, and there are very few identical floor plans. Spatial variation has been created for the ground-floor apartments with differences in level, and in the largest family apartments the large windows bring natural light from as many as four directions. In addition, the varying fenestration creates different moods for otherwise identical apartments.
The most spectacular apartments in the block are the two-storey loft apartments of the north-side towers, whose exterior walls are almost entirely glass. The higher tower in the south corner was originally designed as a “house tower” with only one apartment on each floor. Eventually, the plan was modified so that the floors could be sold as one, two, or three apartments, depending on demand. However, the ability to join together the apartments was taken into account in the design of the building frame and technical infrastructure, and buyers have, indeed, subsequently combined a few adjoining apartments. In addition to these for Finland rather luxurious apartments, the towers also comprise activities rooms and sauna facilities for the use of all residents, which on the north side open onto a spacious terrace placed on the roof of the lower section of the building.
Over the past fifteen years, Selina Anttinen and Vesa Oiva have designed numerous high-end apartment buildings, but they seem particularly proud of the Sompasaari block. Due to the diversity and high quality of the apartments, it was also a very arduous design project. Anttinen laughs when she says that they would not immediately take on a similar object. Fortunately, many of the solutions have been utilized elsewhere, for example in the first block in the Nihti area, currently under construction south of Sompasaari, and which, once completed, will dominate the Kalasatama cityscape facing the Helsinki city centre. ↙