Published in 5/2021 - Extensions


How Should the Old Be Complemented?

Kristo Vesikansa

Illustration: Eija Vehviläinen

Modern or traditional? We invited three experts to discuss how the debate on architectural styles could be brought to present day. 

One hundred years ago, the pioneers of modern architecture wanted to leave revivalist styles behind and instead became interested in designing buildings that would be functional, structural and promote healthiness. Despite the high goals, modernism also soon became a style. 

In recent years, demands for neo-traditional architecture, i.e. architecture borrowing from and inspired by historic styles, have gained strength in public discussion. On the other hand, axial symmetry, archways and corresponding motifs that return to classical tradition have, increasingly often, emerged also in the designs of architects, and it appears that the tradition of modernism does not mean the same for architecture students of today than for previous generations. How could the style discussion be brought to the present day? What do we actually talk about when we talk about style? Kristo Vesikansa, Editor-in-Chief of the Finnish Architectural Review, discussed the theme with two architects and an aesthetics researcher.

Participants, from left to right: JUHA ILONEN. Architect, Artist Professor. Is interested in the special character of the city centre of Helsinki and safeguarding it. Has written several books that present marginal phenomena creating the essence of the city. / SANNA LEHTINEN. Research Fellow focussing on urban environmental aesthetics at Aalto University, Docent of Aesthetics at the University of Helsinki. Is interested in the connections between aesthetic and ethical values. / AUVO LINDROOS. Architect and partner at the Futudesign architecture office. Has designed several infill development and refurbishment projects in the city centre of Helsinki. / KRISTO VESIKANSA. Editor-in-chief of the Finnish Architectural Review. Has studied the history of modern architecture.

Are We Too Polarised?

Kristo Vesikansa: When talking about infill development, we appear to have two different discussions. One is related to on whose terms the urban environment is developed, where one may build and on what scale. In this discussion, architectural features aren’t paid attention to. The other discussion is about style and what the buildings should look like. In this discussion, economic and societal viewpoints are ignored. 

Both discussions are quite polarised. In the first discussion, financial profits are opposed to the cultural and green environment. The second discussion regards modernism and traditionalism as opposites, or – to put it bluntly – architects and laypeople. I hope that a more versatile discussion could be held and that we could move on from these contrasts. What is your opinion on the matter?

Sanna Lehtinen: If we look, for instance, at social media groups or more organised activities that speak for a traditional architectural style in a programmatic manner, the discussion seems to be more polarised than what it actually is. In my view, this is a battle of values: the aesthetic choices tell about the prevalent values in society. Fortunately, we don’t have a single set of values but it is natural to talk about the values and disagree, hopefully as constructively as possible. 

I am worried about the possibility that there may also be dangerous nostalgia in the background of so-called traditional values. The thinking “everything used to be better before” contains risks. For instance, right-wing populism exploits certain aesthetic ideals. On an international scale, it can be seen that aesthetics in the built environment are also connected to politics, i.e. to what attitude people take towards immigration, for instance. Above all, I regard the growing popularity of the neo-traditional style as a reaction to current crises: people think how they could resort to the old, instead of considering new solutions to the ecological crisis, for instance. Here, the modernist tradition must also look at the mirror – one must start questioning radically material choices for buildings.

Auvo Lindroos: Styles appear in cycles. At the moment, the world finds itself in a chaotic state, which is why people favour clearer and safer architectural styles. 

Juha Ilonen: Classicism always appears to return like a boomerang. For the past 25 years, fenestration has been irregular, particularly in residential buildings. Now we are moving back to some kind of classicism: rows of windows are regular and symmetry is back. Minimalist classicism is academic architecture, but neoclassicism comes along with popularism and also deals with political aspects. In the United States, a decree by President Trump recently ordered all new government buildings to be designed in the neoclassical style. Luckily, the next president quashed the decree right away.

In Finland, too, we have local detailed plans and regulations that oblige architects. They can also include regulations regarding the form, such as there must be a jolly extra storey on top of the roof floor, as was stipulated for Arabianranta, Helsinki. That is interfering with the artistic work of a designer and is even more binding than the homogenising patterns for massing and facade articulation that were appended to area plans in Helsinki in the 1920s. 

Lehtinen: An important question is who decides on beauty. Decisions are often made as if they were by-products. It seems like these matters haven’t been thoroughly considered. One just leans on some tradition and does what has always been done. 

The world finds itself in a chaotic state, which is why people favour clearer and safer architectural styles. 

Nostalgia and Values

Lehtinen: The late cultural researcher Svetlana Boym talked about nostalgia in two senses. It deals with how we look back at architectural styles. Restorative nostalgia is a repairing nostalgia.One thinks that things used to be better in the past, so if you started to do things in the same way as before, society would become more unified. Of course, this idea is based on selective remembering. It is also always an interpretation of what architecture was like in the past. Reflective nostalgia, for its part, seeks to understand – as objectively as possible – what good sides there were in the past and which of them could be reused. For instance, fascinating research is ongoing into materials and monomaterial construction. I would say that in the end, ecological preconditions will chiefly dictate what style will be in the future. 

When the modern building heritage is gradually becoming museal, it will be interesting to see how our understanding of it changes. How do you see this matter? Will there be some kind of interruption, or does contemporary architecture still form a continuum for modernism?

Ilonen: It is an illusion that loaning historical motifs would only mean loans from the period prior to modernism, i.e. before the 1920s. Modernism has, a long time ago, become a style, and the same ideas are repeated. Kristian Gullichsen mastered this. He picked and borrowed directly from modernists without being postmodern. Kauniainen Church, designed by Gullichsen, is a shameless and enthusiastic example of this.

Nostalgia is a fascinating concept. As regards the Art Nouveau architects who worked at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, they were nostalgic for the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages was the king. 

Lindroos: In architecture, it is important that motifs are developed on the basis of the preconditions and details that are predominant in the era. There must be continuous development. 

Ilonen: If nostalgia lacks reflection, it can be asked in which other sectors of life one should return to the past. Would one ever return to the 19th century in matters dealing with equality? 

Lehtinen: This is worrying. I don’t see any problem in the neo-traditional style as such. There can be a place and use for it, but when it is combined with the politically more questionable or ethically more suspicious type of nostalgia, you will have to be careful with it. 

Vesikansa: The political role of aesthetic styles has changed a great deal. In the 1970s, neo-rationalism was left wing and relied on European urban traditions as a counterweight to market forces. For today’s far-right, they have become an argument for the superiority of Western culture. The connection between the form and contents has flipped on its head.

Lehtinen: I have studied this theme through ecological questions and sustainability transitions, and I have also focussed on the transmission of matters across generations. What kind of spaces do we want to create and what values do we want to convey to the next generations? Traditionally, this kind of thinking is strongly present in the education and work of architects, but it is also a matter that must be re-articulated in each era. Understanding what life will be like in the future and what spaces should be built for it is more difficult now than in the 20th century, when everything was guided by an idea of development, i.e. by a modern project. The thinking behind the popular neo-traditionalist ideals looks strongly back to the past. It is a reaction to the problem of transmitting matters across generations.

Ilonen: It is also commercial in a sense that a niche has been found for the neo-traditional design language. I look forward to the completion of the first of the neo-traditional buildings that have recently evoked a great deal of discussion, as it will certainly speed up the discussion, which is always good. I wouldn’t be worried at all, even though a few of them were built. It is a much greater problem if large construction companies take the opportunity. It will generate city districts where this not-so-forward-looking design language dominates. For this, an approval from a planner is required, of course – so money doesn’t always come first. 

What Do We Actually Want?

Lehtinen: In public discussion, wishes related to architecture often appear to crystallise in ornaments, certain types of windows and other easily perceivable features. Could the atmosphere that is associated with the neo-traditional style rather be created with the help of dimensions or material choices than by using a certain style? This kind of an approach can be seen in many projects over recent years, and it has been fairly successful. 

Lindroos: The atmosphere depends a great deal on materials and dimensions – i.e., modern methods. People want to have a warm and cosy atmosphere at their homes, but modern dwellings don’t really convey that. There are many reasons to this. It is, however, too easy to bring up a sort of grandmother’s home as an alternative to a modern dwelling.

Lehtinen: In other words, people would like to get something else than what is currently built, but they cannot articulate it well enough?

Ilonen: The mere material isn’t the key, but the way of doing is. Even very modest buildings that were constructed before the 1960s often have a granite plinth, plastered facade, masonry structure and windows made by a carpenter. The building is handmade, which is important. Next to this building, there may be a building designed by a contemporary top architect, which may have extremely beautiful dimensions and everything in order, but it has been built of products selected from a catalogue, and they have been parcelled together at the worksite. The plinth is made of concrete and mistakes are hidden by dangling mouldings. It doesn’t really convey the glory of and quality in doing things. It is easy to say that the old building is much more pleasant.

Lehtinen: I am glad to hear this. The study of architecture and urban aesthetics emphasises the role of details in the generation of aesthetic experiences. In everyday life, quality in a town or city is created by fairly small things that play together. Could it be possible to identify – via paying attention to details – such factors that affect the quality but don’t deal with style? 

Lindroos: In Finland, housing construction is a fairly closed market. There are only a few players, and they do almost the same things. Irrespective of the quality, location and price level of a dwelling, roughly the same elements are always used. As quality isn’t a competitive factor, there are no alternatives available. When there are no options, there cannot be any demand for them. There are various solutions available for instance in Switzerland, Austria and the Netherlands. 

In the end, ecological preconditions will chiefly dictate what style will be in the future.

What Rules Do Architects Need?

Lehtinen: Quite recently, I participated in the commenting of a new draft for the architectural policy programme for Finland, and among the commentators there appeared to be a consensus regarding an idea according to which we should invest more in renovation. In this case, will there be more resources for changes or tailoring? Will it be possible to focus more on quality in renovation? 

Ilonen: Venice Charter from 1964 deals with restoration. It is an interesting paper, as it is such a beautiful text, totally undeniable. Except for at one point: the Charter defines very sharply that if a replacement is constructed in a building, it must be distinguishable from the original. In my opinion, this principle is outdated. It shouldn’t be so strict, but the matter should be considered on a case-by-case basis. This reflects the mindset of the 1960s in more general. At that time, applied graphic art was also characterised by contrasts, black and white, and Marimekko and its patterns made a breakthrough. In architecture, too, the contrast was important. 

Vesikansa: Auvo, when you have designed additions to historical buildings, how have you considered the matter? What kind of a relationship is there between the new and old? 

Lindroos: Recently, an extension for Scandic Hotel designed by us was completed next to Helsinki Central Railway Station. In this vigorously protected and nationally valuable environment, we took stylistic symbiosis as our starting point. We picked the main motifs for the new architecture, such as the arches, from Eliel Saarinen’s architecture, but we designed them as very modern applications. For instance, the facade towards the Kaisaniemi park is made of grooved concrete, but the aggregate used is the same red granite as in the main entrance of the Central Railway Station. The grinding exposes the granite in the facade. The windows sit flush with the facade in a modern way. 

Ilonen: Consequently, when looking at the building from a distance, it appears to seamlessly integrate with the old, but the closer you go, the more the present will be exposed?

Lehtinen: This kind of transition from a contrast to symbiosis is rather fascinating!

Vesikansa: In a report from 1990, architect Elmar Badermann defined six categories for complementing an old environment. The first is reconstruction, i.e., the rebuilding of lost buildings, while historicist buildings roughly correspond to the current concept of the neo-traditional style. Analogical buildings use selected elements taken from their surroundings, and neutral buildings try not to take a stand on their neighbours. Divergent buildings are distinctly modern structures that adapt to the existing scale.The last category is formed by contrast buildings, which differ from their environment. Categories are always simplifications, but I think these are helpful in outlining alternative approaches.

Ilonen: All possible means are available for architects. In this respect, planning, protection and restoration regulations are fairly strict, functioning with the either/or principle. Regulations surely cannot be on the one hand – on the other hand, as they would fall apart. A question is raised whether they are needed at all. Should there just be a general requirement for “good design”? In the same way as old towns were built. Old towns had a block structure and a building ordinance, which was very general. But as the construction method was very limited and there were scarce resources, harmonious towns were created. 

But how can infill development be carried out in this kind of a town? In my view, it is fun to think that new buildings are like people who come as new members to a community. The new members have to behave. They must ask and observe carefully, get to know their neighbours and respect the older persons. A building often mirrors its designer’s character and manners. One could perhaps say – to put it in a pointed way – that a braggart designer creates a braggart building. 

Lehtinen: I am thinking about the braggart architect. Designing together and working collectively appear to be increasing, which is good. It requires the weighting of values. Aesthetic diversity is also important. For instance, Helsinki residents are increasingly different from one another. They come from different backgrounds and have different aesthetic values. In some way, new buildings should reflect the combination of aesthetic values that exists at the time. 

Ilonen: Making aesthetic choices as groupwork is always difficult. In my view, we could go back to an idea that was prevalent in the 1970s, according to which it is rather a system than a style that is built. The system would be created as a result of multidisciplinary groupwork, based on the sustainable development requirements and social sensitivity. In relation to these values, it would be completely secondary what kind of a style a building has. In the end, someone would surely define the scale of the building et cetera, but the result could be interesting architecture, if the focus was shifted more to group dynamics. 

New buildings are like people who come as new members to a community.

Aesthetics of Sustainability, Sustainable Aesthetics

Lehtinen: A traditional idea of sustainability is that it is very long-lasting, like the Pantheon – that one constructs a building the use of which remains the same for a long time. It isn’t the only way to come up with sustainable architecture. The new sustainability paradigm should also include temporary solutions, the design of a modifiable life cycle or the design of a recyclable building. 

If traditional construction technologies are relaunched, the grounds for using modernist motifs, such as a flat roof, may be lost. Could it also be possible that modernist motifs could be connected to an increase in green infrastructure and technological development? Would it be possible to find such new justifications for modernist motifs that we haven’t thought about so much yet? Modernism, as such, has already become nostalgic, and perhaps the current sustainability ideas and modernism have certain similarities, such as the way to use technology or a certain kind of a relationship with the natural world – nature is important, but it is located apart from people.  

Lindroos: Perhaps modernist motifs have been used up and ecological motifs will set a new direction. The construction method has largely defined the appearance of modernism. When materials develop and things are done in a new way, it will also be necessary to find a new design language, new motifs. The new ecological architecture will receive its power via it. 

Vesikansa: Auvo brought up an important question: if architects have followed modernism for one hundred years, has it finally worn itself out? Are we facing a large change of paradigm, or is the increased popularity of traditionalism just a passing trend? 

Lindroos: In my view, modernist motifs have been used up. If you look back at the architecture of the past twenty years, i.e. the irregular fenestration that Juha mentioned, and various experiments in digital architecture, it appears that they are remaining in the background and clearer forms are returning. At the moment, it is uncertain where this will lead. Ecological aspects force us to find new construction methods. Current buildings are still constructed by using the construction technology that was developed in the 1970s. This will probably change rather quickly. When prefabricated concrete construction is given up, it would appear that the level of requirements increases and people become more demanding. Construction must mirror the new values and convey our care for the environment. The changing construction methods will also inevitably lead to the development of architectural aesthetics. 

Ilonen: In my view, the story of modern architecture has frayed, branched and became pluralist, which is very good. The era of contrasts is over. But before a proper transformation or a revolution of sustainable construction can take place, the situation must become inflamed and an external crisis will be required. It may be a solar storm, an ecological catastrophe, a meteorite or anything – perhaps a pandemic that is worse than the current one. An external stimulus produced Art Nouveau and modernism in their time. Postmodernism was also created by polarisation.

Lehtinen: The revival of the neo-traditional style is perhaps a slightly worn out setting in which polarisation is created on purpose. I share the views according to which the value discussion is, in some respects, tipping over and ecological values are rising along functionalist and aesthetic values, preferably even outdoing them. I am thinking about a situation in which concrete would suddenly be banned – what kind of architecture would be carried out in the new situation? 

Lindroos: That kind of legislative changes may rapidly turn over the setting. Even though the transition from concrete to other materials was carried out gradually, alternatives to concrete would be looked for right away. No-one likes to become stuck to the past. 

Lehtinen: Exactly. Demonstrators of Extinction Rebellion Finland are on the streets, and we need to come up with prompt measures. But sustainability is a rather complex matter. What all must be taken into consideration? There aren’t any easy solutions or solutions that open up via polarisation. ↙