Published in 2/2022 - Overlooked


When Minorities Talk about Architecture, Does Anyone Listen?

Arvind Ramachandran

Helsinki Central Library Oodi (ALA 2018). Photo: Iiris Takala-Obazee / Helsinki City Museum

Despite being ranked regularly as one of the world’s most equal societies, minorities in Finland continue to face unfair treatment and discrimination. When focussing on ways in which current shortcomings could be addressed, less pressing matters, such as the discussion around Finnish architecture, and consequently, Finnish architecture itself, are often out of reach for minorities. Arvind Ramachandran interviewed members of different minorities on their experiences on the discussion around Finnish architecture and how it could be made more inclusive.

On 3rd February 2022, the Finnish flag was hoisted for the first time to celebrate Finnish architecture and design. In a country that is proud of both its social equality and its architecture’s excellence, such a celebration provides the perfect opportunity to ask ourselves some of the pressing, even if slightly uncomfortable questions about the relationship between minorities and architecture in Finland today.

Finland’s position as one of the world’s most equal societies is confirmed regularly by multiple international rankings. At the same time, minorities in Finnish society continue to face unfair treatment and discrimination in aspects of life ranging from employment to social services and health care, a fact which among others the Finnish non-discrimination ombudsman, researchers and organisations such as Seta and Amnesty have highlighted.

Architecture does not exist in a vacuum but is a product of society around. It is hence no surprise that challenges in ensuring minorities’ quality of life are reflected in built environment design processes as well in terms of who are included in them – who can affect these processes, what is built, how it gets built, how architecture is talked about in public, whose opinions about buildings are highlighted and who comments about architecture.

Kept busy in trying to get their voices heard in more urgent matters of everyday life, members of minorities seldom have the time, energy, health and resources to take part in architectural debate. They may thus end up as bystanders in changes taking place in their environment, even though these changes have a significant impact on their daily lives.

Mikkola Shopping Centre, Vantaa (Ilmo Valjakka 1971). Photo: Antti Yrjönen / Helsinki City Museum

Participation Starts with Being Able to Relate

For artist and curator Ramina Habibollah, Finnish architecture has always been closely connected to national identity. This makes it difficult to relate to for those who do not feel a strong connection to Finnishness.

As a capital region resident with an immigrant background, she feels people think Finnish architecture begins with Helsinki’s Art Nouveau buildings, continues with Alvar Aalto’s masterpieces, and culminates in fashionable minimalist holiday homes. Participating in public discussions is difficult, if such architecture is not an integral part of one’s everyday life.

According to Habibollah, minorities’ interest in Finnish architecture cannot increase without consciously expanding the definition of what is perceived as Finnish architecture.

“We need to include environments that are more familiar and easily accessible to minorities, such as concrete cube houses and suburban shopping centres that are used by immigrants, the working class, young people and others who do not usually spend time in places like the Finlandia Hall”, says Habibollah.

Habibollah, who is interested in indigenous and vernacular architecture, sees a connection between Finnish architecture’s focus on monumentality and the fact that minorities are left out of discussions about architecture.

“It feels that new buildings are first and foremost designed to look good in magazines, and not to meet the physical and psychological needs of the users”, Habibollah ponders, pointing out that members of minorities are already under constant scrutiny in Finnish society. According to her, large, open spaces disorient the user, and further accentuate the feeling of not being welcome.

“A more humane scale could make users feel more welcome and want to stay in the space.”

Minorities’ voices would be strengthened if public discussion focused more on the impacts of design and architecture on everyday experiences.

No Need for Wow

The focus on big gestures has not gone unnoticed by dancer and performer Maija Karhunen either. In addition to her artistic work, she works with accessibility issues at the Culture for All Service, which promotes equity, inclusion and diversity in the arts and culture fields.

Karhunen believes that minorities’ voices would be strengthened if public discussion focused more on the impacts of design and architecture on everyday experiences, and for example not just on the symbolic value of public buildings.

“I look forward to architects becoming more interested in pursuing professional pride from making their designs work for everyone. There is no need for any ’wow’ solution.”

Karhunen hopes that more examples of successful projects that were designed in a participatory manner will come to public attention. Such projects could encourage more people to get involved in discussions about architecture.

She is optimistic about a future, where architects will by default serve the needs of everyone, including minorities, with creative, flexible and customised design solutions. Today, it is common to hire an accessibility and diversity consultant after major design decisions have been made.

Sörnäinen Subway Station, Helsinki (Jaakko Kontio & Seppo Kilpiä 1984). Photo: Yehia Eweis / Helsinki City Museum

Homogenous Profession

At present, the profession of built environment designers in Finland is quite homogeneous, and the minority perspective is therefore often missing. Aino Laiho, a student of ethnology and a glass and ceramics designer, has paid attention to this as Deaf and a sign language user.

“The fact that there is no architect from our community in Finland is proof of the distance between the designers and users of the built environment”, says Laiho. “We don’t have anyone we can easily rely on to advance our interests.”

Even if Deaf people were to be invited to feedback sessions related to architecture, in Laiho’s experience, professionals struggle to look past hearing difficulties and treat them as ordinary people. Instead, designers end up only asking about their special needs as disabled persons.

“For this reason, it feels like such discussions that demand deep understanding are best left to organisations that officially advocate for the Deaf. As a result, individual experiences of a diverse community with different needs go unnoticed”, says Laiho.

We have to let go of the idea that architecture is a work of art by one master.

Internal Diversity for Surrounding Diversity

Change can sometimes start at home. Spaces where built environment design is taught, and where designers themselves work, should be more inclusive, i.e they should take all their users into account, says Emel Tuupainen, a master’s student in architecture who belongs to a gender minority. “This would be an important step in understanding the different realities of the society around us.”

According to Tuupainen, inclusion in the architecture field can be ensured by incorporating socially safer space principles, such as not making assumptions about someone’s gender, and using the right pronouns. Physical solutions to increase inclusion are for example provision of gender-neutral toilets and dressing facilities that guarantee safety and comfort for gender minorities, they say. 

Tuupainen also emphasises the importance of educating everyone involved in the field in equality and non-discrimination, so that collaboration with marginalised groups occurs smoothly.

They also consider a broader change in the teaching and practice of architecture to be unavoidable if architects want to address societal issues more holistically.

“Current means are not enough to listen to users during design work. We as architects should seek inspiration from the way the social sciences seek to connect with a wider audience, expand our professional image and be open to collaborating with professionals who are better acquainted with social issues”, says Tuupainen.

“It would be more fruitful if social science experts were closely involved in the design process right from the early stages. We have to let go of the idea that architecture is a work of art by one master, and instead look at it as a collective exercise.”

Active Work to Include the Forgotten

When asking minorities what would make them more open to discussing architecture, the often repeated wish is that it should not be left to minorities to take the initiative.

According to Tuupainen, architects should not passively wait for user feedback, and should instead actively use innovative approaches to bring neglected voices into the discussion.

Laiho, at the same time, is disappointed that so much effort is required from members of minorities, even in the few cases where attempts are made to involve them.

“Even when our perspective is desired, the invitation is made just for the sake of appearances. If we want to participate, we have to do it at our own time and expense. We are expected to find motivation to engage in discussions, even if there are no guarantees that our needs will be taken into account and reflected in the design. Such experiences lead to a loss of interest in participating”, says Laiho.

“Designers, quite frankly, are not actually interested in the Deaf perspective, such as how Design For All is implemented”, she sums up. In 2004, an international consortium of organisations promoting inclusion, EIDD Design for All Europe, launched the concept of “Design for All” to describe design for everyone, that takes into account human diversity, social inclusion and equality.

Laiho is disappointed by the fact that even simple feedback remains ignored if opinions cannot be expressed easily. She cites examples that would not require much effort from the designer to understand: sign language users are dependent on visual cues in their environment and hence prefer spaces where there is no visual noise or obstruction. Even a frosted glass wall can interfere with communication with another sign language user.

Herttoniemenranta School (Olli Pekka Jokela 2000) and Niittaajankuja Housing (Hirvonen–Huttunen 1996), Helsinki. Photo: Yehia Eweis / Helsinki City Museum

Diversity is Key to Understanding Minorities

Just as the majority is not a homogeneous group, neither are minorities; there are vast differences in needs and preferences even within minority groups. This reality makes the “one size fits all” approach based on the assumed homogeneity of Finnish society insufficient to serve the needs of a diverse society.

Karhunen, who is a wheelchair user herself, would like more flexible design solutions that enable people with different needs to experience spaces comfortably. She advocates an intersectional approach when designing spaces. The concept of ​​intersectionality, developed by African-American professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, highlights that people often experience different marginalisations at the same time.

Karhunen therefore suggests that architects take into account the various marginalisations that a user may face due to, among other things, disability, age, class, ethnic background, race, class, gender and sexual orientation. Karhunen gives toilets which are both gender neutral and accessible, and can hence be used by a wide range of users, ranging from those belonging to multiple minorities, to those who do not belong to any minorities, as an example of this design approach.

Even in the few cases where attempts are made to involve the minorities, much effort is required from them.

A Great Responsibility to Society

In order for minorities to better participate in the world of architecture, the change at a general level needs to be complemented by smaller practical solutions. Previously unheard of voices in discussions around architecture could be included through various supportive measures, such as well-designed architectural communication in multiple languages, holding public discussions in safe, comfortable, easily accessible and enjoyable spaces for minorities, and providing services such as sign language interpretation and childcare to make participation easier.

Like Tuupainen, Karhunen also sees the benefits of learning from other fields as architects attempt to bring about change.

“Architecture could learn from the field of performing arts, for example, where audience outreach has become a key aspect in recent years. Audience outreach professionals are tasked with engaging with diverse communities and helping make art more approachable and accessible.”

To paraphrase David Harvey, the majority can command space whereas minorities are trapped in it. Architects design spaces not only to be beautiful and usable, but also accessible and enjoyable by everyone, and hence have a great responsibility to society. The design profession should thus step out of its comfort zone, recognise the limits of its expertise, and build close relationships with various minorities.

Only by doing so can it be ensured that when Finnish architecture is celebrated, whether for a day in the beginning of February or all year round, it is not just an accidental participation in a branding exercise, but an expression of appreciation for a field that serves everyone. ↙

An architect interested in equality and inclusion.


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