Pikku-Finlandia’s Architect: ”We had just the right amount of ambition”
The temporary event centre, Pikku-Finlandia, built next to the Finlandia Hall during its renovation, has been designed in accordance with the principles of circular economy construction and reverse building design. It is also the first big completed project for three architecture students. Architect Jaakko Torvinen talked about the design process for the Finnish Architectural Review.
For a student project, Pikku-Finlandia is an exceptionally large and complex building. How did you organise the design work, architect JAAKKO TORVINEN?
Jaakko Torvinen: The design process began with the studio courses on building design and wood construction at Aalto University. All of the students first worked on their individual designs, at which point I conceived the basic concept for the now implemented Pikku-Finlandia: the pine trees, with branches intact, as load-bearing columns and the colonnade, i.e. the pillared, covered passageway on the side of the building.
During the second phase, four out of the eighteen individual student projects were selected for further development and more detailed designing in groups. My team consisted of Elli Wendelin, Havu Järvelä and Stine Pedersen. We all clicked immediately.
At this stage, we were also planning ahead for how the building would be constructed. We contacted experts – for example, I called Kari Virtanen, founder of the wood design studio Nikari, who suggested that pressure washing might be a good way to remove the bark. In Japanese temple architecture, the trees used for construction have traditionally been debarked by washing.
As the conclusion of the studio courses, my proposal was chosen for implementation. Elli, Havu and I began collaborating with Architects NRT, and Professor Pekka Heikkinen from Aalto University also remained involved in the project. At that time, we were also enrolled in the Construction Documents course, where we drew up the detail plans for Pikku-Finlandia. We set up a team data model on the university server to enable all three of us to work on the plans simultaneously. We were familiar with this method from our earlier experiences of working at architecture firms. Elli, Havu and I held weekly meetings, where we divided the duties between the three of us. We all had just the right amount of ambition and gusto to get the work done.
Pikku-Finlandia is set to be relocated in 2025 to a new place for a new purpose. What were the things you needed to take into account in designing a reusable building?
Since everything is to be disassembled, the joints needed to be demountable as far as possible. In the interior, screw mountings have been left visible in the seams of the prefabricated components. The aim was also to avoid casings and dropped ceilings. This meant that, from the very earliest phases onwards, we needed to work out the placement of the technical installations running along the ceiling to allow for a visually calm effect.
We also drew up plans for how the layout would lend itself to use as a school, for example. The windows on one of the long exterior walls were dimensioned to allow the openings to be converted into external doors. The spaces were designed to be simple in form so that they can be divided easily.
There are two concentrations of air conditioning machine rooms, technical spaces and utility rooms, at both ends of the building, which makes it possible to divide the whole building into two. It can also be reassembled into an L shape. The terracing in the colonnade and deck allow the building to be fitted into varying terrains.
Together with the contractor FM-Haus, we came up with several details that would make the disassembly process easier – the idea was to produce as many elements as possible as prefabricated units. The larch boards used on the deck were installed in keeping with the divisions between the prefab units, which means that the decking does not need to be removed or cut when the building is moved.
The design combines the type of systematic order that is typical of industrial construction with the organic shapes of the structural tree trunks. How did you manage to marry these two aspects?
The branched pines as load-bearing structures are decidedly the most peculiar feature of the building. In architecture, colonnades and arcades are typically introduced as a reference to trees and forests; in this case, I simply wanted to accomplish this by using real trees, limbs and all. All other aspects in the building are streamlined and subtle in order to make the organic shapes of the pines stand out as much as possible.
From the beginning, I’ve felt like I have had to constantly convince the different parties involved that the tree columns are, indeed, a feasible solution. During the spring term of 2020, for instance, we had a trial run in the Aalto University Wood Program of the entire process of taking four pines from the forest to load-bearing columns. We documented the challenges and eventually built a small pavilion in Otaniemi. The process was utilised and further streamlined for the 95 pine columns of Pikku-Finlandia. The geometrics of the structural connections, for example, were designed to be as simple and require as little machining as possible, which is in line with some of the key principles of a circular economy and reverse building design.
The structural designer defined the minimum diameters of the pines to be used at specific parts of the building. The pine trees were hand-picked by us architects. I made hand-drawn diagrams of all the trees, detailing the diameter of the trunk and the number and direction of the limbs, and used it to guide the positioning of the trees in the building. Only the ends of the tree trunks are connected to other structures, which made their application in the build quite easy. I’m especially pleased with how the pines connect to the floor.
I spent a great deal of time at the construction site, almost daily towards the end. This enabled immediate feedback concerning the model solutions, and I was able to answer any urgent questions related to the design or implementation. I was also happy to hear the builders’ opinions.
Pikku-Finlandia is located on a visible site next to Alvar Aalto’s renowned Finlandia Hall. What type of relationship did you seek to create between the two buildings?
At first, I was thinking more about the larger Töölönlahti bay area – for example, the old storehouses or the fact that the Töölönlahti park used to be more or less a wooded area. The aim was to create a low-threshold, human-scale building that connects to the park.
The premise was that the neighbouring Finlandia Hall would remain covered for a long time and Pikku-Finlandia would not be compared to it. At no point did I set out to challenge Finlandia Hall. The idea was to design an adjacent building that would merge as part of the milieu.
In the early stages of the design work, the trees actually constituted one of the links between the two buildings; the shape of the western face of Finlandia Hall’s conference wing is said to have been inspired by Aalto’s desire to preserve the trees on the yard and to have the facade skirt around them. I have learned that Aalto always sought to contribute to the landscape with his buildings. In Pikku-Finlandia, you are in the midst of such a landscape, experiencing it first-hand. ↙
Edited by Kristo Vesikansa, Essi Oikarinen