Like Time Standing Still
An old stable built more than a hundred years ago in Helsinki’s Punavuori is now home to people instead of horses. What remains is the historical atmosphere.
When the restoration of Campanile di San Marco, the bell tower of St. Mark’s Basilica on Piazza San Marco in Venice, was completed in 2006, people would ask the architect in charge of the restoration, Professor Giorgio Gianighian, “Did you actually do anything to the tower because it looks like nothing has changed?” To Gianighian’s ears, this was the highest of praise. In his view, a successful restoration is when it appears as if the building has not been touched at all.
Stepping inside the Punavuori Stable, the former coach drivers’ stable tucked away in a courtyard in Helsinki’s Punavuori district, is like stepping into another world – the world of early 20th-century Helsinki, where there were no cars and the horsepower that ruled the streets was of a very literal nature. The building, which was completed in 1906 and used by the city’s coach drivers to keep their horses and store their carriages up until the 1960s, has now been converted for residential use, and yet it feels as if nothing has changed.
The scent of linseed oil lingers in the ramped corridor that was once used to access the horse stalls, leading to the central hallway where the original storage crates and surface layers have been left in place to tell the story of the building – the only thing missing are the oats and horses.
The restoration and conversion process took ten years and included the phases of plan amendment, property development, architectural design and construction work. The process, which started with a reference plan by JKMM Architects, followed by a plan amendment based on the reference plan, has seen its fair share of joys and woes. The new local detailed plan was approved in 2016, but it took a few more years of development before the project became financially feasible.
The plan set out the terms for the required level of conservation, such as the appearance of the exteriors and the central hallway. The challenge with the conversion was to turn a building originally meant as a coach storage and animal shelter into a liveable space for people without opening up too many new windows into the old walls; the local detailed plan specified that new windows facing the courtyard may cover no more than five percent of the surface area of the facade. Originally, natural light had been brought in for the horses chiefly through skylights, and the same openings now illuminate the upstairs units. Dialogue with the neighbours introduced strict specifications to the plan regarding the exteriors facing the neighbouring properties, as the neighbours did not want the new residents of the stable to be able to see inside their homes. In the reference plan, this inspired the development of diagonal walls placed in front of the windows of the south-east-facing units, which were also implemented in the final design.
In terms of finances, the project was quite challenging, but the stable property eventually found an owner that managed to make the project feasible and carry it through to completion with Avarrus Architects. A large proportion of the budget was set aside to restore the central hallway and the facades. The restoration plan drawn up by Avarrus required a detailed and thorough inventory of the windows, exterior doors, railings, stairs, storage containers and other items, and the fruits of this labour can be seen in the quality of the end result. For example, dilapidated sections of the original wooden banisters have been skilfully replaced. The main facade went from pale yellow to grey according to the colour scheme by building conservator Pentti Pietarila and the window frames from dark brown to red according to the colour used in the original windows. The very pale tones of the other exteriors have been adjusted to the colours of the surrounding courtyard.
As a counterpart to the historical and atmospheric hallway, the building boasts 18 dwelling units with a simple and clean-lined design. The units are decorated with parquet flooring and predominantly white surfaces and fittings, and they afford views both into the old hallway through fire-rated windows and out towards the building’s own or the neighbour’s courtyard. Some of the units are accessed directly from the courtyard. The ground-level units have been fitted with terracotta-toned ceramic tile flooring. Some of the homes have stretches of exposed, old or newly laid brick wall. The olden atmosphere is evoked by the views of the hallway and courtyard, as well as the small scale of the windows.
The project is a testament to the power of cooperation. By all accounts, the stable conversion is a perfect example of highly skilled people working together. The developer, architects, housing company, building control authority, the Helsinki City Museum and consultants all pulled together with the shared goal of producing a beautiful and exceptional building.
Also setting the project apart from many others is the level of open-mindedness and flexibility that was required from the authorities. One example of this is found in the new apartment firebreak doors that open inwards – incorporating them into the design was made possible by the liberal, exemplary interpretation of permit processor Ulla Vahtera. This way, the old wooden stall doors could be preserved as the outermost apartment doors.
The Punavuori Stable serves as an example of the possibilities of “densifying” the urban fabric without new construction, by utilising the existing built heritage in a manner that is respectful of local history. There are plenty more underused outbuildings to be found within the enclosed courtyards between properties in Helsinki. Some are used as storage, as was the old stable before the restoration and conversion, and others house a few garages – all the while a large proportion of the city’s courtyards are in dire need of being transformed from bleak asphalted pits to lush outdoor living areas. ↙
MARTINO DE ROSSI
Graduated in Architecture in 2013 from the IUAV University of Venice. Moved to Helsinki in 2014 and founded, with Kristiina Kuusiluoma, the architectural practice Collaboratorio and began PhD studies in the Oulu School of Architecture.