Published in 3/2023 - Block


Pros and Cons: Does Central Oulu Need High-Rises?

The Marskinpuisto apartment building (Luo Architects 2021) in the middle of the photo is one of the newest high-rise buildings in central Oulu. Photo: Marko Kallio

In this column, architects take a stance on a topical issue.

“Tall Construction is Not Regulated Enough”

Lauri Louekari, architect

For a mid-sized city with ambitions to appear larger than its size, amping up the dimensions of buildings may seem like a tempting option. The height scale of a traditional grid plan – typically five to six storeys – can suddenly more than double in places. The urban fabric is left to deal with the resulting fracture for decades, and in the worst cases, such disruptions can cause a ripple effect where the consequences of bad planning resonate throughout an entire city district. This is exactly what has happened in Oulu.

Among the rare exceptions in this category is Marskinpuisto residential building designed by Luo Architects on Kirkkokatu. Completed in 2021, the building sets an example of how the end result can also introduce an airy and yet striking element with a positive impact on the city district.

But having just one well-resolved tower for every dozen bad ones begs the question, where did things go wrong? Should cities strive to care for their urban landscape with a more effective toolbox? Is this simply a matter of planning? To some degree, yes, but ultimately, the answer is no. In 2019, guidelines were drawn up in Oulu that were meant to regulate tall construction in the city centre, but the report ended up being shelved by local politicians. 

“Now, it seems like each and every developer has managed to get the city administration to sign off on an increase in the maximum permitted floor area for their plots, regardless of where the site is located in the detailed plan area. Is this trend in the best interest of the city and its residents? A side product of such planning, in any case, is a patchy and fragmented cityscape. The harmonious street views have been smashed to smithereens.”

This quote, although it could very well be a comment on the current situation, is from Otto-Iivari Meurman’s description of Oulu from the 1950s.1 Seventy years later, if you own a plot of land in the city centre and have an eager developer lined up, you can still easily apply for an increase in the permitted gross floor area on your plot. 

The most astounding aspect in this state of affairs is that there is no predetermined restriction to regulate a developer’s chances of getting a plan amendment to go through. If the planning does not proceed to your liking in the hands of the planning department itself, you can simply turn to the city administration, who are sure to get things going on your “business-friendly” project. The decision makers also do not seem to differentiate between business-friendly and downright visual terror. A property owner’s right to the maximal use of their land, therefore, supersedes the interest of the people living in the area. For the next hundred years, a fifty-metre tombstone erected to decorate the neighbourhood will stand as a constant reminder of our current “business-friendly” era. 

This problem is an urban planning double whammy: towers seem to be going up haphazardly here and there, and the architectural quality also does not quite rise to the status of the buildings in the urban fabric – there are many examples of awkward massing, unfortunate colour choices and an inelegant grouping of the facades.

But let us get back to Marskinpuisto. Here, the plan has also been amended, but only regarding a relatively small area. The plan, which is based on the reference plan by Järvinen & Kuorelahti Architects, has informed the massing of the building into two parts: the first six floors comprise a pedestal that is in keeping with the existing urban fabric, with a separate, tower-like and light-weight mass on top. With the support of the contractor, the architect has created their own concept within this framework, delineating the balcony zone spanning the entire width of the facade with a gauzy metal latticework. The effect is porous and floating in quite an exceptional way and brings to mind the bold residential buildings designed by Swiss practices for European metropolises. When everything – and, most importantly, skilful design – falls in place, the relative freedom of plan can be utilized to the benefit of city residents.

In Le Corbusier’s words, one might say that the purpose of a city plan is to “make the good easy and the bad difficult”. A lack of regulation would seem to have the opposite effect. ↙

View from the Oulu city centre towards southwest. The Marskinpuisto apartment building (Luo Architects 2021) is in the middle of the photo. Kuva: Marko Kallio

”“High-Rise Construction Should be Steered by Quality, Not Location”

Kari Nykänen, City Planning Manager, City of Oulu

The City of Oulu owns only a few of the blocks in the city centre’s grid-plan area. The functional development of the city centre is thus largely dependent on private landowners and property owners, meaning that development has a certain “price tag” attached to it.

The development of a plot requires the consent of the residents of the building management company in any zoning changes, and it is usually only implemented with a sufficiently large amount of new construction for the price paid for the building rights. Construction in the city’s central area is expensive for construction companies, so they are not interested in a too small amount of construction – although not too large either. Therefore, it is unrealistic to assume that the new building would be implemented with the same density as the building being demolished. The amount of new construction is usually 2.5–4 times as much. When the plots are small, the building masses grow upwards.

The City has, of course, strategic goals to increase the number of residents and jobs in the city centre. Due to the ownership structure, however, it is difficult for the City to draw up a comprehensive plan that defines the “correct” points for densifying the city centre based on urban and spatial analysis. The qualitative principles of high-rise construction would therefore be a more reasonable way to steer construction than only location-based steerage – albeit there are locations where high-rise construction would not be suitable.

Architects often think of the city as a comprehensive and judicious work of art. I personally see today’s city as a dynamic and complex entity, where projects are born at a certain time, in a certain place and under certain conditions. And if the conditions are not met, the project may never come to fruition. I would think it surprising if we architects could predict, let alone control, the dynamics of the city. Instead, we can react so that the project is not too adversely affected.

To control the height of construction, what is needed, in addition to zoning, land policy steerage – i.e. incentives, sanctions, contractual compensation – is political will, which usually does not exist in abundance. In the prevailing political discourse, all kinds of regulations are generally seen as bad or even unnecessary, and this hinders official steerage.

An authority could, of course, unilaterally block everything, but then the city will not develop, thus damaging its reputation – nor would it improve the role of architects or civil servants as custodians and experts of the built environment. As team players, we have more opportunities to put our ideas across.

Using urban vitality as a justification for development is exasperating, but the development of the city also depends on economic factors. As an indirect benefit, the projects create work, housing, commercial enterprises and a positive reputation, which in turn brings in more new projects. Without financial resources, we would not be able to develop anything else either: undertake infrastructure investments, and promote climate goals, nature issues or social sustainability.

In my opinion, a development worse than high-rise construction is a functionally one-sided city centre. Presently, housing yields a clearly higher return than office space, so the city blocks being developed are residential-oriented. The situation is made worse by the fact that real estate companies are faster decision-makers than housing management companies, and so business and office premises are being converted into residential use. I would tolerate even more high-rise construction if it also meant functional versatility.

There is pressure for property development in the cities of southern Finland, so stricter conditions can be put forward for projects there than in smaller cities and municipalities, where people are grateful if any construction project is created at all. Even in Oulu, this is perhaps to some extent still possible. ↙