Published in 1/2024 - The Heart of the City


Editorial 1/2024: In Need of Heart Surgery?

Kristo Vesikansa

Recently, we have been reading a lot of news about the decline of city centres: shops are moving to shopping malls on the outskirts or even just online, and office buildings are left empty as remote work becomes more common. So, is the heart of the city permanently damaged, or would there be an effective remedy for the ailment? No consensus has been reached, as proposed measures include both restricting private cars and increasing parking spaces, converting offices into housing and replacing them with new buildings, urban events and rewilding urban nature.

City centres were also in crisis 73 years ago, when CIAM, or the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne, gathered in Hoddesdon, southern England, to discuss the theme “The Heart of the City”. In his opening speech, CIAM president Josep Lluís Sert named the ongoing suburbanization as the root cause of the problems, the result of which was turning the city centres into mere business districts and the residential areas surrounding them into slums. As a solution, he proposed the “recentralisation” of cities around new or thoroughly rehabilitated cores. In his speech, Sert painted an enchanting vision of a modern pedestrian centre that would encourage the citizens towards spontaneous interaction and the free exchange of ideas, thereby strengthening communality and democracy. In his opinion, useful examples were the agoras and forums of antiquity and the piazzas of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance; the only problem was finding a suitable form for them under the new social, technological and cultural circumstances.

In retrospect, it is easy to say that the principles drawn up by CIAM were not a cure for the problems of cities at the time, and based on them, few urban spaces were created that would have matched their historical counterparts. Even Alvar Aalto’s masterful signature could not make the Seinäjoki Administrative and Cultural Centre a hub of urban life. However, when following the current discussion, one cannot escape the thought that we still long for the vision outlined by Sert, even though the architectural forms are different. So, would it therefore be time to reassess the importance of the city centre for the wider urban area?

Would it be time to reassess the importance of the city centre for the wider urban area?

In the articles in this issue, the ideals and practices of urban planning are critically examined from different perspectives. Anssi Joutsiniemi reflects on the dynamics between Helsinki’s inner city and its suburbs, while Aleksi Lohtaja weighs in on whether the suburbs have been developed too one-sidedly, based on the prevailing ideals of New Urbanism, ignoring their own unique features. Tommy Lindgren asks whether emphasizing the human scale and walkability has become an obstacle in responding to other current challenges; the latter would include, for instance, the importance of green infrastructure in combating the climate crisis and nature loss, which Ranja Hautamäki and Mari Ariluoma write about in their article. In turn, Harri Hautajärvi examines the conflicts between densification and building protection through four examples in Helsinki.

Fortunately, there are also some encouraging examples of infill building that takes social and cultural contexts into account. In an interview, British architect Peter Barber talks about his practice, which combines knowledge of London’s building culture with social aspirations and typological innovations. This issue also commemorates Academician Juha Leiviskä, who passed away at the end of last year, with a text written by his friend, architectural historian William J.R. Curtis.

The projects presented in this issue describe some of the current trends in inner-city construction. In recent years, the centre of Helsinki in particular has been in-filled with new hotels, of which the Radisson Red, presented here, is a kind of conceptual model of a perimeter block. Its counterpart in Kuopio, Lumit Upper Secondary School, has been skilfully adapted to the city’s small-scale block structure. Constructing a parking facility beneath the Turku Market Square has been an exceptionally long, complicated and controversial project, which has resulted in a high-quality urban space above ground level created through the cooperation of several design offices. The new lighting system of Helsinki’s Senate Square takes on a supporting role while directing spotlights towards the national monuments lining the square. In Lahti, the recently roofed courtyard of the City Hall originally designed by Eliel Saarinen has become a new focal point.

Along with the city centre, the heart is of course a metaphor for affection and love, both of which are essential in urban planning. As the Italian architect Ernesto Nathan Rogers stated in his speech at the Hoddesdon congress in 1951: “The Heart is the symbolic centre of love; and I do not think I go too far in the illustration if I insist on giving this interpretation to the concept. For only those architectural compositions that receive and arouse such vital feelings of human sympathy can dare to become the centre of community – the Heart of the City.” ↙

Read other stories in The Heart of the City issue →