Published in 3/2024 - Stage


Artwashing Demolition

Mari-Sohvi Miettinen, Mario Kolkwitz

An artwork by Eetu Elmeri and Octo on the facade of Purkutaidetalo Pinni 47. Photo: Ulla Ruokolainen

Utilising to-be-demolished buildings for temporary art shows is becoming a formalized urban development practice. However, it disregards the potential of existing urban spaces and ignores the temporary use and artistic agency as vehicles for place-shaping.

Melting snow slushes under our feet as we approach an industrial building in Hyhky, Tampere. Today, the former car disassembly plant hosts small businesses, but we are headed to the studio of two artists: Inka Hannula and Teemu Raudaskoski. A huge window lets the sparse February light into their workspace, a four-metre-high room partly covered by a loft. The view outside comes off second best, as the space is dominated by colourful, abstract paintings in various shapes and sizes, created in a dialogue between the two artists. They are currently working on three upcoming exhibitions, some of them a direct outcome of their participation in Purkutaidetalo Pinni 47, an art show located in a building that was destined to be demolished after the show, in Tampere in summer 2023.

The concepts of purkutaide and purkutaidetalo, verbatim “demolition art” and “demolition art house”, are well known in the Finnish art scene. The idea of utilizing to-be-demolished buildings for temporary, typically location-specific art shows has been established in Finland by purkutaide actions in Kerava. In 2020, over 30,000 people visited their first demolition art house.

Meeting with the artists, our aim is to get an unbiased opinion to see whether our critical perspective towards purkutaide resonates elsewhere. Here, sitting on the cosy sofa of the Hyhky studio with mugs of tea in our hands, we set our words mindfully to neither victimise the artists nor demonise the project, but soon realise there is no need to be wary: the two artists and architects in the room share a common understanding.

They immediately knew that the visibility of their works would be beyond what an artist could normally expect in Tampere.

When Hannula and Raudaskoski heard about the open call for the building located at Pinninkatu 47, they immediately knew that the visibility of their works would be beyond what an artist could normally expect in Tampere. “People are used to seeing art for free. Usually, it’s the artist who pays the gallery rents”, Hannula says. “Here, we didn’t have to pay to exhibit our work, but actually even got a fee for it.” Both artists think that this created an accessible, low-threshold chance to see art that would attract those who would not usually go to museums or other established art exhibitions.

Despite being aware that their work would be on display in the space for only a few months, both artists saw a chance to reach a new audience. Improvisation and intuitiveness are characteristics of their shared painting process, but the spatial and temporal dimensions of the project brought an extra layer to their work. “It was so holistic that it is hard to verbalize”, Hannula ponders. With a tight schedule of only two months and ambitious goals, the couple spent all their available time in the building. “We do not have the ability to assess whether or not the building should be torn down”, Hannula says. “But we wanted to appreciate it and give it a beautiful farewell. However, as the process went on, we started to wonder why this building had to be demolished.”

The Carnivalization of Demolition

The term artwashingcame up, when a collective of researchers and professionals got together for a heated debate about the plans to demolish the old shoe factory in Pinninkatu 47 after allowing the building to sing its swansong as a temporary art space. Originating from gentrification caused by art galleries nesting in affordable urban neighbourhoods, artwashing has become a recognized phenomenon in which art – as Raudaskoski puts it – “is used as pretty wrapping paper

for what they do”. In Pinninkatu 47, one cannot help but feel that what is sold as cultural engagement, veils the paradoxical interrelationship between growth and demolition, which is among the most destructive and disruptive forms of urban development.

The voices critical towards the demolition of buildings and consequential sustainability constraints receive an increasing amount of attention both internationally and in the Finnish architectural scene. The end-of-life treatment of demolition waste in Finland is far from ecological with downcycling and incineration being daily business. Demolition is often followed by construction which creates significant carbon spikes and puts tremendous pressure on natural material reserves. In addition, the replacement of buildings causes an irreversible loss of built heritage and urban layers. Therefore, uncovering the potential of existing buildings is an act on behalf of the society, as well as the natural environment.

Demolition of the building at Pinninkatu 47. Photo: Mari-Sohvi Miettinen & Mario Kolkwitz

The temporal vacancy of Pinninkatu 47 prior to its demolition led to the idea of using it as a short-term art exhibition space. Out of nearly 140 proposals, the curating team chose 24 artists who were allowed to use an assigned space for their creative work. Among these artists were Hannula and Raudaskoski. At first glance, the motivations behind the project appear to be of mutual benefit. Artistic infrastructure, especially for visual arts, their creation and exhibition, is lacking in Tampere. For the artists, the demolition art house creates an alluring platform to present their work to the public. For the curators it generates revenue, and society may indulge in the artistic world. 

Tampere has ambitious sustainability goals towards carbon neutrality by 2030. However, it is highly contradictory to follow a strategy of wasting materials, energy, labour, and intangible values embedded within the city’s own fabric. Purkutaidetalo as a cultural and city planning policy is worth a critical look for two reasons. Firstly, it ignores the possibilities of temporary use and artistic approaches as vehicles for place-shaping. Secondly, carnivalizing demolition by framing it as an exciting and trendy urban phenomenon shifts the public perception towards misconceiving demolition as a necessity, whilst a general understanding for its societal and environmental wastefulness is a critical part in the sustainable transformation of the built environment and its actors.

What is sold as cultural engagement, veils the paradoxical interrelationship between growth and demolition

Instrumentalization of Temporary Spaces

In recent decades, the artistic, temporary use of spaces has been acknowledged as an important part of urban planning and place-shaping. Professor of urban studies Elsa Vivant has studied the commodification of alternative and underground spaces which she calls the spaces of artistic critique. Emerging in the 1970s, occupying spaces for creative purposes sheds a critical light on formal city development, as well as the established art world and its galleries. These spaces also empowered urban social movements.

Over the years, spaces of artistic critique have been integrated into cultural policies and eventually, urban planning procedures. According to Vivant, handing over the management of temporary spaces to professionals outside the cultural world increases safety, raises the budget, and fosters neighbourhood harmony while creative actors get to envision and experiment new ways of making the city. On the other hand, instrumentalizing spaces of artistic critique brings them to the sphere of capitalist logic and competition, where occupants contend over their right to temporarily take over. Art, when used to attract tourists and incentivized by an entrance fee, becomes an asset of an economic agenda in which non-monetary rewards, such as self-expression and societal recognition, are used as an excuse for the precarious working conditions of the creatives, and their insecure position as temporary tenants on duty for the cultural life of the city.

Purkutaidetalo projects in Finland are conducted in the framework of local cultural policies, with the aim to enliven the city and to act as a summertime attraction. There is no doubt they have a short-term positive effect on the cultural life of the city and provide great visibility for the artists they host. The question remains, whether purkutaidetalo projects offer a genuine chance to envision the future of a city and express artistic agency. Although artistic freedom and space for creative visions is given, by having a pre-determined fate for the space and a strict framework for its use, art is stripped of its potentially transformative power.

By having a pre-determined fate for the space and a strict framework for its use, art is stripped of its potentially transformative power.

Space with a Meaningful Purpose

By appropriating a space of seemingly low to no financial or societal value, artists illuminate societal flaws, articulate a need for change, and envision forgotten opportunities. In a sense, they are urban pioneers who (re)discover the potential of marginalized spaces. Instead of engaging in an overdue fundamental criticism, artwashing takes over the agency formerly appropriated by artists and formalizes their work and the boundaries within which they are supposed to act. Stripping artists of their artistic freedom and co-authorship therefore means stripping buildings of a potential future life and a continuation of their physically existing material value. 

Tampere is a growing university city and the need for student housing is undeniable. Pinninkatu 47 was demolished to make way for a larger student apartment building to fill this gap. Replacements of such kind have been identified to be a common urban development pattern in Tampere and in this case, it was justified by expert opinions stating that the building is not fit for being repurposed in any meaningful way. Despite the appraisal, the building was perfectly fit to host numerous artists, to open its doors for paying visitors, and to function as a venue for events and workshops. It seems that the building was indeed capable of serving a meaningful purpose. Its temporary use demonstrated its capability to evolve from its original industrial and manufacturing usage. The main justification behind its demolition, therefore, becomes highly questionable. ↙

is an architect and has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts. She works as a university instructor and doctoral researcher at Tampere University School of Architecture. Her collective installation Renovation Art House 2084, with Kimmo Hokkanen, has been accepted to the next purkutaidetalo of Tampere.

is an architect and a doctoral researcher at Tampere University School of Architecture. He studies the demolition of buildings on an urban scale and analyses how building stock can act as a reserve of materials and space to substitute for virgin material extraction and new construction. He is a co-founder of the Architects Climate Action Network in Finland.

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