2 / 2015 - nieto sobejano, talk about criticism

Fuensanta Nieto and Enrique Sobejano, a Madrid-based architect couple, are known for their exquisite museum designs. The Arvo Pärt Centre in Estonia is one of the designs currently at the planning stage. This year Nieto and Sobejano were awarded the Alvar Aalto Medal as an acknowledgement of significant architectural work. Important themes in the couple’s work are landscape, geometry, roofscape and light. In this issue of Arkkitehti the medallists write about the fundamentals of their architecture. They also share some memories of their architectural journeys in Finland. The poetics of space in Alvar Aalto’s buildings has made a strong impression on them. In his article, the Finnish architect Juha Ilonen describes Nieto and Sobejano as archaeologists of architecture.

This spring’s exhibition at the Helsinki Design Museum brought into light the 1980s which was the decade of postmodernism in Finnish art, design and architecture. Anni Vartola, Olli-Paavo Koponen and Kaisa Broner-Bauer, specialists of postmodernism, discuss the era’s architecture that is already at the stage of needing renovation.

The issue also discusses criticism. Lately the stage of architecture criticism in Finland and in this journal has attracted media attention even in national newspapers. The starting point to the attention was Julius Jääskeläinen’s tweet on a building review he wrote for Arkkitehti. The review is published in this issue, as well as the presentation of Vantaan Merkki apartment building, the subject of the critique, accompanied by a commentary of the designer, architect Tuomas Toivonen. In addition, editor-in-chief Jorma Mukala ponders on the role and meaning of criticism in Arkkitehti.

In the last five years new players have made it to the “first line” of Finnish architecture, who have brought a new kind of visionary approach into designing: ALA, Anttinen Oiva, Avanto, AFKS, K2S, OOPEAA, Playa and Verstas Architects among others. The buildings presented in this issue are some of the latest realisations by these visionaries.


The Alvar Aalto Medal has been awarded since 1967 to an architect whose work is regarded as being of international significance. This year the medal was awarded to the Spanish architects Fuensanta Nieto and Enrique Sobejano. In the opening article in this issue they characterise their design work and provide an insight into their architecture. What also transpires is the spatial poetry of Aalto’s architecture, which the laureates feel close to, even though Aalto’s architecture is already historically distant. Thus what emerges is the self-evident universality of good architecture; art transcends borders and unites people. Nieto and Sobejano have designed several buildings not just in Spain but also elsewhere in Europe, the nearest to Finland being the Arvo Pärt Center in Estonia, which is currently at the planning stage. Through their works, Nieto and Sobejano convey a message of the strength of Spanish contemporary architecture, which has been a phenomenon worthy of admiration already for some time. On the other hand, their work is evidence of the “Europeanisation” of design work, behind which can be seen a more universal trend, the globalisation of architectural design. In the Nordic countries, the internationalisation of the work of the architect has been most evident in Denmark.

In the work of Finnish architects, the internationalisation of design has been evident in individual projects, such as the Kilden Performing Arts Centre in Kristiansand, Norway (ALA Architects, 2011) and the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland (Lahdelma & Mahlamäki, 2013). In the future, the number of international projects will increase and their influences will certainly be multifarious. During the last five years, our architecture’s vanguard has included new players for whom the global world is a self-evident reality. Among these reformers of Finnish architecture are ALA, AOA, Avanto, AFKS, K2S, OOPEAA, Playa, Verstas and the multidisciplinary operator Tuomas Toivonen. Presented in the building review section of this issue are some of their most recently completed works in Finland.

As we were working on this issue of Arkkitehti, the role and task of architectural criticism suddenly became a topic of public debate, and the following pages contain the editor-in-chief’s policies on this important topic. ark

Architectural criticism recently received a great deal of attention when Helsingin Sanomat (31.3.2015) picked up on a tweet from Julius Jääskeläinen, according to which an architect didn’t want his building to be critiqued. The basis for the comment was an apartment block in Vantaa that was to be featured in Arkkitehti 2/2015 and the editor-in-chief had asked Jääskeläinen to write a review of it. In order to get the facts right, the text was passed on to the architect of the building, Tuomas Toivonen. The architect was of the opinion that the review had created a negative asymmetrical situation, and hence it was an unsuccessful critique. Consequently, he requested that the editor return the presentation material that he had already provided for use – a unique case during my tenure as editor-in-chief. It sparked a commotion. The critic tweeted. I, as editor-in-chief, started to plan how to proceed. The review, which I considered knowledgeable and interesting in its viewpoint, would without any accompanying picture material be pointless. I thus decided to commission a photographer to take new pictures. This was unprecedented because the journal has traditionally acquired such material from the architect, on the basis of which the presentation of the building is edited to fit the journal’s overall editorial policy. After discussions, we also received permission from the architect to use the office’s presentation material. The presentation and critique of the building are published on pages 54–59.

The journal’s policy

The course of events raised the question of the role of critique in Arkkitehti and how to prevent a similar commotion in the future. These issues are important. I will respond to them here by discussing critique on a general level and by shedding light on the journal’s history and its traditions.

In my opinion, critique is necessary for the evolvement of architecture. In the journal, comment is free. Expertise, diversity of opinion and criticality are all integral to the journal’s publishing policy. The journal wants to promote an understanding of architecture. The credibility of Arkkitehti relies on expertise and independence. The publisher, the Finnish Association of Architects, has over the decades understood the journal’s independence such that it does not get involved in the contents, leaving the task of defining its policy to the editor-in-chief.

The presentation of contemporary architecture

Since its inception in 1903, the journal Arkkitehti has presented new architecture, and with a focus on Finnish architecture. The photographs and drawings, which form the basis of the presentations, are provided by the architects themselves – and this is still the case today.

What buildings, then, has the journal promoted? The buildings featured in the journal show what kind of architecture has been appreciated at different times. Each period has its own trends – preferences and limitations, aesthetics and ideologies – which is clearly evident when one makes a historical-critical examination of the back issues of the journal. Regardless of the editor-in-chief’s vision, there will always be blind spots, where the architecture remains undiscovered. My belief is that conscious tolerance reduces these blind spots.

The contemporary architecture presented in Arkkitehti has thus never been an egalitarian cross-section through our built environment. When a new building is featured in the journal, it comes with a subliminal message: this is good architecture. Depending on the context, the term “good” can signify many different characteristics; for example, high-quality design, vision, freshness of expression, innovativeness and application of new concepts or the fact that it is considered important because it is based on a competition-winning entry – characteristics of an architecture deserving positive publicity. What, then, is the purpose of critique? Praise?

The role of critique

The articles in the journal have always dealt with prevailing trends and complexities, and biases have been criticised. Building critiques remained, however, rare exceptions until the 1990s. Throughout the decades, texts written by the architects of the buildings, in which they described the design’s principles, objectives and solutions, were published as part of the presentation. It was during the editorship of Harri Hautajärvi in the 2000s that the role of the commentary by an outside critic became established. I have continued this policy, which is also the custom of many distinguished international publications, such as the British journal The Architectural Review.

The critic analyses the building’s principles, ideas, implementation, functionality, integration into its setting and other different sub-factors depending on the context of the site. What is essential is to place the building in wider contexts. Contextualisation can take many forms and it will depend, of course, on the critic’s viewpoint which angles are emphasised. The critic’s interpretation always includes to some extent an evaluation. A critic provides the reader with some means to understand the architecture of the building. On the other hand, the critic’s interpretation and observations contribute to a dialogue with the reader, because the latter is always able to form his or her own understanding of the architecture of the building based on illustration and photos alone. Critique is thus a discourse about contemporary architecture.

But how to prevent a similar commotion in the future? The question has been posed of whether the journal can be truly independent unless it photographs and prepares the presentation material itself. In my opinion, the acquisition of the presentation material from the architect is not a problem. The method has worked well previously and the architects, after all, are in possession of the best information and material regarding their projects. The solution to the problem is to understand the significance of critique and to accept its existence. Critique is part of a valuable discussion about the trends, values and quality of contemporary architecture. Critique gives a healthy stir to the intellectual superstructure of architecture. Of course, the interpretation presented by the critic can seem eccentric and the interpretation can also be futile or meaningless. Both the authors and architects should trust the competence and desire of the editorial staff to promote good architecture. Without architecture there is no architectural critique. It starts with an interest in and a love for architecture. ark

Jorma Mukala is the editor-in-chief of Finnish Architectural Review.

Nieto and Sobejano's relationship with the landscape is humble while creating a new kind of surprising monumentalism. Architect Juha Ilonen reviews the works of the Alvar Aalto medalists.

In the pine woodlands of Estonia’s Laulasmaa, a new building for the Arvo Pärt Centre will see its completion in 2018. The architecture is emblematically Northern: the building surrenders to its environment and thrives in it. The glazed shell of the undulating mass, yielding to the trees and leaving them undisturbed, soaks up and filters daylight, which in the winter is at a premium, into the interior spaces through its elevations and courtyards. The building is not something we have become accustomed to expect from Mediterranean architects. However, it does reveal the essence of its architects: architecture is not about massaging the egos of the designers, or about reiterating a signature form, like a trademark, regardless of the use or location of the building.

The Arvo Pärt Centre is yet another realisation of Fuensanta Nieto and Enqirue Sobejano’s analytical and dynamic relationship to the site, its topography, culture and history. Many of their designs are submissive anti-buildings, revealing only glimpses of their vast volume to the outside. For example, the extension of Joanneumsviertel in Graz, Austria (2013), combines old cultural buildings with a subterranean space in the courtyard in between them. The underground spaces are linked by impressive conical glazed patios, directing daylight and lending unique character to the underground spaces. Another subterranean design by the architects is the History Museum in Spain’s north-western city of Lugo (2011). The roof of the museum doubles as a new park, while the interior spaces of the museum are housed in cylindrical silo-like masses that open onto rotund courtyards below ground level.

Nieto and Sobejano’s unobtrusive relationship with the landscape avoids monumentalism in the traditional sense, while creating a new way of sensing monumentalism, which is intimate, gradually revealed and surprising. These organic qualities are also part of their design methodology, both on a conscious and subconscious level. The most monumental of the team’s anti-buildings is the visitor centre and archaeological museum of the ruined city of Madinat-al-Zahra in Andalucia (2009), the design method of which served as a metaphor of the slow-paced, painstaking work of an archaeologist: it took ten years from design to completion. Conforming to the archaeological fragments, the new building was “unearthed” from under the layers of terrain, taking the form of a an orthogonal, systematic rectangle. It is reminiscent of the majestic farms of the surrounding Andalucian landscape, those low white-walled islets and, more distantly, Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum (1972). Nieto and Sobejano’s archaeology analogy would lend itself to architectural design in general. According to the Academy Research Fellow Tuija Rankama, the main purpose of archaeological excavations is not to collect objects for exhibition, but to establish the context, use and meaning of the finds.1

Madinat-al-Zahra Museum is visible looking down from the city ruins, from where it appears as a delimited, low mass embedded in the colours of the surrounding farmland. In Nieto and Sobejano’s designs the roof surface and shape often hold a central role. The roof is either an integral part of the surrounding landscape or a piece of artificial landscaping that adds to the texture of the environment, with a form that allows daylight to filter through into the interiors. The latter objective was well served in the extension of the Moritzburg Museum, a 15th century castle, in Germany (2008) and the Aragón Convention Centre in Zaragoza, Spain (2008).

The Madinat-al-Zahra project presented Nieto and Sobejano with an opportunity to delve deep into the rich Islamic architectural legacy of Spain. In 2010, it was awarded the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, which is given exclusively to work within the Islamic sphere of culture. Madinat-al-Zahra, “the City of the Flower”, was part of Córdoba, the capital of the Iberian Moors, and the combination of systematics and layeredness of its mosque has always fascinated architects regardless of the era or cultural background. The atrium-patios at Madinat-al-Zahra, Laulasmaa, Graz, Lugo and many other of Nieto and Sobejano’s designs are architectural themes that have already long ago become universal. They unquestionably arise from the architects’ own cultural sphere, the Roman and Muslim strata of Spanish architecture – and when exported to new locations, they acquire new, localised applications.

Islamic ornaments have been freely interpreted as geometric elements in many of Nieto and Sobejano’s works. The grouping of the sequence of central spaces in the Contemporary Art Centre in Córdoba (2015) and the perforation in the building envelope is based on a system of irregular hexagons. The hexagonal openings of the roof surface taper downwards into dramatic concrete lightwells. The design has echoes of the chapel of Riola Church by Alvar Aalto. The shape of the main spaces of the building, in turn, has points of reference to Aalto’s Wolfsburg Cultural Centre and perhaps even the Finlandia Hall in Helsinki. The monolithic character of the white fibre-reinforced concrete element cladding transforms into something quite ethereal in the dark, as the openings let the changing light installations shine through. A similar optical illusion happens with San Sebastian’s San Telmo Museum (2011), where the perforation of the aluminium panels makes them look like massive, porous blocks of stone. The perforation of the panels and the accompanying lighting and plantation design were created in collaboration with artists Leopoldo Ferrán and Agustina Otero.

Nieto and Sobejano’s works reflect and steer the architecture of their time, while positioning themselves as part of the organic continuum of their historical surroundings. The signature precision of the finish and uncompromised quality in the execution give the works an air that defies time, commands respect and prophesies longevity. In the interior spaces, this is emphatically manifest in the ceilings, which have not been sacrificed as the utilitarian playground of building technology, but are clean, pure architectural surfaces. Finnish architecture has achieved these qualities in the past decades only in few exceptions, such as the JKMM Architects’ libraries in Turku and Seinäjoki.

Fuensanta Nieto and Enrique Sobenajo’s formidable body of work has often reaped success in competitions. The most recent open competition win is the Arvo Pärt Centre in Estonia. They have designed over a dozen museum buildings as well as renovations and extensions to several historical palaces and castles. Even a fraction of their entire oeuvre, both in terms of quality and quantity, would be more than enough to cement a single architect’s career for life. ark


1 Rankama, Tuija: ”Arkeologinen kaivaus” [Archaeological Excavation], in Petri Halinen, Visa Immonen, Terhi Mikkola, Pirjo Uino (ed.): Johdatus arkeologiaan. Gaudeamus 2014 (3rd edition).

Juha Ilonen is a Helsinki-based architect.

Kuopio City Theatre renovation and expansion
architects Juho Grönholm, Antti Nousjoki, Janne Teräsvirta, Samuli Woolston
address Niiralankatu 2, Kuopio
gross area 11 492 m2
completion 2014
original building Risto-Veikko Luukkonen, Helmer Stenros, 1963

commentary Jonas Malmberg

Viikinmäki primary school and Maarianmaa daycare centre
architects Jari Frondelius, Jaakko Keppo, Juha Salmenperä, Tommi Kantanen
address Harjannetie 36, Helsinki
gross area 3 597 m2
completion 2015

commentary Erkko Aarti

EY Finland headquarters and two apartment buildings
architects Väinö Nikkilä, Jussi Palva, Riina Palva, Ilkka Salminen
address Alvar Aallon katu 5, Helsinki
gross area 20 400 m2
completion 2014

commentary Simo Paavilainen

The spring exhibition at the Design Museum in Helsinki reappraised for the first time the 1980s, when postmodernism roused passions and changed Finnish design, art and architecture. Also, the first research has been carried out on the architecture of the period. Dr. Anni Vartola, who wrote her doctoral thesis on the subject, Professor Olli-Paavo Koponen and Professor Emerita Kaisa Broner-Bauer explore the period that has been somewhat neglected in the recent history of architecture. The buildings of the period, moreover, are beginning to require renovation.

Helsinki-based freelance art critic answers the question: what is good criticism?

The disappointment among artists is directed at the criticism that does not exist: “I worked hard and my work was not written about by anyone [occasionally solely meaning Helsingin Sanomat].” Criticism is part of an attention economy. For an artist the value of criticism seems to be the acknowledgment of the artist’s existence.

Within the dying community of critics disappointment is also directed at the criticism that does not exist. Most of my colleagues are underemployed as publishing channels have largely withered away. I am hard-working and probably could be seen as successful, but I do not live off criticism. Over the past year I have had 27 articles published through different media, of which ten I consider to be critiques. I see myself as a professional critic, but no more than one third of the articles I get published during a year are critiques. The other texts pay more.

Good criticism should be both professional and in compliance with journalistic ethics. Journalists are, above all, accountable to their readers. All decisions regarding the content of a text should be made on journalistic grounds and journalists have the right and obligation to fight any pressure or persuasion that attempts to control, prevent or limit a text. There may, however, be various aims and the genre of a text can also be stretched quite far, for example from impressions all the way to a moral – as long as the criticism is contextualising in a meaningful manner. At its best, criticism is able to link the subject to different discussions and sometimes even to heuristically surprising contexts.

Even though the informative dimension of criticism is important, criticism should not be a pure product description or a piece of news. Criticism is not criticism if it does not contain an evaluation.

A professional critic will inevitably face a loss of enthusiasm at some point, sometimes even cynicism. It happens to me too. At that point I try to remember that even if only one third of my texts are critiques, I can still be a 100 % critic in terms of my attitude and identity. I also try to remember that when I am primarily accountable to my readers as a journalist, I do my best when accompanied by passion and moral fearlessness. Then the reader can also be involved, either through identifying with the topic or disagreeing with it. Then criticism has meaning. ark

illustration Tuuli Häggman

Näköislehti: Site Logic