3 / 2015 - houses, small scale

Tall and big have in recent years dominated the debate about the Finnish city. Professor Hannu Huttunen highlights, however, a different possibility: a vibrant city can grow also at a small scale. For example, in the metropolis of London, one finds, as a counter balance to the large buildings and main streets, a small-scale city, mostly three-storeys high, where housing, local shops and street life merge together naturally. In Helsinki, too, there are old city districts, such as Vallila, with a mix of the large and small scale. According to Huttunen, we should rediscover this long lost small-scale urbanness. Alongside standard construction dominated by high-rise apartment blocks, other house types should be developed, such as the familiar low-rise apartment block and row house. Also, there should be experimentation with new solutions; for example, the townhouse and "urban villa". The housing supply should be diversified. "Working on the small scale always seems difficult in Finland and requires a strong political will," writes Huttunen. He states that, on the basis of research, it can be argued that the small-scale city will certainly attract residents if it can only find those agents who believe in it.

In Berlin urban housing solutions have been developed actively and over a long period, and there are many different housing types in use. Living in the city is a popular choice, and housing costs are lower than in Helsinki. Architect Pia Ilonen presents schemes recently built in Berlin. In her opinion, locations for small-scale urban developments should be found also in the centre of Finnish cities.

The issue also features an overview of the development of ecological low-rise housing in Finland. Further, there is a review of an interesting book published in the US, Saarinen Houses, which presents private houses from the first half of the 20th century designed by Eliel Saarinen and Eero Saarinen. The review of recent architecture features one townhouse and eight single-family houses.


Urban dwelling solutions have actively been developed in Berlin. There are many different kinds of house typologies.

Since the 1980s the city centre of Helsinki has been expanded with closed urban blocks, with little variation, by developing six-floor blocks of flats. It can also be assumed that many of the Finnish architects were following the International Building Exhibition Berlin, IBA, in 1985–87, the objective of which was to reintroduce traditional urban elements into new building. As a result of IBA, blocks of flats were created, with unique elevations designed by the likes of Alvaro Siza, Rem Koolhaas, Peter Eisenman and Aldo Rossi, alongside urban villas reminiscent of old townhouses, with each floor accommodating four or five flats, and individual houses as an alternative to anonymous housing estates. IBA projects were applied in the production of municipal housing. Other approaches, such as building groups, and new forms of participation, funding and management, were also developed.

This meant that in the 1980s an enthusiastic atmosphere focusing on the development of the substance of housing construction, prevailed in Finland. One of the questions discussed was whether the advantages of blocks of flats and family houses could somehow be combined. “We must move on from developing dwelling and building standards towards designing for specific housing and lifestyles,” wrote Esko Kahri and Hannu Pyykönen in their 1984 textbook on housing design, while admitting that this was a demanding long-term goal.

Back to the city

In the 2010s, the debate regarding large cities centres around individualisation, the ever-increasing pace of life, new formats of working and trading, and the resulting changing city. In the wake of the Back to the City movement, the Berliners have revisited the experiences and housing standards created for the IBA exhibition and as a result, housing production which reinstates and complements the old city block structures has taken place. New housing construction no longer relies on public funding, as private developers, building groups, housing associations, investors and construction firms have taken the lead. Today, the catchword is “singular plot”.

A leading Berlin-based urban designer Hans Stimmann, whose work is strongly influenced by IBA, has written a guide on townhouses, Townhouses Berlin. Construction and Design Manual (2011). The book is probably inspired by the catalogue of modern European townhouse facades published by Werner Hegemann, a townplanner who was influential in the early 1900s.1 Hegemann described the buildings as follows: “The facades can be treated in a thousand different ways, simple or decorated, monotone or colourful, bare or richly detailed, with numerous or few openings. The walls can express or conceal the articulation of the interior and the functions of the building behind it. These facades can fit in harmoniously between their neighbours, or their artist can pay them no regard and strike new. Facades can also be restless and wild.”

The description could just as easily be by Stimmann, and it could be used to describe Friedrichswerder’s townhouses (2005–08). Individually designed facades guard the residents’ privacy by a variety of different double facades. Builders were given a wide remit in terms of style and in some houses the experts have been shocked by the use of revival styles. What is more important than the facades, for Stimmann, is the fact that for the first time since the beginning of modern era, bourgeois individuals have returned from the suburbs to the inner city.

According to studies referred to by Stimmann, conventional expression resonates increasingly with young adults working with the global media in different metropolises around the world. Prenzlauer Berg, the former working-class district in the centre of Berlin, is now popular with young families. Keeping the target group in mind, an ensemble of terraced houses has been built by developers. Taking into account the moderate house prices in Berlin, it is obvious that this is the way to boost the image of living in the city. The block contains a variety of different floor plans but the simple, traditional facades are uniform. The houses have a front garden similar to English terraced houses and a stair entrance. 

The topical townhouse

Designers in Berlin and Helsinki alike are looking for a new townhouse architecture that would be viewed objectively as high quality, based on tradition, but modern. Are we about to witness the arrival of townhouses, as Helsinki expands along the coast at Jätkäsaari, Kalasatama and Kuruunuvuorenranta? Plots should be made available in Finnish city centres, whether for an urban villa, townhouse, small block of flats, a combination of these, or infill construction sandwiched between, within or on top of existing buildings.

Instead of predefined building typologies and detailed planning specifications, a preferable process would be for a developer to be able to reserve a plot immediately after the detailed neighbourhood draft plan is approved. There is increasing pressure to move towards this process, if we are to favour genuinely individual housing construction. Currently, deviating from the detailed plan causes an inordinate amount of paperwork and red tape when processed by the advisory boards and working groups of the local authorities. The introduction of new concepts and building methods can, however, be surprisingly fast and even exemplary, by comparison internationally: at least in Helsinki the authorities allocating plots, and other planning authorities, have been clearly supporting change for a long time and the ethos appears to be positive towards reform.

Individualisation will also place many standards and norms up for discussion. The lack of them has not stopped high-quality housing production in Berlin. Another lesson to be learnt from Berlin is that what we understand objectively as being good residential architecture may be seriously questioned in the future. ark

1 Werner Hegemann: Reihenhaus-Fassaden. Geschäfts- und Wohnhäuser aus alter und neuer Zeit. Wasmuth, Berlin 1929. Hegemann was involved in the reform movement active before the Second World War, which aimed at developing the block of flats as a concept.

Pia Ilonen, a Helsinki-based architect and Licentiate of Science (Technology), participates in developing concepts of open building and, by invitation of the City of Berlin, in the international Urban Living team.

photo Werner Huthmacher, from Hans Stimmann's book Townhouses Berlin. Construction and Design Manual. DOM Publishers 2011.


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