4 / 2017 - urban housing

New residential construction increasingly complements and densifies our dispersed city structures. This creates an urbanism that lacks the closeness to nature – a typical feature of Finnish suburban estates. What kinds of urban housing should be built in Finland today? In this edition of Arkkitehti, four urban planning experts put forward their views, demanding diversification in the range of residential types, and alongside trendy historical solutions – such as perimeter blocks – also bold, innovative and radical proposals.

The journal features a variety of urban implementations: from a street façade infill to a redevelopment the size of an urban block, from the urbanism of large buildings to the urbanism of two-storey townhouses. Also featured is the restoration of the cultural-historically significant Lallukka Artists’ Home where, since the 1930s, several generations of artists have enjoyed living, been inspired and created art in the urban setting of Töölö in Helsinki. Steven Holl, the well-known architect of the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, is planning another building in Finland. The Meander apartment building, complementing an old Helsinki urban block, will be completed next year. Holl tells about the project’s background and his views on creating architecture. Danish architect Dorte Mandrup writes about the role of the architect in increasingly complex construction projects.

A completely different view on housing opens up in an article about refugee camps, which today are residential environments for millions of people. Many camps have developed into permanent cities. What can architects do to improve the situation in refugee camps?


The loose structure of the Finnish cities is being filled-in to make it more ecological. We asked four experts how to design new urbanity.

In the concrete jungle

Vesa Humalisto

“A home is a safe place” tells the home survey by Helsingin Sanomat (HS 30 July 2017). Thousands of people were interviewed for the survey regarding homes. Based on the answers, people's needs have not changed all that much over the past thousands of years. We need protection from the outside world, just like people did before.

The role of an architect has not changed much either. When discussing built environments, architects too often stay in their professional comfort zone. We talk about walls as materials or shapes, but the person living within the walls is less interested in the play of light and shadows than feeling comfortable within those walls. A home is a place where one can be at their barest, vulnerable and scarred. The ideal is a home as the normative nest of happiness. When comparing one's life to this concept of a happy home, many of those who are lonely, different, oppressed or homeless feel a great deal of anxiety – they feel like an outsider.

Urbanisation brings people closer to each other. The need for an extensive personal space is probably bigger here in the north than, for example, in Central Europe. Perhaps this is due to the late and still low degree of urbanisation. Usually people want to be where other people are. Jan Gehl, for example, has noticed this when observing the use of public spaces.

What is contradictory is that in Finland the urban structure spreads over a wide area but homes are small in comparison to other countries. Also the Helsingin Sanomat home survey found that one of the main factors affecting the level of comfort is the amount of space one has. Especially the poorest households need more space. In other words, high housing costs lead to low-income households living in cramped conditions. Even though the causes and consequences of and the solutions to the problems of the disadvantaged lie elsewhere, it should be considered what we architects could do to improve the situation. Reducing social problems, loneliness and insecurity is also the responsibility of architects. Urban planning, in particular, offers a way to affect the nature of streets and homes.

Greater population density can create a nice buzz, while increasing the number of cars cannot be expected to make a city more pleasant. An urban structure can be made more compact when it is done with consideration for green areas and when the focus is on increasing the efficiency of the existing urban structures. Parking space norms and traffic planning should be flexible so that housing efficiency could be increased. The development of services, smart business models and public transport plays a key role with regard to a city's vitality. An increasingly compact city also has disadvantages. These disadvantages can be reduced through urban and housing planning without resorting to new technical solutions or without imposing new norms. The most common disadvantages include limited light and views as well as noise and particulate emissions. It is, however, often unnecessary to solve these issues through housing planning, as switching to non-studded winter tyres or reducing speeds alone would reduce the drawbacks of living in areas around busy routes. When building near traffic routes, the urban structure and housing is almost always designed on the terms of traffic. How many minutes more quickly does one have to reach the city centre when most of the time the roads are relatively empty?

A wider spectrum of housing needs should also be accepted in cities and solutions should be sought for those outside of the predominant resident profiles. Urban families, those living alone, immigrants, shared housing, joint building ventures and seniors offer new opportunities for developers and architects. The number of families with children living in central areas is increasing even though the needs of families are still associated with the planning of suburbs. Residents do often consider current housing solutions successful. However, interviews with Helsinki families found clear wishes, particularly regarding the improvement of shared facilities and yards as well as entrance halls and storage spaces (Johanna Lilius & Serum Arkkitehdit: Urbaanit lapsiperheet -survey, 2016). Balconies, which are a source of joy for residents, even in Nordic conditions, are probably a challenge in terms of the cityscape.

Experiencing and sharing of spaces is getting an entirely new dimension. It has already changed our behaviour and daily living. A space is no longer purely considered a physical environment, but it expands strongly into the present and experienced digital parallel world. Digitalisation promotes the sharing economy and increases the flow of information and communication. On the other hand, it may also isolate people. At this point its effects can only be speculated, but social media is now our living room. And our physical living room has already been rented out through an online service. ark

All four essays in the issue.

Vesa Humalisto is a partner of Serum Architects.

town houses
architects Katariina Rautiala, Pentti Raiski
address Laukkukuja, Helsinki
gross area 4500 m2
completion 2015
owner-occupied apartments 19
rental apartments 11

photos Kuvio Oy
commentary Tina Ullrich

apartment block
architects Pia Ilonen, Mikaela Neuvo
address Malagankatu 3, Helsinki
gross area 6302 m2
completion 2017
rental apartments 74

photos Tuomas Uusheimo
commentary Sanna Meriläinen

Lallukka Artists´ Home restoration
architect Simo Freese
address Apollonkatu 13, Helsinki
gross area 8238 m2
completion 2017
rental apartments 56
original building Gösta Juslén 1933

photos Jussi Tiainen
commentary Pekka Lehtinen

If expecting different results while repeating the same mistake is considered insane, then there is a little bit of madness going on in the big cities of Europe. While it has been a known fact for a while now, that the population and density of our cities are increasing in synchrony with our countryside becoming more and more abandoned, our capability of addressing this increase is still lacking. In Copenhagen, as in many other cities, we have seen a boom in multi-storey residential buildings, which of course do offer a tangible and valid solution to an influx in population. However, many multi-storey buildings today are conceived more as storage of people than as interconnected elements in a complex urban context.

Architects, builders, city planners and contractors alike are in formal agreement that diversity, social sustainability, vibrant street life and so forth are the success criteria against which housing projects are measured. Nobody dreams of creating residential silos absorbing all life from the streets, or creating generic-looking living quarters.

So why is it that we still experience new residential buildings that – while claiming to value diversity – are completely monofunctional, aimed at a homogeneous, affluent target group, and void of contextual interaction? Why do these buildings continue to sprout? Well, as usual, one should of course follow the money. At the risk of sounding naïve, what I am hoping for is an ambition that goes beyond merely turning a profit – a focus on values besides price.

But to achieve architectural, urban, socio-economic or aesthetic value, you must invest time and money into designing a product that is capable of creating more than just revenue. And this is where complexity becomes a factor. Multifunctional master plans and buildings are of an economic magnitude that tends to lead to conservative initiatives designed to secure a guaranteed return on investment. In reality this means that the people the most capable of creating architectural value are the last to be heard in a long process geared at creating financial value.

Architects have lost their previous position as natural authorities in these matters. That which sold well yesterday is a safer choice than that which challenges the usual financial business models and insists on taking the slightly longer road – even though that road would eventually lead to diversity and sustainable urban planning.

We, as architects, cannot afford to forego the opportunity to be the decisive factor in new gigantic projects. But rather than naïvely insist on prioritizing architectural value, we must prove ourselves worthy of leading complex, multifunctional mixed-use projects by demonstrating the capacity to juggle both funding and complex financial conditions, as well as to understand conflicting user interests.

Multi-layered complexity is the name of the game, and architects must find a way to re-enter the stage as the natural focal point for project coordination, context, as well as complexity. ark

Dorte Mandrup works in her own studio in Copenhagen and as a Professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts.

Näköislehti: Site Logic