Beautifully Finnished

A recent conference in Helsinki was something of an eye-opener for Janice Kirkpatrick, who was seriously impressed with the variety of creative solutions to the city’s problems and the bravery of Finland’s government in asking the world’s design community

September was special. In the UK it has to be special because it’s the last glimpse of light and warmth we get before we enter the wet, grey world which persists between late October and April.

I always fortify myself before the rain sets in. This year I was lucky enough to be asked to speak at Gateway II, a conference on managing urban change hosted by Helsinki University of Art and Design.

The conference proved to be unusually stimulating, but the real surprise was Helsinki’s commitment to using design as a force for developing creative strategies within its city.

The aim of the conference was to try and find a way in which Helsinki and Finland could realise the potential of the city’s new- found status as a gateway between East and West. It offered possible creative solutions to Finland’s recent change in status and its accompanying economic disruption, which includes the loss of 40 per cent of manufacturing output. National unemployment is currently around 20 per cent. Hard facts which appeared overnight when neighbouring Russia came in from the cold.

Like Glasgow, and many other cities trying to come to terms with changing economic and cultural conditions, Helsinki is keen to explore the possibility of using a design-led economy to bring Finland closer to Europe (currently a big issue) and change its new relationship with Russia from one of threat to one of mutual benefit.

Cultural erosion was considered a big issue, as the Finns have a strong sense of their own identity and are proud of their heritage, their manufacturing prowess and strong belief in education: everyone has the right to full-time education up until the age of 25 and the students union is the fifth biggest landowner in Helsinki.

Many solutions to Helsinki’s gateway problem were offered: Rem Koolhaus described his experience in strategically planning EuroLille in France – a huge building project which celebrated and expressed the point of convergence in Lille of the high-speed European rail network. Lille is quickly becoming one of the main “ports” within Europe, and choosing to work with Koolhaus to ensure the best in world architecture will mark this fact. It will communicate a confident new identity to all who travel and do business as a result of the new rail network.

Dr Helga Fassbinder, a professor at the Technical University of Hamburg-Berlin, described how Berlin had adopted an “urban vision” – a democratic system of masterplanning a united Berlin. This led to the implementation of innovative procedures as and when the situation called for them. It also meant a greater level of participation between the “different actors in the urban arena”, promoting cultural diversity and richness within the city. It had also allowed policy makers to meet in a regular forum (including Saturday mornings), to develop solutions in a short time-frame. This is important if Berlin is to function as one entity.

Scott Lash, a professor from Lancaster University, offered one of the most philosophically provoking insights of the conference when he warned the Finns of the dangers of xenophobia. He described a method of evaluating the world in terms of the “sublime” and the “beautiful” – that which was beyond tangible representation and that which could be tangibly represented. He warned of the dangers of representation, especially in architecture, where xenophobic messages may be subliminally communicated.

I had no idea what to expect from Finland, the land of tar, ice-cream and the sauna. Apart from the obvious beauty of the country, it was the belief the Finnish people have in a design-led future that won my heart.

It was refreshing to be invited to a conference partly funded by the city authority and hosted by the art school. It’s very brave to ask the world to debate the future of your city, and innovative (and sensible) to ask creative people to do the thinking. The event was attended by a variety of creative people. It was such a relief to hear new viewpoints on old subjects.

It seems Scandinavians still possess the energy and optimism which created and accompanied the original Modern Movement. What’s more, they’re not afraid to voice their darkest fears, discuss their biggest problems and ask creative people for help.

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