Viewpoint (July 01, 2009)

What do mega-pop star Madonna and Finnish architect Alvar Aalto have in common? They both believe in being absolutely clear about what they want without making unnecessary compromises.

Aalto once said, “Building art is a synthesis of life in materialized form. We should try to bring in under the same hat not a splintered way of thinking, but [a way to achieve] harmony together.” He added, “Architecture is about making synthesis, not compromises.” Perhaps this is why Aalto’s architecture in Helsinki is so harmonious–a place where enormous red granite rocks rest elegantly beside his House of Culture, and where the city’s ubiquitous granite resources form roughly hewn bases for innumerable finely crafted Art Nouveau and Modernist buildings.

According to Madonna, “A lot of people are afraid to say what they want. That’s why they don’t get what they want.” These words of wisdom are echoed in the Helsinki City Planning Department, where planners and architects are very clear in describing the kind of housing they want to see built. Over the past decade, the City has realized many new housing and residential communities with quality architecture, high-density living, easy access to transit and plenty of green space.

Of course, most people will wonder how Helsinki has been able to realize high-quality multi-unit housing. To Hannu Penttil, the Deputy Mayor of Helsinki responsible for City Planning and Real Estate, the answer is simple. Since the city owns 70 percent of the land, there is a high degree of control as to the ways in which Helsinki can develop its land holdings. Combined with the fact that revenues derived from property taxes comprise less than eight percent of the city’s budget (versus roughly 40 percent for a typical Canadian municipality), it is financially viable for Helsinki to continue its longstanding policy of building non-segregated market and subsidized housing so that there is virtually no visible difference between the aesthetics of market-oriented and subsidized units. Helsinki owns 43,000 rental units, 20,094 price- and quality-controlled (HITAS) units, and 2,480 right-of-occupancy apartments, providing housing for nearly 25 percent of the city’s 570,000 residents. To support its high-quality housing stock, the City’s own HITAS department was established over 30 years ago to project-manage housing developments built through the private sector, thereby monitoring developers’ construction costs and ensuring a high quality of housing. It is also a common practice for the City to hold design competitions before putting anything out to tender, encouraging continued innovation in housing design.

To help promote the latest area slated for redevelopment in Helsinki, Madonna will be giving a concert early in August in Jtksaari, a former 86-hectare cargo and dockyard facility that will be home to 15,000 people and 6,000 jobs by 2025. Pinned to the walls of the Helsinki City Planning Department, adjacent to the Jtksaari area master plan and facing an exceptionally beautiful Eliel Saarinen watercolour of a proposal for an early-20th-century precinct, is an enormous poster promoting Madonna’s upcoming Finnish concert date.

Along with Jtksaari, the city has already or continues to either shift or phase out its older industrial areas such as Kruunuvuorenranta to build new commercial and residential projects similar to the quality and type of housing recently built in other areas of Helsinki, such as Arabianranta (pictured above) or Viikki. “Our entire culture depends on what our homes are like,” noted Aalto. If we fail to demand high-quality housing for ourselves, then we’ll never get what we want. If the Finns need to draw inspiration from Aalto or Madonna, then so be it–one can’t argue with the success they’ve enjoyed in getting the housing they want and deserve.

Ian Chodikoff