Friday, July 30, 2010

Closing this blog, but I'll be back

After a summer of thinking and planning I’ve decided to close this blog and start on a new project. In a few months I expect to be back with a new blog or website also dealing with modern urban development.
If you are interested, please check back in early November or so to find out more.
If you have any ideas or questions, or just want to get in touch, you can use the e-mail address in the column to the right.
Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A festival for the built environment

LONDON. The London Festival of Architecture (June 19 to July 4) is a gigantic event spanning time and space in this metropolis.
On a short visit I only had a chance to see fragments of this celebration of the built environment. This year’s festival, the fourth biennial event since 2004, looks forward towards 2012 when London hosts the Olympic Games as well as back at 50 years of architecture in the city.
The festival is also a showcase for the art of building in other cities and countries that have been invited to show their stuff during two weeks of events, exhibitions and activities. Over all there are over 300 events during the festival.
I liked the photo exhibition (above) of 50 Years of London Architecture 1960-2010 in the Mall Galleries (it ended June 27). Organised by the Architecture Club, the exhibition showed selected works illustrating a cross section of new architecture in London over the past five decades.

1966 Centre Point on New Oxford Street, one of the first tall buildings in London.

1986 The Lloyds Building, the City's most unusual office complex.

2007 New Wembley, the national stadium for England's disgraced footballers.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Danish government dismisses road tax plans

COPENHAGEN. The leading party of the liberal-conservative Danish government will not allow the capital Copenhagen to introduce a system of congestion charges, a type of road tax aimed at lowering the number of cars on the city’s streets.
The local government of Copenhagen, lead by the social democrats, would like to introduce congestion charges as soon as possible as part of the city’s ambitious environmental policies.
But a representative of venstre, Denmark’s largest political party, says that the government will not allow this to happen, reports daily Berlingske Tidende.
The scheme will cost people who drive cars too much, according to venstre.
Swedish capital Stockholm introduced congestion charges on a permanent basis in 2007. License numbers are registered when cars pass unmanned control points (picture) at entrances to the city centre. Car owners are billed for the charges. Copenhagen would like to introduce a similar system.
The Danish capital seeks to profile itself as a global Climate Capital, but sometimes meets resistance from the national government. Copenhagen is knows as one the best cities in the world for bicycling and has ambitious plans improve public transportation further.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Green light for controversial Slussen revamp

STOCKHOLM. The local council in Stockholm has adopted a controversial plan for revamping the Slussen transit hub near the city’s Old Town. A plan for the project that was presented early this year led to an uproar.
Now changes in the design have been made, but the debate is far from over. The future of Slussen is bound to be an issue in local elections to be held in September.
The struggle over Slussen’s future has been going on for at least 20 years. This important transit hub from 1935 is literally falling apart and a major restoration is long overdue.
The first competition for a new design was held as early as 1990, but nothing happened.
In 2004 a new winner was picked after a competition said to be final. Plans were presented, and a new debate began.
Then, in 2008, it was all of a sudden announced that yet another competition would take place. Prestigious foreign architect firms were invited to take part together with leading Swedish firms. In early 2010 a revamped proposition by Foster + Partners and Swedish Berg architects was presented as the future Slussen.
But now hell broke loose with widespread protest and a heated debate. The new proposals included new buildings and a design that would block part of the view the Södermalm district towards the Old Town.
Politicians hesitated again and planners went back to the drawing boards to make changes. Now plans for some buildings have been scrapped.

Copyright: Foster + Partners/Berg Arkitektkontor
Part of the plans for the new Slussen, that now have been changed again.

Monday, June 21, 2010

A green tour of sewage pipes and poo bags

STOCKHOLM. If a walking tour that takes you to the city’s first sewage pipe or lets you see how good Swedes are at picking up dog poo, Stockholm might be the place for you.
The city is European Green Capital 2010 and as a part of that, city authorities are handing out The Green Capital Map to visiting tourists.
The map guides visitors to spots in the city that one way or another explains why Stockholm was selected as the first Green Capital ever.
Another way to experience green features of the Swedish capital is to use the Gowalla gps-positioning application in your smart phone. A short tour has been prepared for Gowalla and city authorities have also announced a competition where you share your favourite green spots with the help of the application.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Munich back on top of the world

RANKINGS. Some say they are meaningless, but I can’t help to like all those ranking lists of the best cities in the world.
Yesterday the summer issue of Monocle arrived in my mail with its yearly “Liveable cities index”. An old winner is back on top.
Munich, the well-connected and well-to-do modern metropolis of Bavaria, finished first in Monocle’s initial ranking in 2007 and is number one again this year.
From its excellent airport and public transportation (the metro, right) to the lovely summer beer gardens, Munich is a place to feel good about.
Copenhagen is in second place, just like three years ago. In the four Monocle rankings so far, the likeable Danish capital has finished 2-1-2-2.
The only new entry on Monocle’s top 25 list this year is Portland, the U.S. West Coast city that promotes bikes and public transportation ahead of cars. The Oregon city is in 22nd place.
Monocle’s top ten liveable cities 2010 (2009):
01. Munich, Germany (4)
02. Copenhagen, Denmark (2)
03. Zürich, Switzerland (1)
04. Tokyo, Japan (3)
05. Helsinki, Finland (5)
06. Stockholm, Sweden (6)
07. Paris, France (8)
08. Vienna, Austria (7)
09. Melbourne, Australia (9)
10. Madrid, Spain (12)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Danish architects wins landmark Swedish project

STOCKHOLM. Danish architects 3XN will design a landmark building in a prestigious redevelopment in the Stockholm suburb of Vällingby. The proposal from 3XN, a softly shaped building said to symbolize the human values characterizing the revival of the suburb, was picked by a jury that had four entries to chose between. The other invited competitors were Danish firm BIG and Swedish Wingårdhs and Tham&Videgård.
The building will lead into a new suburban development called Vällingby Parkstad on a site where Swedish energy giant Vattenfall will relocate from its present headquarters.
Vällingby was a model suburb in western Stockholm the 1950’s and 60’s. It’s now planned to be a new type of suburban core as Stockholm develops for the future. Vällingby Parkstad is seen as an example of a new type of high quality suburban residential district.
The 14-floor building’s curved design embraces the area and the lively shaped balconies opens up the structure towards the surroundings thus raising the park up in the air. The dense city structure at the base adds activity at eye level and life thrives on active roof tops and flowering balconies, according to the description from 3XN.
Construction is planned to begin in 2011.

Copyright: 3XN
The winning proposal for the signature building at Vällingby Parkstad.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Green capital becomes city of love

STOCKHOLM. The Swedish capital is buzzing with activity this week, as a two-week “festival of love” reaches its climax on Saturday with a royal wedding.
Stockholm is using the occasion – Crown Princess Victoria’s wedding – to promote itself through a packed program of activities, as hundreds of foreign journalists have come to the city to cover the royal festivities.
It is also the first time the city has used its status as European Green Capital 2010 for marketing purposes on a wider scale. In a big pavilion in the centrally located Kungsträdgården (King’s Garden) opposite the Royal Palace, the city is showing off its green ambitions with a full schedule of daily activities over the 14-day period of “Love 2010”.
When I dropped by there was a presentation of the recently adopted City Plan, which outlines the future development of Stockholm. Visitors can learn more about plans to promote electric vehicles (photo), take a sip of the city’s clean water and learn more about everything from recycling to investments in new infrastructure.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Study says bicycles won't reduce car traffic

STOCKHOLM. Increased use of bicycles in the Swedish capital would only have a minor effect on car traffic in the city centre, according to a new study from the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.
The study, reported by the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter online, says that bicycling as a means of transportation of its own is gaining in importance in Stockholm. But most of the car traffic in the inner city, 84 percent according to the study, consists of vehicles that made a journey longer than 15 kilometres. This traffic is not likely to be replaced by increased use of bicycles, according to researchers from KTH.
The report, part of a larger study of travel habits of some 55,000 stockholmers, looked at what it would mean if half of all shorter car trips (less than 5, 10 or 15 kilometres) were done by bicycle instead. The researchers assume that few commuters who drive more than 15 kilometres one way would switch to bicycle.
Therefore bicycling cannot be expected to solve traffic congestion in central Stockholm.
But the study still points out the benefits of an increased use of bicycles. It’s healthy, inexpensive, fast and good for the environment.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Waterfront living, with neighbours on the web

VÄSTERÅS. Summer is here and it’s the time of year when we really enjoy living in a waterfront development.
That is except for one thing, our neighbours.
We only see them in the summer, when they come in great numbers. They invade our balcony, where we want to sit and enjoy the view over the blue waters of Lake Mälaren. They usually come in the evening, when they are on the web for hours.
The spider web, that is.
Because I’m talking about spiders, which I have learned is a big problem in many waterfront developments like the one where we live in Västerås, an hour west of the Swedish capital Stockholm.
When we moved here I had heard that some spiders like new buildings close to the water. Now I know that for a fact.
I also know that we are not the only ones with this problem. When I visited Hamburg in Germany last year to see the giant waterfront development HafenCity I noticed the spider webs as I walked around at night.
I also happened to see a TV-interview on the German channel ZDF that gave some clarity to the issue.
Since HafenCity is the biggest waterfront development in Europe, they probably have the biggest spider problem as well. Therefore a researcher from Hamburg University called Anja Kleinteich had been hired to help find a solution to the problem.
In the ZDF-interview Kleinteich, an expert on spiders, explained that the main problem is the so called bridge spider (larinioides sclopetarius), which prefers to be near water. The bridge spider is also, unfortunately, probably “world champion of reproduction”, according to Kleinteich.
A female bridge spider can produce some 1,500 offsprings in just seven months, which explains a lot.
There is no simple solution to the problem, Kleinteich admits. One recommendation is to use types of lightning that attracts fewer insects. Covering holes where the spiders hide is another, as well as making it difficult for spiders to fasten their webs by having smooth surfaces and rounded “corners” on the building.

Monday, June 07, 2010

New bridges to connect cultural institutions

COPENHAGEN. The regeneration of Copenhagen’s harbour inlet has been one of the successes of the 2000’s in the Danish capital.
Now things will become even better.
The city has decided to build a number of bridges that will connect the Opera house with the Royal Danish Playhouse, two of the city’s cultural institutions, near the popular tourist district Nyhavn.
Visitors to Nyhavn will also get improved access to the waterfront along the neglected Havnegade (Harbour Street). A new urban space will open up as traffic along the street will have to give way for a promenade, outdoor seating and activities for the public.
This will be a boost for a couple of restaurants and bars in one of Copenhagen’s small architectural gems, an old custom house (the place is actually called Custom House, in English) on Havnegade (above).
The project is expected to be completed in 2012 to coincide with the opening of the new harbour bridge.
Daily Politiken reports that there is an ongoing fight between the City of Copenhagen and the Danish Ministry of Culture over the bridge project. According to the Ministry the City has promised to build a direct bridge from The Royal Danish Playhouse to the Opera. The solution now chosen by the city is a less expensive one where the two cultural institutions are connected through a series of smaller bridges via the Christianshavn district.

In the future you will be able to walk over to the Opera house in Copenhagen.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Sustainable Olympics not making Britain greener

LONDON. The 2012 Olympic Games in London were meant to inspire British industry and society to become more sustainable.
That is not happening, reports a green watchdog in its annual review on the games’ sustainability vision.
The Commission for a Sustainable London 2012 gives the Olympic Delivery Authority, which is responsible for construction of venues and infrastructure for the games, high grades for its standard of sustainable design. But in its report the watchdog says that the benefits for Britain’s wider green economy could be lost before the games even begin unless “the knowledge in people’s heads is captured before they leave”, according to a story in the Guardian.
“Our main area of concern lies in the wider commitments that were made during the bid or just afterwards. Broad promises have been made in official documents: ‘to make the Olympic Park a blueprint for sustainable living’ and ‘to be a catalyst for new waste management infrastructure in east London. With the exception of a few worthy initiatives, there is no comprehensive plan to make this happen”, it says in the report.
Many of the venues, like the main Olympic Stadium (picture), are seen as good examples of sustainable design.
But much more has been expected from the London 2012 Olympics.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Building on the blue with a green profile

HELSINKI/DESIGNING THE FUTURE. Minimizing and improving efficiency in energy use is the latest trend in climate smart urban development.
Now Helsinki joins the race to be one of the world leaders in the field. Earlier this week, it was announced that the Kalasatama (Fiskehamnen in Swedish) waterfront development will be the testing ground for a large scale so called smart grid power network.
“We have the ambition to develop the new Kalasatama district into a global benchmark for smart cities and we look forward to implementing the best available technology together with our global partner”, says Seppo Ruohonen, CEO of Helsingin Energia, the public utility in the Finnish capital, in a statement as the news was announced.
Helsingin Energia will work in a joint development project with multinational power and automation technology giant ABB and the Nokia Siemens Networks to design and install a large-scale smart grid in the Kalasatama district (right, illustration copyright ALA Architects/City of Helsinki).
The project is part of a larger initiative to lift Helsinki’s environmental profile with focus on the sustainable and efficient distribution of power, according to a press release from ABB. The Swiss-Swedish company is involved in a similar project in the Stockholm Royal Seaport, an eco-profile development in the Swedish capital.
Kalasatama, “fishing harbour” in English, is one of several large ongoing or planned waterfront developments in Helsinki, where room for new residential districts have opened up since port facilities began moving to a location east of the city.
Eventually the district will have some 18,000 residents. Construction is expected to last well into the 2030’s. During the coming decades Helsinki will see major development projects on a scale few other cities in Europe can match. With a population near 600,000 (1.3 million in the metropolitan area), Helsinki expects to have built new homes for another 100,000 residents by 2040.
However, in the wake of the global economic crisis of the past two years, city authorities recently decided to temporarily put part of the development projects on hold. Investment plans will be re-evaluated and new decisions by City Hall are expected after the summer.
When things begin to move again, there will be several interesting projects to follow in Helsinki:
● Kalasatama, already mentioned above, will expand Helsinki’s city centre eastwards. A new metro station taken into use in 2007 will be the hub for the new district, where plans call for a diversity of housing types. New kinds of terrace buildings are planned to built where a power station stands today, representing a more daring architecture what has been the case so far in new Helsinki developments.
The waterfront of the district will be developed into new recreational areas.
● In the south western corner of central Helsinki, work is already under way to start construction in what used to be the Western Harbour. A district called Jätkäsaari (Busholmen in Swedish) will eventually provide homes for 16,000 residents and greatly expand the area of the city centre.
Jätkäsaari will be a continuation of the Ruoholahti (Gräsviken) district, developed in the 1990’s. With a canal running through it, this is a pleasant but un-spectacular district with excellent metro and tram connections with the rest of the city (above, left).
● Keski-Pasila (Central Pasila in english, Mellersta Böle in Swedish) is a planned as a new, or expanded, city centre three kilometers north of the present city centre. This is where Helsinki is making room for business expansion. A new high rise office complex is planned to be built on derelict railway yards and central Pasila will be developed as a new transportation hub.
● Two public transit projects will be of great importance to Helsinki in the future. The metro will be extended to the west, connecting Helsinki with neighbouring Espoo (Esbo), the capital’s most important suburb that has grown into the second largest municipality in Finland.
There are some delays in the project, and the new metro line is not expected to open for traffic until 2015.
At the same time a new Ring Rail Line is under construction. The line, expected to open for traffic in 2014, will provide important new commuter routes as well as rail connections to the Helsinki-Vantaa international airport.

This is the fourth and final article in a series of reports from Helsinki.

Copyright: Adactive Oy/City of Helsinki
The Kalasatama district will expand Helsinki's city centre eastwards.

A new metro line will connect Helsinki with neighbouring Espoo.

Copyright: Cino Zucchi Architetti/City of Helsinki
A new city centre for Helsinki; high rises in Central Pasila.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

City planning with a passion for the human scale

HELSINKI/DESIGNING THE FUTURE. If you have a hard time imagining a city planner as a passionate crusader, you haven’t met Mikael Sundman.
He is a recently retired senior planner from the Finnish capital Helsinki, where he helped shape the city’s development for more than 30 years. Sundman fought for the human scale in the urban landscape and his work made him a legendary planner.
“Urbanity means that opposites will meet; young and old, rich and poor and so on. When we build it has to be for everybody. That has been my main idea”, he says when we meet in Stockholm, a city he likes to spend time in.
I’m preparing a trip to Helsinki and Sundman (right) has promised to give me a background to recent and planned development in the Finnish capital.
As we unfold a big map of Helsinki, Sundman brings out a pen. He circles city districts on the map and scribbles down the years they were built. When I later come to Helsinki I just have follow Sundman’s directions on the map to get a picture of how Helsinki has developed over the past 30-40 years.
As I walk around in central Helsinki, I enter a second-hand bookshop where I’m glad to find an old copy of a small black-and-white book from 1970 that perhaps can be seen as the starting point of Mikael Sundman’s career as the passionate city planner.
As a young assistant at the Technical College’s architecture department, Sundman and another young colleague wrote a book called “Whose is Helsinki?”. In the book the young architects/planners describe how the residents of Helsinki are being run over by car-oriented city planning, and how the city centre is taken over by offices.
Already 40 years ago Sundman saw the dangers of a development that many cities still are just beginning to deal with.
He would soon get a chance to continue his struggle within the city planning system.
Sundman points at the map of Helsinki:
“Here you can see Magnitogorsk when you come to Helsinki”, he says, referring to a classic example of Soviet-Russian communist style city building in the Ural Mountains.
What he’s pointing at is a Helsinki district called Merihaka (Havshagen in Swedish), a 1970’s residential area dominated by grey, concrete housing blocks of a kind you would presumably find a lot of in Magnitogorsk.
“And this was our reaction to Magnitogorsk”, he says, pointing at Katajanokka (Skatudden) on the map, where he helped design the plans for his first residential district in the latter part of the 1970’s.
Beyond the famous Uspenski Cathedral, the harbour and some classic examples of Helsinki’s art nouveau (jugend) architecture, Sundman and his colleagues designed the winning plans for a residential district dominated by low rise houses in red brick. It was a clear contrast to the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s ideal of the modernist high rise suburbs.
“It was a return to the classic neighbourhood block. We wanted to have a mix of different social groups in the district. It’s a theme we continued on since then”, says Sundman.
He has worked on many district plans over the years. One of his favourite projects is clearly Arabianranta (Arabiastranden), a district famous for integrating art into the building process (I wrote about it last week, here).
Mikael Sundman comes from the Swedish-speaking minority in the bilingual Finland, and is therefore also proud of how the planning of Arabianranta helped create a small cluster of Swedish-language educational facilities and activities in the district.
As he continues to point out districts on the map, he encourages me to visit the suburb of Vuosaari (Nordsjö) on the eastern outskirts of Helsinki. Vousaari is the site for Helsinki’s new harbour, where cargo port activities are moving. This has opened possibilities for vast new waterfront developments in central Helsinki (more about that in a later report).
But that is not why I’m going there. Vousaari, at the end of the metro line, is a1960’s suburb that has had its share of social problems. Mikael Sundman now sees it as a good example of how you can turn things around through thoughtful urban planning.
“We wanted to lift the standard of the district through higher quality developments on the waterfront. It has had quite an impact”, he says.
On a warm and sunny early summer day, the impression is spectacular as I walk along the beach right in front of the new residential districts (right). The feeling is more Mediterranean than Nordic.
From a population of 14,000 in the late 1980’s the population of Vuosaari is expected to reach 40,000 in the coming decade.
“Helsinki has been allowed to develop at a pace that has been manageable. I think that has been essential. We have never felt pressure from politicians to speed things up”, says Sundman.
“And we as city planners have been given a lot of freedom in our work on the projects”, he adds.

This is the third in a series of reports from Helsinki.

Magnitogorsk in Helsinki; a 1970's development that inspired planners... design a new residential district on Katajanokka/Skatudden.

Living on the beach in the Helsinki suburb Vuosaari/Nordsjö.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Top cities all have view of the Alps

RANKINGS. At an interesting seminar on urban planning last week I learned that all ranking lists of cities and their ”liveability” are pointless, since they are based on such crude measurements.
True, of course. It’s like trying to decide what painting is most beautiful or what food tastes best.
At the same event a person told me that “you’re a journalist, so you must love these ranking lists”.
Also true.
So, here comes another one. London-based Mercer, an international consulting company, has published its 2010 Quality of Living Survey. Here are their top five cities in the world:
1) Vienna, Austria
2) Zürich, Switzerland
3) Geneva, Switzerland
4) Vancouver, Canada
5) Auckland, New Zealand
You could think that one criterion was “must be near the Alps or equivalent” (Munich comes in 7th and Bern, Switzerland, 10th).
Mercer’s survey is intended to help companies to fairly compensate employees depending on where they are based. The rankings take into account 39 factors, grouped into the following ten categories: political stability, economic environment, social freedoms, health and sanitation, schools and education, public services and transportation, recreational activities, availability of goods, housing, natural environment.
The four Nordic capitals in my ongoing study of their status as cities with a high standard of living finish a bit further down than on other lists; Copenhagen is 11th, Stockholm 20th, Oslo 24th and Helsinki 35th.
Baghdad finishes last among the 221 cities in the survey.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Expanding a city centre across mental barriers

STOCKHOLM. In the Swedish capital, living in the “inner city” means everything to a lot of people.
There is no wall around the inner city (the water that surrounds most of it is enough), but the mental barrier that separates it from the “outer city” can be just as hard to penetrate. And remember, Stockholm is a small city by international standards. Only about 300,000 people live in the popular districts of the inner city.
Many more would like to live there and as Stockholm grows city planners are looking for an expansion of the inner city across the barriers separating it from the closest suburbs. The most important ongoing and planned urban development projects are all located on the fringes of the inner city, pushing its borders outwards.
The other day I spent a couple of hours walking around in one of those developments.
On a grey morning in an early summer drizzle there isn’t much going on along the waterfront in Liljeholmen just to the west of Södermalm, the latter being the preferred choice of address for many young professionals in the inner city districts.
Liljeholmen, one of Stockholm’s first suburbs, has been one of the most important regeneration projects in the city for some years. Old industrial sites are turned into office and residential districts, nicely located by the water.
The typical suburban centre is being rejuvenated. The old towering housing blocks of earlier decades overlook the new, modern Liljeholmen down by the water. When finished, thousands of new apartments and workplaces will draw people here. So far about 1,600 new apartments have been completed.
Liljeholmen has excellent public transit (above), with two metro lines connecting with the relatively new transverse light rail service running through a number of Stockholm’s suburbs.
The City of Stockholm has chosen the next phase of the area’s development, the western part of Liljeholmen, to be one of the city’s eco-profile districts. Exactly what this is going to mean is not clear yet, since planning is just getting underway. This new eco-district will be built on privately owned industrial land, which means that the project will not be under direct city control.
When you stand by the new residential buildings on the waterfront, you can see Södermalm a short walk or bicycle trip away (right). But mentally you are still far away from the inner city. Only time will tell if these barriers will crumble eventually.
Hammarby Sjöstad, the city’s first eco-profile district where construction began in the mid 1990’s, is located south of Södermalm on the same waters as Liljeholmen but further to the east. Administratively Hammarby Sjöstad is part of the inner city district Södermalm, despite the separating waters, and mentally feels more connected to the inner city than the suburbs.
The two most important development projects of the future will both expand what is now the inner city of Stockholm.
Stockholm Royal Seaport (called Norra Djurgårdsstaden in Swedish) will be a high profile eco-district adding new density to the eastern fringes of central Stockholm.
Norra Station (North Station) is a huge residential and research cluster development project straddling the wasteland between the northern parts of central Stockholm and the neighbouring municipality of Solna.
By 2020 or so, all these developments might have altered both the physical and the mental map of central Stockholm.

A new residential district on the waterfront in Liljeholmen.

The old housing blocks of Liljeholmen overlook new developments.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The art of building a new city district

HELSINKI/DESIGNING THE FUTURE. Arabianranta on the outskirts of central Helsinki could be just another waterfront development, but it isn’t.
Residents here live in a hub of creativity where art and design has become an important part of everyday life. Courtyards, public spaces and building entrances are given distinct identities through an unusual program of art installations.
This is where Helsinki’s ambitions to be a design city comes together in one place.
“The idea was to have art as an integrated part of the building project. It has been a huge success,” says Mikael Sundman, a legendary Helsinki urban planner who was a driving force in designing the district.
You will hear more from Sundman, who recently retired, in my following reports from the Finnish capital.
I take the number 6 tram from the heart of Helsinki in front of Eliel Saarinen’s classic railway station from 1914 for a 20-minute ride to Arabianranta (the Swedish name – Finland is officially bilingual – is Arabiastranden).
As you might have guessed, this is where the Arabia tableware, a classic in Finnish design, was (and is) made. The first thing you see as you reach the district is the old Arabia factory building (left).
I’m greeted by Tuula Isohanni, a Doctor of Arts at the Aalto University School of Art and Design located here. She has been a key person in making Arabianranta what it is today, coordinating the art installations in the district over the past ten years.
“It has been important to keep everything together. I have tried to think about what we are building for the future here. We have used art to awaken and develop the things that are already here,” says Tuula Isohanni.
Before we tour the area (visitors can pick up a brochure with a map and explanation to the art installations) we visit the complex that has grown out of the original Arabia factory. Here several of the most well known Finnish brands are now under one roof. Arabia was taken over by Iittala (glass) and today both brands, together with several others, are part of the Fiskars (scissors, knives etc) Group.
The Arabia factory can be seen on pre-arranged tours, but the real heart of creativity is found a couple of floors above the intense heat of the huge kilns where the ceramics gets its final shape through 20 hours of firing.
In a long corridor a group of ceramic artists have been given work facilities by the Arabia Art Department Society. The idea is to boost ceramic art in Finland through these independent artists, who work on a freelance basis.
“This is really an ideal situation for us”, says Pekka Paikkari, a veteran artist we run into who has also contributed to Arabianranta’s art work.
When work on the Arabianranta district began in the late 1990's, builders weren’t too happy to put aside the 1-2 percent of building costs for art work as the City of Helsinki required.
“They were not keen on buying something they couldn’t see. And we also had to put limits on the artists. We were not going to have mammoth pieces that cost a lot of money,” says Tuula Isohanni (above, right).
From the beginning some architects and builders were allowed to make arrangements with artists they already had contact with. But as the project grew, Isohanni understood the importance of coordinating the art installations.
“It was really important to make everything fit together.”
Arabianranta is located on the shore of the old Helsinki Bay where some of the earliest settlements of the city were situated. The residential buildings stand on reclaimed land that had to be decontaminated before construction began.
In ten years this wasteland has been turned into a pleasant urban district near water and attractive nature.
The last part of Arabianranta is still under construction and will be completed within two years. By then the district will have some 7,000 inhabitants and be the workplace for 8,000.
The creative hub also houses six educational institutes, mostly focusing on creative arts and technology.
The residential district is heterogenic with different types of housing, from expensive apartments to rentals for lower income groups and students. There are also homes for different groups of people with special needs.
“One early idea was that every entrance should be different and given its own character through artwork,” says Isohanni as we walk around the area.
Some have small pieces of art in the brick walls outside, others have brightly coloured walls in the stairwells (left). The art comes in all shapes and forms. High up on a wall sits a balcony that looks like a birds nest (a cooling-off terrace for a rooftop sauna). Above the entrance to one house you’ll find a birdhouse stuck to a bronze branch that “grows” out of the wall.
Perhaps the most well-known piece of art is the “Arabia Carpet”, a huge oriental carpet made of ceramic tiles. It decorates one of the courtyards, and like most of the artwork has a connection to the history and nature of the place (in this case the name).
In the final part of Arabianranta, the five open courtyards will each have a theme expressed through its artwork; quietude, movement, growth, senses and reflection.
As we come to the end of our tour, Tuula Isohanni shows me a square where the crown jewel of Arabianranta’s artwork soon will be in place. The famous American artist Robert Wilson has designed an urban park with nine square “rooms” separated by vegetation and lit from below.
She fought long and hard for this one. In place, it’s bound to be the highlight of an unusual and successful urban development project.

This is the second in a series of reports from Helsinki.

The Arabia Carpet, designed by Elina Aalto, in an open courtyard.

A giant bird's nest or a balcony?

Arabianranta; a gateway to the sea through works of art.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

To improve cities, keep an open mind

STOCKHOLM. Put away visions of “world class” and don’t try to fit your city into a single brand. Welcome the changes brought in by new multiculturalism and be open to varying concepts of beauty.
Those were some of the messages during an interesting day of thoughts on modern urban development when Stockholm’s City Planning Administration organized a seminar with a group of free thinkers yesterday.
The seminar marked the beginning of a dialogue the City’s planners are asking for in the wake of the recently adopted new City Plan. One of the messages from the speakers was pretty clear:
Don’t let the planning get to rigid, be open for change.
Gerard Reinmuth (right), an Australian architect and a founding director of the architectural firm Terroir with offices in Australia and Denmark, warned of the dangers of grand visions and the constant chase for top positions on league tables ranking cities according to “liveability”.
Using Sydney as an example, Reinmuth argued that such ambitions can be “the greatest inhibitor of becoming a great city”.
“You just create the image of a new city. And those lists are based on incredibly crude measurements,” said Reinmuth, who is a visiting professor at the Aarhus School of Architecture in Denmark and a frequent commentator on urban issues.
Instead Reinmuth encourages politicians and planners to ask themselves what’s wrong with their cities in order to make real progress. But raising the problems, he said as I spoke to him afterwards, might of course lead to cities losing their positions in the global rankings.
I asked him what he thinks about Copenhagen’s and Stockholm’s ambitions to brand themselves as “climate capitals”, or Helsinki as the “design capital” for that matter.
“I find it highly problematic when you try to brand a city around one word. In a way I think it was good when COP 15 (the United Nations Climate Conference) in Copenhagen (below, left) failed. It made everybody take a step back and think about this strategy.”
“Cities often cast themselves as brands. But cities are not Nike.”
“Sustainability” is one of the key words when cities proclaim their visions of “world class”. Reinmuth sees the issue of sustainability mostly as a “branding instrument”. The real issue is the reuse of the existing building stock, he argued, and showed some examples of work that his firm has done in that field.
Instead of aiming for “world class” and bringing in consultants to copy models from elsewhere, Reinmuth would like Stockholm and other cities to try to become “better versions of themselves”.
Do you have an example of a city that has managed to do that?
“I think Melbourne (in Australia) is an example of a city that has had the self confidence to build upon what it’s good at. It has been looking at itself, fixing what needs to be fixed instead of looking too much at other cities.”
Stockholm, like many other cities, is in the midst a big changes with huge urban development and infrastructure projects. There is a heated debate on how to preserve the beauty of the city in times of change.
This debate is often dominated by “nimbyism” and a reluctance to accept new ideas.
Several speakers at the seminar expressed a wish for more open mindedness. Thérèse Kristiansson and Annika Enqvist from a group called the New Beauty Council argued for an acceptance of varying concepts of beauty in the public realm.
Anders Wilhemson, a maverick architect who is no stranger to provocative ideas (he once presented an idea, see illustration below, where the housing shortage in Stockholm 2030 could be solved by placing 500 slim, 54-storey towers throughout the city), simply asked:
“Does the city have to be so huggable?”
Gerard Reinmuth also asked for a re-evaluation on what’s beautiful and what’s ugly, and put the issue in the interesting context of the multiculturalism that’s a fact of life in Stockholm and most other major cities today.
He urged everybody to stop “jamming people into your own model” as global migration changes the faces of cities. Instead Reinmuth suggested that cities help their people understand the added value migration brings, even when it changes the cityscape.
“Stockholm today is not like Stockholm 500 years ago. Should the clock have been stopped 500 years ago?” Reinmuth asked.
My mind wandered off to London, where I on a recent visit saw the famous mosque on Brick Lane (right). As the population of the district changed over the years, the building has been used as a Protestant chapel, a Methodist chapel, a synagogue and now it’s a mosque. The only controversy seems to be whether the new “minaret” attached to the building actually is a minaret or a “large steel art sculpture” as the local authorities see it.
Sweden and many other European countries may have a long way to go before accepting the multicultural urbanity Reinmuth advocates, which countries like Australia and Canada and cities like London and New York embraces.
“This fear of losing your own thing is just a lack of confidence. What you will get is an evolutionized version of Sweden”, said Reinmuth.
In a day full of thought-provoking ideas Jens Lanvin, a trend analyst from the Swedish communication consultancy Bodén & Co, put his finger on an important factor for the development of Stockholm’s future.
“Leadership is crucial for both the present and long term success of the city. This is difficult with the changes in politics that we regularly see. I wish we had a more long-term approach.”

Copyright: Wilhelmson Arkitekter/Vasco Trigueiros (ill.), Pressens Bild (photo)
Architect Anders Wilhelmson's idea of solving Stockholm's housing shortage.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Design and development, hand in hand

HELSINKI/DESIGNING THE FUTURE. When the international magazine Monocle, a barometer of coolness, names Helsinki as one of the top five cities in the world the live in it’s a sign of the dramatic changes the Finnish capital has gone through.
Go back to the early 90’s and the image of the city was people lining up at soup kitchens for a free meal as Finland suffered through a deep economic crisis with a whopping 20 percent unemployment rate.
That’s when things began to change. City authorities forged a strategy where the strong Finnish traditions in design would be used as a lever to raise the city from the economic ruins.
Now Helsinki is getting ready to be World Design Capital (WDC) in 2012 and the international media is already focusing attention on this Finnish miracle (Monocle was said to be in town when I visited Helsinki last week).
“In 1994 the city decided on a strategy where creativity and culture would be worked into the city brand. Something new came into our thinking. And it has simply continued since then”, says Pekka Timonen, the City’s Director of Culture who now heads preparations for WDC 2012.
“Branding can sometimes be seen as controversial. But we have quite openly said that we aim to be one of the leading design cities of the world, and not only when we are World Design Capital but also after that year”, says Timonen.
Being World Design Capital is not an award, but a designation for a city chosen by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design biennially. Helsinki will be the third WDC, after Turin (2008) and Seoul (2010).
Pekka Timonen already has a busy schedule, not only with Helsinki’s own preparations but also with visiting delegations from cities that want to learn from the Finnish capital. Beijing and Kobe are just two of those, with their own ambitions to be chosen design capitals.
Visitors to Helsinki enjoy classic design products from companies like Iittala (glass), Arabia (china) and Marimekko (textiles), mobile phones from Nokia or architecture by giants like Alvar Aalto.
A part of the capital with plenty of small, independent shops now calls itself Design District Helsinki.
“The Design District is a grass roots movement”, says Timonen, and mentions it as one example of how the WDC-designatiion “didn’t come out of nowhere”.
Many leading Finnish companies, like Nokia, depend on good design for their success. And design is very much part of daily life in Finland. The theme for Helsinki’s bid for the WDC was “embedding design in life”.
“One reason why we were chosen was that we have a long background and tradition as a design city. Another was that design is so much a part of our identity. We have a way of finding sustainable, aesthetic, enjoyable and high quality solutions from often scarce and poor sources”, says Pekka Timonen (left).
“And this is not so easy to copy.”
But Finnish design is not only about a beautiful vase or a slick mobile phone. Helsinki has what Timonen calls a “holistic approach” towards design. Everything from a major urban development project to the little doorknob can be improved through design.
“Design is about creating a better city for the end user. There are design challenges everywhere. Traffic solutions, energy solutions and many other functions can be improved by design”, says Timonen.
In my following reports from Helsinki we will see how design has played an important role in Helsinki’s urban development.
This city with some 600,000 inhabitants is small by international standards. The extended metropolitan region has a population of about 1.3 million. Neighbouring cities Espoo, Vantaa, Kauniainen and Lahti share the WDC-designation with Helsinki.
The region has experienced a dramatic geopolitical change that came when the Soviet empire crumbled in the early 90’s. All of a sudden Finland wasn’t an isolated island between east and west, carefully watched by the rulers in the Kremlin.
New markets opened up in the independent Baltic States, with Estonian capital Tallinn just a two hour ferry ride from Helsinki. And the Finnish capital became a gateway to the east. The national airline Finnair’s excellent connections to the booming urban giants of the Far East have become a success.
And these developments are far from over. By the end of this year, Helsinki will get a new high speed train connection with St. Petersburg in Russia. Travel time will be cut to three and a half hours, down from nearly six hours today, and formalities will be eased.
This is set to become another boost for Helsinki’s economy. St. Petersburg is the often forgotten sleeping giant of Europe, with nearly 5 million inhabitants the fourth largest city on the continent.
Pekka Timonen underlines that being World Design Capital 2012 will not be seen as a celebration of what Helsinki has achieved, but rather as a beginning of a new era.
“This designation is not only about what you are, but what you are capable of becoming. This is an operation for the future.”

This is the first in a series of reports from Helsinki. In the following stories we will look at ongoing and planned urban development on a massive scale.

Classic design; Helsinki Railway Station by Eliel Saarinen.

Design comes in all shapes and forms in the capital's Design District.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Politicians vie for "bicycle helmet liberals"

STOCKHOLM. We’ve heard of “latte liberals”, those modern urbanites with a keen eye on the trend of the day.
I hadn’t heard of “bicycle helmet liberals” before I read Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter this morning, where the culture editor used the term to describe an urban class with an interest in making minimal ecological footprints.
These people, constantly growing in numbers as the Swedish capital becomes more like its bicycle crazy Danish counterpart Copenhagen, are becoming an important group in Stockholm as Sweden heads towards national and municipal elections later this year.
Svenska Dagbladet, the other Stockholm morning paper, ran a big story this weekend on how the city’s politicians are beginning to look for votes from the bicyclist with promises of improvements in biking conditions.
The number of bicyclists on Stockholm’s street have grown rapidly in the last couple of years and almost doubled in the past ten years. City authorities encourage this and would very much like Stockholm to have Copenhagen’s reputation as a bicycle capital.
But the bicycle scene in Stockholm is much more chaotic. The paper interviews Lena Maria Hagensen, a Stockholm resident who lived ten years in Copenhagen and can compare the two cities.
In the Danish capital, Hagensen says, the bicycle is a form of transport equal to cars.
“As a bicyclist in Stockholm you are downgraded. Car driver’s awareness of bicyclist is non-existent. In Copenhagen bicyclists and drivers communicate”, says Hagensen to Svenska Dagbladet.
Bicycle planning in Stockholm has many deficiencies that are pointed out in the story. Politicians from the opposition leftist and green parties promise more money for investments in bicycle lanes and other improvements.
When Swedes go to the polls in September we’ll see if this is enough to attract the “bicycle helmet liberals”.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Iconic stadium gets a facelift

HELSINKI. It’s a classic stadium and one of the landmarks of this pleasant city. Now the Helsinki Olympic Stadium, used for the 1952 Summer Games, is getting a facelift to keep it up to date as a sports venue and preserve it as a symbol of elegant Finnish design.
Helsinki is beginning preparations for what might be the city’s biggest event since the Olympics when it becomes the World Design Capital in 2012. The Finnish capital has gone through a remarkable development since the gloomy days of the deep economic crisis of the early 1990s.
I just got back from a trip to Helsinki. Beginning next week, I will write a series of reports on how design has become a driving force in the development of the new Helsinki.
The Olympic Stadium is a must for every visitor to Helsinki. The stadium was originally built to host the 1940 Olympics, games that were never held due to World War II. It was designed by Finnish architects Yrjö Lindegren and Toivo Jäntti in a sleek, functionalistic style.
The 72-metre tower (above) ha become the symbol of the stadium. From the top of the tower visitors get a nice view of the city.
The Olympic Stadium has hosted two World Championships in athletics (track & field), in 1983 and 2005. This being a national sport of Finland, it’s only natural that a statue of former running giant Paavo Nurmi stands outside the stadium.
Right now the stadium is a bit of a construction site, as a new football pitch and a new running track are laid out. Later this year the tower will be renovated. The stadium will be back in use in August with a two-night concert with rock giants U2.
Helsinki is already full of old style posters advertising another milestone event that will take place in the stadium in February 2011, when the two local ice hockey clubs Jokerit and HIFK will meet in an outdoor game in front a of an expected capacity crowd of over 40,000 spectators.

Running giant Paavo Nurmi in front of the classic Olympic Stadium.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Water as an inspiration for architecture

COPENHAGEN/CITY OF ARCHITECTURE. Kim Herforth Nielsen (below) only has to look out his office windows to see a source of inspiration for his architecture.
“The water in itself adds quality to this city”, he says of the extensive harbour front of Copenhagen that houses a lot of the city’s new architecture.
Danish architecture has risen to new heights over the past decade. Kim Herforth Nielsen’s firm 3XN is one of the standard-bearers in this wave of success that has reached far beyond the borders of tiny Denmark.
Copenhagen has become a center of creativity. Next to 3XN’s office in the pleasant Christianshavn district lies Noma, recently named the world’s best restaurant. The two are working together as the research department of 3XN is developing a food laboratory for Noma, to be placed on a house boat.
The connection to water is present in many 3XN projects. It’s definitely the theme for what is bound to be one of the firm’s signature buildings – the new Danish Aquarium called The Blue Planet (Den Blå Planet in Danish) that is being built just outside Copenhagen near Kastrup Airport.
In The Blue Planet water is the inspiration for everything, not least the shape of the building. Passengers on approaching flights will see a building that looks like swirling water when it’s finished in 2013.
Another of Copenhagen’s major building projects designed by 3XN will also define the city’s new waterfront. A new “UN City” that will house six United Nations local offices under one roof will be part of a spectacular development of Marmormolen on the inlet to Copenhagen’s harbour.
The star-shaped office complex is set to become one of the more significant buildings in a part of Copenhagen where the future is being shaped. Next door planning is under way to create a model for sustainable urban development at Nordhavnen (Northern Harbour) where eventually 40,000 people will live in a district that is meant to shape the future of city life.
“Nordhavnen clearly has qualities that can make it special”, says Kim Herforth Nielsen, whose visions for architecture have been in focus in Copenhagen the past months with a big exhibition at the Danish Architecture Centre (left).
Titled “Mind Your Behaviour”, the exhibition (which closed May 13, but continues online here) deals with 3XN’s idea that architecture can shape people’s behaviour. In a number of projects on display the viewer gets a demonstration of how architecture affects behaviour.
One prominent example is the Ørestad College in the new Copenhagen city district with the same name. With open, flexible spaces permitting easy interaction, the building helps students work in line with the intentions of the Danish school system. A huge central staircase dominates the interior of the building, which is seen as revolutionary solution to the design of modern educational institutions.
Nearby a new 3XN-designed hotel complex, to be called Bella Sky (below, right) , is nearing completion. In an example of playful architecture, the two leaning towers of the hotel can be seen as a dancing couple.
3XN was originally founded as Nielsen, Nielsen and Nielson in Århus in Jutland in the Western part of Denmark. Now the firm under the leadership of Kim Herforth Nielsen has offices in Copenhagen and Århus.
Their work is described as “based on the Scandinavian tradition of functionality and aesthetics, although not bound by tradition”.
Kim Herforth Nielsen agrees with outgoing Copenhagen City Architect Jan Christiansen, interviewed earlier in this series of reports, in his view that Danish architecture has developed rapidly lately.
Ten years ago, when foreign architects were lured to Copenhagen through international competitions for prestigious projects, it gave inspiration to a Danish architecture that Kim Herforth Nielsen says was “frozen” to a standstill.
“Since then a lot of good things have been done here. Of course, some things have not been that good. Here at our office we have really seen a lot of development the past six years or so”, says Kim Herforth Nielsen.
He thinks the city’s high ambitions to be “world class” when it comes to architecture, outlined in a new architectural policy document, has helped the development of Danish architecture.
“After all, the talk of world class isn’t such a bad idea. Same thing goes for the architectural policy. Just the fact that we are talking about it is a good thing”, says Nielsen.

This is the fourth and final in a series of reports on architecture in Copenhagen.

Copyright: 3XN
The Blue Planet aquarium looks like swirling water from above.

The open spaces of the revolutionary Ørestad College.

The Saxo Bank headquarters, designed by 3XN, in Hellerup north of Copenhagen.

Copyright: 3XN
The "UN City" office complex will be a signature building on Copenhagen's waterfront.