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.