For architects, Europan represents one of the largest and perhaps also the most exciting competition organisations in the world. Directed at young professionals of the architectural and urban design under 40 years of age and with a European degree or working in Europe, the Europan competitions have gathered talent and enthusiasm since their formation in 1988. In this exclusive interview, architects Emmi Keskisarja and Miia-Liina Tommila, members of the Finnish-Norwegian team behind the winning proposal ‘Kaleidoscope’ for Europan 12 in Norway, discuss their project, their working methods and their future plans as young international architects.
Architecture between realism and surrealism
There are many who dream of winning an international architectural competition, but few throw themselves into producing a competition proposal as unreservedly as Emmi Keskisarja (b. 1984), who graduated from the school of architecture at Tampere University of Technology in 2012, and Miia-Liina Tommila (b. 1980), who graduated from the Bergen School of Architecture in Norway in 2011. They had no previous experience of architecture competitions, nor did they know each other prior to their Europan competition collaboration, which culminated in them winning the competition. “We didn’t know each other previously. We first met following on from an event at Aalto University for the launch of Add Lab’s ‘Metaphysics’ book. A mutual tango-enthusiast friend introduced one Argentinean tango-enthusiast architect to another”, explain the architects about their first meeting, as if it had been written in the stars.
Tampere, Bergen, Helsinki, Shanghai, Peking, Moskow, Istanbul, Asker
The architects describe the combination of realism and fantasy typical for Europan competitions as fascinating. “The Europan system has a good reputation in Norway. There are several young offices there that have their beginnings in a Europan victory. In Norway winning proposals have also been implemented and there is a good organisation behind the competitions”, explains Tommila. “In the competitions it is almost expected that new kinds of worlds are created, as well as new approaches and presentations”, adds Keskisarja. Both appreciate the opportunity that the architecture competition has provided to use their time freely on things that cannot always be justified in terms of their usefulness and productivity, unlike in the daily work of an architect.
The competition team was formed together with Tommila’s friends from her student days, Tone Berge and Silje Klepsvik. Keskisarja, who works in different parts of the world, did not meet the Norwegians until June 2013. There was no internal work division among the team. They met weekly on Skype and shared image files via a dropbox folder. A couple of holiday cottage weekends were reserved for more intensely paced team work. “We had weekly tasks set out. For example, we could look for artistic references, write a story, carry out a building plot analysis or construct a visual map. One person continued from where the other left off. We used multistage processes and a variety of different methods through which the work evolved. The good ideas were retained and the bad ones weeded out”, says Keskisarja in describing the work process. Essential was a good, mutual democracy. The design team did not have a problem that often exists in such work, namely a leadership problem: “Ideas were shared, all material produced was shared.”
Keskisarja describes the team’s work methods as one of continuous editing: “We write each other’s texts, we edit the images. After a while it is impossible to say who wrote what or who was the originator of which idea.” According to Tommila, the Bergen education philosophy was helpful: “Bergen has a reputation as an alternative school of architecture. We were given very few guidelines. The objective of the education was that the students are forced to develop their own methods, and individuality is strongly supported.”
The resources that Tampere’s architecture education has provided were very different from those in Bergen. Tommila praises the agility in being able to jump into open cooperation that international experience has provided Keskisarja. Keskisarja feels that Finnish education is perhaps too practical, yet praises the strong research approach in Tampere that she has gained so much from. She also states that she has learnt that one should not be afraid of the unknown: “I have been involved also in other things than the daily practice of architecture; I have carried out research and held my own design and research workshops where one proceeds with crazy timetables, in completely alien surroundings and with complete strangers and unknown institutions. It was easy to throw oneself into yet another new organisation. I worked with the competition design team at the same time I was in Moscow, Beijing, Shanghai and Istanbul.”
New, with a light touch, yet strongly cohesive
Tommila and Keskisarja describe the premises of Norway’s Europan 12 competition as uniquely wonderful. The task was to develop new uses for a previously almost completely self-reliant psychiatric hospital area, Dikemark, the services of which are being transferred elsewhere. The buildings in the area were built in the early 1900s and are today protected. The challenge of the architects was to look behind the beautiful mysticism, because the old picturesque buildings on their own are insufficient to ensure that the area is interesting. “A new use relying on a single agent is not the solution. The area is presently in crisis because the activities have been based on a single agent, the psychiatric hospital. Only a truly multi-dimensional strategy can ensure a sustainable future”, says Keskisarja in describing the challenges of the planning. The site is situated in the outskirts of the municipality of Asker, and is part of the rapidly growing Greater Oslo Region.
The architects define the design team’s architectural concept as having its starting point in the location and context. The largest problems of the design task lie, in Keskisarja and Tommila’s opinion, in financing and in the complex land ownership relationships. “Investments are needed so that there will be funding for the repair of the protected buildings. Renovation that fulfils current housing standards can, however, be a risk to the unique character of the old buildings”, explains Keskisarja. As a solution, the architects developed models of owner-occupied development, where new construction is placed around an old building. “The idea is that the residents will invest in the renovation and in turn obtain the right to use a shared space in the old building.”
The core idea was to preserve coherence. According to Tommila, the basic premise was to give the new parts of the plan the same weighting as the existing building stock already had. “We used a lot of time investigating why the area is unique in terms of its architecture and which parts generate the typology of the area. For example, the gables of the facades point in a certain direction and form their own network. The area also comprises buildings that are designed as mirror images of each other, which creates for the area an odd mystique of its own. Additionally, the area is very beautiful in terms of its landscape, a kind of garden with an interesting topography,” adds Keskisarja.
Kaleidoscope as metaphor
A strong and unique character was developed for each area in the proposal. A second insight in the competition entry was based on the fully mixed and diverse functions of the area. “One of my favourites was a building which contained a boiler room, bakery, coal storage and washing facilities – all in the same building”, laughs Tommila. The ‘Kaleidoscope’ competition entry proposed housing, buildings linked to the tourist industry as well as business enterprises in the restaurant, nature and recreational sectors. The concept of Landscape Twist expanded the scheme also to the architecture of the landscape and terrain. “We also shaped the terrain and it became an element that brought together and unified the different sub-areas.” The design team developed a clear 7-step investment plan: “As a first step, we suggested establishing a publically defined desired state”, explain Tommila and Keskisarja when talking about the implementation plan.
The purpose in the competition work was to offer the opportunity to proceed by feeling one’s way forward. The architects studied what could be done immediately and how to create something new from the existing buildings by means of small modifications. “When looking for the potential of the various buildings, we proposed experimentally in one of the buildings only minor repairs, excellent lighting and a temporary pop-up restaurant by a top chef”, states Keskisarja. “The area enables combining a semi-urban lifestyle, food production, housing and commercial enterprise,” explains Tommila. They criticise the ‘one idea is enough’ architectural thinking typical in Finland. “It really is not enough,” Tommila and Keskisarja exclaim indignantly.
The strength of the winning competition entry was undoubtedly the easy fusion of new and old. “We wanted to study our own attitudes and change our own perspective,” explains Keskisarja regarding the thinking of the design team. “We wanted to distance ourselves from the time trap and historical cuteness.” The form language of new construction was based on the carefully researched gables of the old buildings. The second set of lines was obtained from the contour lines of the terrain. The combination created something familiar, but without a clear intentional fixed point.
It takes two to tango
The design team expended a lot of energy familiarising themselves with the history of the area, the typology of its architecture and the topology of its landscape. The sub-areas have always had their own mutually fine-tuned hierarchy that the new plan simply tuned further and clarified. In a way, the plan realises the ideal phenomenological reduction in architecture’s own language. The authors of the scheme studied the location and peeled away layers bringing out specifically the very essence of that place. The new was built on the basis of this finding. The old has been preserved as an element of the new, but time has not been halted. “Even though we have created our own world, it is just the beginning. Up to now, we have studied only those rules and typological proposals within the framework of which one can begin to develop the area together with the municipality of Asker,” explain the architects and they quote the chairman of the competition jury, Beatriz Ramo, who criticised many of the proposals, paralysed by the difficult plot, for their excessively gentle and small-scale overall approach.
The work in Norway continues. The inhabitants of Dikemark have wished for a stronger connection to the water and to preserve the shoreline zone for outdoor and recreational use. The architects have already initiated collaboration: the development of the plan has been investigated in workshops and the preparation of a master plan is due to commence. Keskisarja is also beginning an arts-based doctoral thesis, and both continue their daily jobs as architects in Helsinki. New challenges include an invitation to be jury members in the CanActions 2014 festival competition for students of architecture in the Ukraine, aimed at architects under 35 years old.
They maintain their own sensitivity through music and tango. Tommila has a musician background: she has worked as both a violinist and conductor. The passion of both is Argentinean tango. Keskisarja’s forthcoming doctoral thesis will look at the connection between dance and architecture and the relationship of the body to space. “Dance has taught me a sensitivity to space. Tango is improvisation and the movements are born from the chemistry between the couple with the help of the laws of physics. Additionally, music attunes you to a more sensitive frequency. In my doctoral thesis I want to study how an architect can convey the message of the feelings that she experiences through her own body to the end user of the space that she has designed. We talk about phenomenology and architecture but how is it actually done?”
A part of the competition prize money will go to funding further cooperational work between Emmi Keskisarja, Miia-Liina Tommila, Silje Klepsvik and Tone Berge. Ahead lies more bold plunges, combining seamless artistic design with analytical research as well as international, creative team work – as well as tango. Let us hope that there lies ahead also a new chapter in the international success story of young Finnish architecture.
Text by Anni Vartola.
English translation: Gareth Griffiths.