Strait Culture and Art Centre, Fuzhou, China. Image: PES-Architects 2014.
Strait Culture and Art Centre, Fuzhou, China. Image: PES-Architects 2014.

Pekka Salminen’s PES-Architects victorious in China

When discussing the international promotion of Finnish architectural expertise, Professor Pekka Salminen is the right person to explain what the export of architecture means in practice and what could be done in Finland to promote it. The inspiring studio of PES-Architects, whose head office is situated in Marjaniemi in Helsinki, has been involved already for decades in international projects, for instance in Russia, Iraq, Yemen, Europe and even China. Pekka Salminen, in addition to being a member of the Finnish Association of Architects (SAFA) is also a member of the Association of Croatian Architects as well as head of the International Union of Architects (UIA) Sports and Leisure workgroup.

The best known of PES-Architects’ international projects is probably the Marienkirchen concert hall in Neubrandenburg, Germany, completed in 2001. Presently, the focus in the office is China: since 2003, PES-Architects, under the direction of Pekka Salminen, Jarkko Salminen and Tuomas Silvennoinen, has carried out over eighty projects there, half of which have been architectural competitions and 12 of which have been rewarded with the first prize.

They recently completed their biggest project to date, an opera house in Wuxi, a city of 5 million inhabitants. PES-Architects won the commission following a tight and quick-paced international architectural competition, the results of which were announced in 2008. Their latest triumph is the first prize in an invited competition for the design of the Strait Culture and Art Centre in the City of Fuzhou. The Fuzhou culture centre comprises an opera with 1,660 seats, a multi-purpose theatre with 600 seats, a concert hall with 800 seats, an art museum, a film centre, and commercial premises in connection with a metro station. The total floor area of the culture centre is 128,000 m2.

As a courtesy of Professor Salminen and Arkkitehtiuutiset, we republish an English translation of Pekka Salminen’s interview from 2009. For the Wuxi opera house, see  Finnish Architectural Review 1/2014.

Strait Culture and Art Centre, Fuzhou, China. Image: PES-Architects 2014.

Strait Culture and Art Centre, Fuzhou, China. Image: PES-Architects 2014.

From Marjaniemi to the world – Pekka Salminen’s thoughts on architecture as an export

Of the member offices of the Association of Finnish Architects’ Offices (ATL), less than 15% of have mentioned participation in foreign projects. What has made you and your office, which by Finnish standards is of a normal size, embark on an expanding international career?

Both my career and office have from the very beginning been international. I was the first person in Finland to graduate with a “building designer” (B.Sc. level) qualification. I then went on to study at Helsinki University of Technology to become a qualified and acredited architect. I first worked in Aarne Ervi’s office, where foreign architects were continually being employed and we continuously entered international architecture competitions. Then I went to work in Timo Penttilä’s office. In his office there were international architecture competitions all the time, and in the preparation of proposals I was always the main assistant. In Penttilä’s office I learnt to speak German. When the design of the Helsinki City Theatre began I made my first trip abroad to acquaint myself with theatres in Europe, and from this period stems my personal friendships with many German architects. Like all Finns, I am shy and I do not speak any single foreign language properly, and yet I speak, albeit poorly, foreign languages every day. I am not afraid to operate abroad and with foreigners.

My office has already for a long time had both architectural operations and other product development and export operations abroad, but with the EU genuine opportunities for an internationalisation became available. In 1996, if I remember correctly, we participated in seven international pre-registered invited architectural competitions consecutively. The success in the Marienkirchen competition, together with the EU, really opened up new globalisation angles for a Finnish architect.

The design of the Helsinki-Vantaa airport (1993–99) was also an important project in terms of internationalisation. In 1995 I flew to Hong Kong after discovering that there was an international seminar taking place there on designing Asian and Chinese airports.

I returned home excited and set about finding a partner. However, I did not manage to find one, and no interest arose; the idea seemed quite alien to everybody. Eventually the then head of the Finnish Civil Aviation Administration wrote us a recommendation, giving an assurance of our expertise. Not a single penny of financial assistance was made available, however. I decided that our office would focus on Croatia and Germany because I was familiar with these countries from before and there were contacts already in place.

Then, I received a telephone call from an old friend, Professor Yrjö Kukkapuro. He told me about a Chinese architect, Fang Hai, who had completed a doctoral thesis at the School of Industrial Arts in Helsinki in 2004, and who had lived in Finland with his family for a long time. Hai had been asking around whether there was any interest in offering Finnish architectural design services to China. There they were looking for an international office to participate in an architectural competition for a residential area in the very centre of Beijing.

The project in question turned out to be a typically Chinese affair – nothing came of the competition. By chance, however, during the autumn of the same year the Non-Schengen terminal of Helsinki-Vantaa Airport (1999–2004) was about to be completed, and when choosing the granite for the floors the issue of China cropped up again. We went to China to take a closer look at the different stone alternatives. I took along brochures of our own work to show the head of Wuhan Airport, and I was told that there would very soon be an architecture competition for an international airport there, and we managed to get to participate in it. Soon we were also invited to participate in the competition for the administration centre for the Wuhan Economic and Technological Development Zone, and thus an opening emerged. This was the beginning of our relationship with our present partners.

When discussing Finnish architecture abroad, one easily looks to Alvar Aalto’s heritage. What does Finnish contemporary architecture have to offer the world?

In Finland there are presently quite a few international-level architects. Our expertise is at the highest level internationally, and as such there are no problems with international success. But there are plenty of other problems linked to fees, construction and other conventions in the sector. How things operate internationally often appears alien to a newcomer. Particularly on the engineering side, you notice if there is a lack of previous export experience and knowledge; it is difficult to get used to all the twists and turns, continuous changes and hectic timetables.

A particular area where we are clearly lagging behind is in ecological building. The lack of expertise in this area is the largest problem in export. The problem is that in the past in Finland the steerage by the National Board of Building was very strict and all experimental building and product development was really forbidden. Engineering expertise is lacking and the number of people with expertise in ecological building is very small.

We Finns manage in terms of architectural quality, but the ability to respond to major ecological challenges internationally is lacking. Here it is thought that tall buildings should not be built at all. In Asia the situation is quite different: building dense and tall is the only option because the infrastructure – beginning with water and sewer maintenance – for millions of people is so expensive. We are unable to respond to such issues; the size class of international design projects is so large. Using domestic partners, particularly at the preliminary design stage, is natural and to be supported because otherwise you would have to establish an office on location abroad and buy the expertise there. This is too expensive for a small office.

One of the strengths of Finnish architecture education is its diversity: both urban planning and building design are part of the basic education. What kind of readiness do Finnish architects have when it comes to international work?

Diversity is definitely our strength, but also our expertise in technology is of a high level. Young Finnish architects are in a class of their own when it comes to experience, expertise and overall preparedness.

Young architects have also to their credit shown an increasing interest in issues linked with business and project management. The work of an architect is not purely art, nor is it purely technology, and not at all commercial business or at least not a profitable one. But it is still a business enterprise and running an office with certain ethical principles requires its own expertise. I myself wrote guidelines for my office already very early on; that we would operate under the principles of commercial business but not solely the profit objectives of commercial business. We were able to undertake projects with even catastrophic commercial losses. Only later have we also taken on objectives that aim for stability with regard to commercial business and economics.

Even though architectural design is team work and an expert service, it requires a strong vision and strong leadership. What it is like to be at the helm of multicultural design projects on foreign soil and operating in a foreign language?

International projects demand, more than anything else, the right attitude. There are no timetables, and if there are, they do not apply or are so horrendous that you just have to adapt. You must be able to tolerate an enormous amount of uncertainty. Business enterprise requires risk taking – as well as mental and economic self-confidence. Architectural export requires solid resources because commissions come via competitions and participation in them is expensive: in addition to the design work itself, you must produce a book presenting the design, a large scale model and multimedia presentation, and you must have the readiness to travel to the location to create contacts and to present your own work.

The continuous travelling as well as the sudden swerves in developments eats into your self-confidence: you must fly to the location if you receive an invitation. Agreement negotiations are a chapter in itself: everything is very uncertain and you have to complete the work even though there is no certainty about being awarded the commission. Gentleman’s agreements do not apply unless you keep your wits about you. The contracts are fine tuned again and again, and, for example, an already agreed upon specialist design team can easily be bypassed. The payment of fees is worth another chapter: payments in Euros are not always possible and you have to be able to manage export credit guarantees and currency risks as well.

In China you must also tolerate the fact that implementation is carried out on site with Chinese design manpower. For example, we won the design competition for the administration centre for the Wuhan Economic and Technological Development Zone in 2004; this is one of the finest projects we have ever carried out with Tuomas Silvennoinen. The implementation, however, did not follow our design. The reflective pool in front of the building was not built, and there are no solar panels on the roof, but the overall shape of the building roughly remains the same. The form is copied but not with the exactness it should have been. We believed for a long time that we would be the chief designers of the project, but in China they are only looking for ideas and implementation always remains under their control. The notion of copyright in China is different. For them it is obvious that the monetary compensation for the competition proposal gives them all rights to utilise the idea to the quality level that they themselves deem best.

In China we have also carried out quite a lot of housing designs, and it was in this area that the major part of our direct commissions have come. The idea of dense and low-scale building could also have been imported from China to Finland. We believed that the large volume of work would compensate for the small fees, but in the case of foreigners this turned out not to be the case.

The strategy of our office seems to be to concentrate more on challenging public buildings, for which we have strong references from earlier. The problem is that in China the administrators choose who gets to implement the work, but the country does not have local expertise in implementation planning. The administrators also want to build something impressive. The country can afford it, but they do not understand what impressive building and high-quality architecture require in practice.

Finnish architecture firms are rather small and some sort of ideal of a lonely hero is perhaps still prevalent. The export of architecture, however, requires extensive cooperation and lots of resources. What kinds of attitudes have you yourself encountered here in Finland?

The lack of economic support here is a central problem. Around three years ago we ourselves were in the situation where continuous competition activity had taken too great a toll on our resources and we needed external support. With the support of the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation (TEKES), we carried out a market study, which looked good but revealed that becoming established in the local markets was too expensive for us.

Despite our expectations, we have not received any direct commissions; if you would really want them, some leading architect from a Finnish architecture firm would be required to be located there. Finland does not have world-famous architects and other itinerant star architects to offer, so Finnish expertise has to be marketed to the clients. You have to make do with your own personal input. The competitions are therefore the only option, and they end up being expensive.

Our own office’s situation is clear, in that we are presently working on the Wuxi Opera House, the foundation stone of which is due to be laid next August. We would also have references for the design of large projects such as airports, but in the competitions for these we are up against the world’s largest architect firms.

The export of architecture also has its down sides. In the case of international architecture, people talk about a new cultural imperialism, which contributes to the disappearance of authentic architecture and to homogenisation. What kind of ethical questions have you considered when working on international commissions?

There are architects from many different countries working in our office. My wife Telle and I regard our foreign architect employees like our own children. Critical viewpoints have been expressed about architecture as an export but for us it has been clear already for a long time that through our own actions we are also carrying out important development cooperation work; we promote communication and cooperation between people.

All kinds of voluntary cultural activities are also linked with architecture. Together with Telle, we have founded an architecture centre in Croatia and have been involved in regenerating a particular Croatian village for already twenty years. In gratitude, we received the highest cultural award from the Croatian state. I am still an idealist: you could say that at that time everything I earned in Finland I took to Croatia.

Unlike in Finland, in China they want grand architectural ideas. There you could act as a cultural imperialist: design, do as they want, build it cheap and fast, and take the money. The challenge is to both produce architecture and to build better than the local level; striving for quality in building, sustainability and ecological innovations such as, for example, the use of geothermal heating pumps and ocean thermal energy pumps. There is not much readiness for this in China and unfortunately we could not push through our own ecological objectives in the design of the Wuxi Opera House. Everybody must personally seek their own ethical approach.

In the 1970s and 1980s people talked about the export of planning services but now we talk about the export of architecture services. Is the export of architecture different from that of planning? Have there been some decisive changes in the mood since the 1970s and 1980s?

It is true that the concepts have changed. The large international firms are, above all, planning offices. In the case of Ervi, Penttilä and Siren, one talked specifically about architecture as an export and their international architectural projects.

The export of both planning and architecture services still exists. In my own case, it is difficult to imagine that our office would export anything else than architecture. Also for this reason, we are mainly interested in building projects for which we have earlier experience and high-class references. For the same reason, I do not want to give up on the comprehensiveness of the commissions and the overall responsibility of our office from project planning to implementation planning. So also here you can not talk about cultural imperialism, but rather of the export of expertise.

According to the report “Business Models for Cultural Exports”, published in 2006 and commissioned by the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation (TEKES), the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Trade and Industry and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the most important areas in the development of cultural exports are developing the exportability and expertise of professionals as well as supporting spearhead projects. The Ministry of Education’s Programme for Cultural Export Promotion 2007–2011 wants to elevate the creative and cultural sectors as equal and recognised export sectors. However, architecture is not mentioned in either of these reports. What does this tell us and what in your opinion could be a spearhead architecture export project?

The fact that architecture is not mentioned when discussing Finnish cultural exports is an utter disgrace, and tells us something about the national architectural climate. There are plenty of pretty speeches but absolutely no practical support.

Even cooperation within the architect profession seems to be quite difficult. There have always been various export teams and work groups; brochures have been produced, but what use are brochures featuring all Finnish architecture firms? Scant resources and conflicts of interest are tricky issues. One should invest in export in earnest.

The export of architecture could be promoted efficiently, for instance by utilising the Shanghai World Expo 2010. In connection with it, some kind of Finnish Design Centre could be established. There has already been some talk about this and preliminary discussions have been held between different operators in the sector. There is keenness but real investments are still missing. As a private firm we do not feel that we can act as an export promoter for all Finnish architecture; for this, larger and more extensive investment is needed, a national export bureau.

Finnish architecture still has that something that is a real selling point. The key issues in exporting Finnish architecture is a preparedness to go and have a look, and to seize the opportunity, as well as the fact that there is something to export – international-quality architecture and good planning expertise.

English translation: Gareth Griffiths.
Interview with Pekka Salminen by Anni Vartola previously published in Arkkitehtiuutiset, 4/2009.

Strait Culture and Art Centre, Fuzhou, China. Image: PES-Architects 2014.

Strait Culture and Art Centre, Fuzhou, China. Image: PES-Architects 2014.

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