Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw 2013. Rainer Mahlamäki / Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects. Photo by Pawel Paniczko.
Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw 2013. Rainer Mahlamäki / Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects. Photo by Pawel Paniczko.

Finlandia Prize for Architecture 2014: Sixten Korkman propagating for a high-quality built environment

The Finnish Association of Architects (SAFA) has awarded our nation’s first Finlandia Prize for Architecture to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, located in Warsaw, Poland, which was completed in 2013. The chief architect of the building is Professor Rainer Mahlamäki of the architecture firm Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects. Architecture Information Centre Finland discussed with professor of economics Sixten Korkman, who selected the winner of the prize, about the significance of architecture in Finland.

An economist as a judge of architecture

What did you think about being invited to be the judge for the Finlandia Prize for Architecture?
I was baffled and my first thought was to decline the invitation because I don’t have the particular qualifications to assess architecture. But that is, after all, how it is with other Finlandia Prizes, too; the expert jury chooses the candidates and a ‘layman’ makes the final choice. The person is not expected to be an expert in the field, but having the reputation of a trustworthy, sensible citizen is enough. The task was thus quite flattering.

I share the same interests as the organisation responsible for the prize, which is also somewhat linked to economics. I consider the significance of architecture and a high-quality built environment to be extremely important. I am happy to participate in promoting this cause and I have also always been interested in architecture. When still a schoolboy, I was a tourist guide in Vaasa and could probably still tell a lot about the character of present-day Vaasa, the city architect Karl Axel Zetterberg and the buildings in the city. When I still lived in Vaasa, I was also very excited about the Huutoniemi church designed by Aarno Ruusuvuori. I even became interested in architecture to the extent that I dreamed about a career in architecture, until I realised that I have no artistic talent – in my opinion, architecture is, above all, art. The award process for the Finlandia Prize for Architecture has thus been very inspiring and interesting.

The idea behind the prize undoubtedly resonates with me. In economics one talks about public goods and externalities, and the built environment is precisely these. Whether the buildings are in private or public ownership is of no significance. We all see the architecture, experience the architecture, and architecture affects us all. Architecture undoubtedly affects our well-being and comfort: our built environment is our extended living room. In architecture there is also an egalitarian element. Fortunately the sun still shines for both poor and rich. Our built environment exists for us all.

Entrance hall, Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw 2013. Rainer Mahlamäki / Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects. Photo by Photoroom.pl.

Entrance hall, Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw 2013. Rainer Mahlamäki / Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects. Photo by Photoroom.pl.

According to statistics, over 60% of our national wealth lies in buildings. Would you like to look at architecture from some other aspects of economics?
I have read that we spend 99% of our time in our built environment. Our wealth lies in the built environment and it is the built environment that we leave as an inheritance for future generations. The effects of architecture are, in other words, extremely far reaching. It is through the built environment that we implement – or don’t implement – also, for instance, energy and environmental policies.

On the other hand, it is good to keep in mind that when we talk about architecture and the built environment we don’t just talk about cultural buildings. This time all the nominees for the prize represented that particular building type. I would prefer to see also residential buildings, commercial buildings and factories included in these kinds of awards. It could be that in housing production there are so many limitations or the cost frame is so constrained that it is more difficult to create interesting glamorous new architecture.

In the social debate, however, architecture is not dealt with as part of human well-being, not to mention a growth factor of the national economy. Architecture is hardly ever mentioned, for instance, in the growth programme of the creative economy or innovation policies. Why is that the case?
The profession should probably take a good look in the mirror. Every profession, architects included, should strive to promote its own viewpoints. The Finlandia Prize for Architecture will now contribute in serving this objective.

We have certain individual politicians who are known to be interested in architecture: off the top of my head, I come to think of the former prime minister Paavo Lipponen. Perhaps the biggest reason lies, however, in the self-evident nature of architecture: we move about in the built environment, and don’t pay sufficient attention to the importance of the quality of the environment. This is unfortunate. There should be a lot more discussion about architecture. For example, when talking about a pleasant city, architecture is discussed, for instance, from the viewpoint of the tourism industry, even though our own everyday comfort is incomparably more important.

What splendid architects we have

Did your role as the person selecting the winner of the Finlandia Prize for Architecture change your attitude towards architecture?
Yes. With my task it became emphasised how important the built environment is and how interesting it is to look at buildings and the environment and to think about what one sees. And if one knows a little more about buildings, acquainting oneself with architecture becomes even more interesting. It also dawned on me how high the quality of Finnish architecture is.

It is increasingly rare to encounter something that makes one think that that building really wouldn’t need to be there. There might of course be some Helsinki-centredness here: Helsinki is a beautiful city. Outside the city centre and in the population centres of the rural municipalities the situation is often different. Let’s take the example of the hypermarkets visible from the car window. I don’t understand how on earth people who usually have some aesthetic requirements, who do not let just anything into their own homes, allow just any rubbish into their built environment! In this sense we are uncivilised.

Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw 2013. Rainer Mahlamäki / Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects. Photo by Wojciech Krynski.

Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw 2013. Rainer Mahlamäki / Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects. Photo by Wojciech Krynski.

How did the selection process proceed in practice?
When the prize nominees were announced, I was asked already then for a statement regarding my own criteria. These I was not allowed to discuss with anyone. Later there was a general discussion with the preliminary jury. They seemed incredibly cautious and avoided at all costs to steer my opinion. Then I visited each nominated building, and the members of the preliminary jury accompanied me on all visits, except to Warsaw.

Additionally, I familiarised myself with all the material which had been published about the projects. For example, the Finnish Architecture. Biennial Review 2014 exhibition publication was an excellent book. I realised, however, that even though a lot of good photographs of the projects have been published, I was unable to form an opinion based solely on them. It was important to visit the sites, walk and look around.

The visit to the Museum of the History of Polish Jews turned out to be particularly important. It is ostensibly a box, the appearance of which is not particularly intriguing. But the building is in some way ethereal, like a projection. The building’s glass cladding is very unique: a phenomenon is created that in my opinion is not fully captured by a photograph. The entire building can also look different depending on whether it’s morning or evening. The museum’s entrance leaves a lasting impression; it is enormous and complex in many ways No camera exists that could capture that.

Anything that can spark our interest in architecture and culture can only be a good thing.

Taking an interest in architecture

How in your opinion is an award that is comparable to the Finlandia Prize for Literature suited to architecture?
One could challenge the whole concept by asking whether it makes any sense at all to award prizes in culture. Should everything be competitive? On the other hand, awards interest people. Fortunately, at least, in the case of the Finlandia Prize for Architecture no first, second, third and fourth prizes are awarded, only one project is selected.

As a pragmatist, I feel that the prize emphasises the significance of the built environment, and I consider that a good thing. One can of course ask whether it’s a sensible procedure when a jury consisting of experts chooses the sites and some idiot like me picks their favourite. Experts, on the other hand, make sure that all nominees stand up to scrutiny. Bringing in an outsider to make the choice in turn shows that architecture concerns us all. The person making the selection in other words represents the man in the street. In this sense there is a certain sympathetic aspect to the Finlandia Prize for Architecture. Anything that can spark our interest in architecture and culture can only be a good thing.

What sort of environment do you yourself enjoy?
I am rather urban. I live in the district of Katajanokka in Helsinki, and I am very satisfied with the place. Previously I lived very differently, but in an equally beautiful environment in a wooden housing area dating from the 1920s in the Toukola district of Helsinki. I am of course also happy to spend time amidst nature, especially in the archipelago. When I lived in Brussels for ten years I often discovered how nature and nearness to nature are part of Finnish identity. When I lived in Paris I couldn’t always stand the masses of people typical of such a large city.

As regards architecture, I’m also quite omnivorous. It’s a pity that in Finland traditionally most things have been built in wood, because there is so little of the old wooden architecture remaining. I appreciate the old and especially like, for example, the attractive Tammisaari, the wonderful old Rauma and the old part of Kokkola.

I also like modern architecture, and I find it very interesting. I would question, however, how well such architecture as Frank Gehry’s new building in the Bois de Bologne in Paris will withstand the test of time. Buildings are long-term investments and our opinions of what is beautiful change surprisingly much over time. I’m of the opinion that the restrained, simple classicism typical for Finnish architecture will endure the passing of time. I particularly await with great interest the new Central Library in Helsinki.

In the case of the prize nominees, I noticed the reverberations of Alvar Aalto. Naturally, they were particularly obvious in the Apila Library in Seinäjoki. The library was in a strong dialogue with the Aalto buildings, but in addition to the dialogue, for instance the use of copper in the interior and sometimes an atmosphere similar to the one in the Finlandia Hall caught my attention.

Not a homage or an export promotion award, but an architecture award

Are there any other means by which the visibility and recognisability of architecture could be promoted in Finland?
I haven’t thought much about the issue. I don’t know what the situation is in the schools, but that is where it all starts. Something else that comes to mind is the “percent-for-art” principle that is applied in public building projects. This is good not only for art but also for architecture because art immediately makes you look at architecture a bit differently.

Of course one can also hope that the media would pay more attention to architecture than it does at present, the subject is after all in many ways very rewarding. A good example is the series “Demolished Buildings” published in the Helsingin Sanomat’s monthly colour supplement.

A space rocket –  a bit like Noah’s Ark.

What was the decisive factor which led you to your choice?
I would first mention two factors that were not decisive. Certain projects evoked more powerful emotions than others. Particularly the Museum of the History of Polish Jews is an example of this, as the Jew’s history is linked with emotional turmoil. I tried decisively to fight against this. Emotions must not have an influence other than in the sense that the architect is able to deal with different issues, as Rainer Mahlamäki has excellently succeeded in doing. The Finlandia Prize for Architecture is not a homage to the memory of Polish Jews or history, but an architectural award. Secondly, although of course it was excellent that a Finnish architect won the international architecture competition, this prize is not an export promotion award.

My choice was based on the sum of different aspects. When one takes into consideration the function of the building, the museum’s minimalist and restrained exterior form is the correct solution by a Finn. For instance, Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim-type form language would in this context have been really grotesque. The building’s minimalist box form, the virtually windowless cladding and a few distinct details, such as the main door and the huge window on the other side, make the exterior form interesting. In the restrained exterior form lies a contradiction or tension in relation to the impressive entrance lobby that expresses an emotional outburst.

The entrance lobby can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Unlike the architects, I myself wasn’t reminded of the parting of the Red Sea, nor did I see the lobby as a canyon that separates life and death. I thought I saw a spaceship there. This may sound a bit odd, but it’s explained by the fact that as a school boy I was very excited about Harry Martinson’s science-fiction story in the form of a poem, Aniara. The book is about a space rocket that saves mankind and takes them to a new home in space – a bit like Noah’s Ark.

The key to my decision was the tension between the exterior of the museum building and the entrance lobby. Also the concert hall was in my opinion very successful in that one enters it in the middle of the space. I also liked that there are diverse activities and life inside the building, which is different than in holocaust museums. The Museum of the History of Polish Jews is a really beautiful building in the city of Warsaw, which itself is not a particularly beautiful city.

What could Finnish architects do better?
Now that I have acquainted myself with the nominees for the Finlandia Prize for Architecture, my foremost feeling is that Finnish architecture is of a very high quality. The nominees are, of course, the most recent gems of our architecture.

I consider it important that architects’ voices should be heard in our social debates, so that commercial interests would not overly dominate. Architects remind us of the inheritance we leave and the importance the environment possesses as a whole. It is also a matter of concern for architects that we don’t look only at individual buildings but also see the wider whole. There are plenty of good examples of this in Finland, for example in Katajanokka in Helsinki. I would wish for a more active role for architects in social debate. Particularly in urban planning, architects should not be steamrolled.

Entrance hall, Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw 2013. Rainer Mahlamäki / Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects. Photo by Photoroom.pl.

Entrance hall, Museum of the History of Polish Jews, Warsaw 2013. Rainer Mahlamäki / Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects. Photo by Photoroom.pl.

Text by Anni Vartola / Architecture Information Centre Finland.
Translation by Gareth Griffiths and Kristina Kölhi.

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