Phantom Pain, sketches. Illustration: Kaleidoscope.
Phantom Pain, sketches. Illustration: Kaleidoscope.

Phantom Pain: On healing from terrorism with architecture

Emmi Keskisarja and Miia-Liina Tommila are two young Finnish architects whose Finnish-Norwegian team Kaleidoscope won the Europan 12 competition in Asker, Norway, in December 2013. Finnisharchitecture.fi presented their competition entry in our Close-Up article, but now we meet them again. We interviewed Emmi Keskisarja and Miia-Liina Tommila about their new, compelling but challenging project which they did together with Tone Megrunn Berge, Architect MNAL (NO), Silje Klepsvik, Architect MNAL (NO), Vegard Aarseth, Illustrator and Tilde Broch Østborg, M.D in Oslo.

Architecture can heal societies. This isn’t megalomania, but rather taking responsibility.

Phantom Pain, Relief. Illustration: Vegard Aarseth, Project: Kaleidoscope.

Phantom Pain, Relief. Illustration: Vegard Aarseth, Project: Kaleidoscope.

In November you visited the American Institute of Architects’ Center for Architecture in New York where you presented your Kaleidoscope project for Asker in Norway. Your Finnish-Norwegian design team won the Europan 12 competition a year ago for the development of the old hospital area. What took you to New York and what is the present situation regarding Asker?
— As often is the case in planning, also in this project there have been lulls along the way, though nothing surprising. Work on the master plan for the municipality of Asker has been at such a stage that it hasn’t been possible to start the actual detailed planning for the Dikemark area. The review stage of the master plan was finalised at the end of 2014, and there are no longer any legal hindrances for starting with the work. Now we are waiting to see what happens next. We ourselves have prepared for the work among other things by founding our own office, the name of which came about quite naturally, Kaleidoscope – the pseudonym of our Europan entry!

During the autumn Emmi had a residency scholarship at the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York and Miia-Liina visited during her residency. Our objective, among other things, is to cooperate later on with the New York art organisation No Longer Empty, which carries out art projects in abandoned buildings rather than in art galleries.

Rick Bell, executive director of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects, invited us to present our work one evening at New York’s Center for Architecture. We suggested that in addition to our other projects we would also present our work Phantom Pain, which deals with terrorism. Terrorism is still a sensitive subject in New York and therefore it felt meaningful to talk specifically there about the project. The evening was rather successful, not least due to the New Yorkers’ natural debating skills.

Emmi Keskisarja (left) and Miia-Liina Tommila at the Center for Architecture in New York in November 2014.

Emmi Keskisarja (left( and Miia-Liina Tommila at the Center for Architecture in New York in November 2014.

From the left: Miia-Liina Tommila, Emmi Keskisarja together with the performers David Gelles and Caitlin Mehner.

From the left: Miia-Liina Tommila, Emmi Keskisarja together with the performers David Gelles and Caitlin Mehner.

Also presented at the event in New York was your three-part play A Visit to the Doctor, which is part of your Phantom Pain project in Oslo. What is the Phantom Pain project about?
— Phantom Pain was originally made for the exhibition Høyblokka Revisited held at Gallery 0047 in Oslo. The exhibition was the response of 0047 and the Norwegian architecture journal Arkitektur N to the public debate about the fate of the government quarter in Oslo and in particular the building Høyblokka.

In the aftermath of the terrorist strike, the buildings stand empty, covered in plastic sheeting. Still last spring both Høyblokka and its pair Y-blokka were under threat of demolition. The public debate has been heated, both in favour and against demolition. The situation has now changed, so that only Y-blokka is due for demolition. Demolition raises very strong opposition among architectural and expert circles, but the Norwegian government has so far stood by its decision.

Phantom Pain, collage of the debate in Norway. Illustration: Kaleidoscope.

Phantom Pain, collage of the Norwegian debate. Illustration: Kaleidoscope.

Detail of the architectural model by architect Erling Viksjø (1910–1971). Photo by Teigens Fotoatelier. DEX_T_4420_017 / Norsk Teknisk Museum / DEXTRA Photo. Image source: digitaltmuseum.no (CC 3.0 BY-NC-SA).

Detail of the architectural model by architect Erling Viksjø (1910–1971). Photo by Teigens Fotoatelier. DEX_T_4420_017 / Norsk Teknisk Museum / DEXTRA Photo. Image source: digitaltmuseum.no (CC 3.0 BY-NC-SA).

The Høyblokka building in 1958, architect Erling Viksjø (1910–1971), photo by Teigens Fotoatelier. DEX_T_5585_009 / Norsk Teknisk Museum / DEXTRA Photo. Image source: digitaltmuseum.no (CC 3.0 BY-NC-SA).

The Høyblokka building in 1958, architect Erling Viksjø (1910–1971), photo by Teigens Fotoatelier. DEX_T_5585_009 / Norsk Teknisk Museum / DEXTRA Photo. Image source: digitaltmuseum.no (CC 3.0 BY-NC-SA).

In relation to the buildings, questions and problems concerning the terrorist attack are by their very nature dualistic: on the one hand pragmatic, and on the other hand philosophical. Safety is among the practical questions: how can a new strike be prevented in the future, if at all? Would it be better to build completely new buildings, where safety, energy efficiency, accessibility, economy, and the spatial solutions for office work could be implemented more efficiently than previously? Or if the buildings were spared, how would the new requirements be implemented in buildings that are significant from a cultural-historical point of view but not protected? In the political debate also financial issues are always at stake. The cost estimates for renovation speak in many people’s mind for the construction of new buildings.

The practical questions are interwoven with the longer term social effects of the terrorist attack. How do you return to work in a building where you were when the bomb blast occurred? What consequences would the demolition decision have symbolically? Behind the discussion lies not only the thematics linked with the terrorist attack but also the pressure for change and growth of the entire government administration quarter. The government has decided to place all its ministries, except for the Ministry of Defence, in the administration quarter, and in this equation the plot density must be increased. We wanted to envision the future of Høyblokka through both practical architectural solutions and metaphorical thinking. Our project endeavours to combine the means of expression of architecture and art in order for us to go deeper when looking for solutions.

We decided to approach the subject in the same way a physician approaches a trauma patient, through five steps: 1. Stabilisation; 2. Diagnosis, 3. Stabilisation; 4. Major surgery; 5. Rehabilitation. In fact our work team included a physician. Our idea was that if the building would just coldly be demolished, the collective trauma would go untreated and what would remain would be a phantom pain that amputees sometimes suffer from. The missing part would send a reminder of itself. We also discussed a lot about what recovery entails. The scientific definition of the healing process is surprisingly well in line with architecture:

”Healing is an experiential, energy-requiring process in which space is created through a caring relationship in a process of expanding consciousness and results in a sense of wholeness, integration, balance and transformation and which can never be fully known.”
M.C. Wendler, “Understanding healing: a conceptual analysis”, Journal of Advanced Nursing. Volume 24, Issue 4, October 1996, 836-42.

These thoughts act as a gateway to the final form of the project. We suggest making physical changes that resonate with the objectives of democracy. We want to reopen an access route through the building that was closed off in alterations made in 1969–70. Also the floors added to the building in 1988–90, which contain the offices of the Prime Minister, in our opinion require reassessment. Their construction altered the previously sculptural and organic character of the roof storey. At the same time, decision makers were metaphorically separated from the rest.

Programmatically we want to increase social diversity, openness and bring art more strongly into the building. Art had been integrated already as a premise into the architectural language of both Høyblokka and Y-blokka, for instance in the form of Pablo Picasso’s enormous reliefs. Freedom of expression, the basic principle of democracy, has in other words been incorporated into the DNA of these buildings on many levels.

I have a whole body of people, I am made for serving them. An envelope embracing everyday life. I used to be surrounded and filled by people who needed me, and I served them well. But now when they look at me they see a scarred reflection of their own fears.
—Excerpt from “A Visit to the Doctor”, a play in three acts by Kaleidoskope.

Dramaturgy is a rather unusual mode of operation for architects. Why did you want to write a play and what kind of things were you able to convey through dramaturgy?
—We considered carefully how to approach the difficult subject matter when we decided to participate in the debate about the fate of Høyblokka. It seemed wrong to present a technical diagram of spatial-functional solutions when faced with the sensitive issue.

One other premise was the desire to look for alternatives to ordinary project descriptions and even the overall format of an exhibition project, because often architectural works are exhibited in a clichéd way as exhibition panels. Project descriptions are indeed a genre in themselves, where one aims to combine the description of pragmatic solutions with poetic architectonic ideas and encapsulate everything in an easily digested information package. Often the result is rather the opposite: the reader is lost in the knots of a complex description listing building parts, and the message does not unfold.

The subject matter of the exhibition also steered the project, as if it demanded a more expressive format. Through an essay, short story and dialogue our text finally became a miniature play in three acts in which Høyblokka seeks a physician for its ailments. The full potential of the project only emerges when the play receives its actors and the text comes alive. The play’s narrative reveals the ideas of our architecture better than ordinary pictures, it breaths life into seemingly dull cross-section drawings.

Through the play, we were able to present and examine actions and their sociological effects in a different way. What are the preconceived notions linked with the building? We were able to analyse simultaneously many opposing viewpoints, which is fairly difficult in the format of a traditional architectural presentation. Through the text, we were able to incorporate into our project the different voices in the debate about Høyblokka. Instead of our own voice, space was given to the dialogue, discord and politics, but also the apprehension of fears, sentiments about how frail everything is, and the resonance of analysing the trauma in retrospect. The most liberating aspect was to provide the building itself with a voice through which it could tell about its experiences.

Dramaturgy created the opportunity to be simultaneously emotionally distant and close. The allegory of a physician encountering the trauma patient offered us the research questions through which we were able to reflect upon the situation. The greatest strength of the play, however, lies in how it forces the listener to experience emotions. The play gets right under the skin. Images can impress and make you think, but it’s more difficult to shut off a play from one’s mind.

A monument can be like a plaster cast which is never removed.

Tom Wilkinson of The Architectural Review, among others, has recently criticised memorial architecture’s often rather selective use of memory, as well as its cowardly prettifying, consoling approach. Also so-called post-traumatic urbanism is one of the themes of contemporary architecture that sparks debate.
As you mentioned, your Phantom Pain project is linked with the bomb attack in the government administrative quarter of Oslo which Anders Behring Breivik attacked on 22.7.2011 before his mass murdering spree on the island of Utøya. How do you see the opportunities of contemporary architecture to act as a force for healing communities?

— There is something contradictory about trauma locations. Does a pilgrimage to a monument of grief help in any way? Time for recovery and operational models are needed in surviving trauma. A monument can be like a plaster cast which is never removed. In a way it supports the broken city district yet leaves it immobile, with its uses withering away. At worst the area becomes a museum of grief.

In debates about post-traumatic urbanism there is talk about a reflexive need to immediately return the situation to its former state. Terrorism and catastrophes strike directly at the physical urban fabric and buildings, in addition to the social structures. It’s natural that there will be a need for protecting oneself and growing a thicker skin. This, however, creates a kind of urban scar tissue.

A sensitive approach is needed in order for architecture to heal a community that has experienced the trauma. One must also communicate the plans in an understandable way. The planning process in itself is a healing force. Implementing a good plan requires thorough research of the situation, analysis, concrete plans with timetables for the implementation, budgets, understanding and listening to the different stakeholders – the synthesis of all of this.

One must not underestimate the power of architecture. It’s not befitting that the operational models of the architectural profession turn into some kind of urban psychology. Caution and avoidance, deciding not to build, shapes the city just as much as building does. Traumatic events can settle over the city as quiet ghost areas. At its best, the grief can awaken, unite and renew. Architecture has a power to rejuvenate urban scar tissue through urban debate and concrete building projects. The answer is, in other words: architecture can heal societies. This isn’t megalomania, but rather taking responsibility.

Phantom Pain, Høyblokka meeting friends again. Illustration: Vegard Aarseth, Project: Kaleidoscope.

Phantom Pain, Høyblokka meeting friends again. Illustration: Vegard Aarseth, Project: Kaleidoscope.

Interview by Anni Vartola / finnisharchitecture.fi.
Translation by Gareth Griffiths and Kristina Kölhi.