Martti Kalliala (b. 1980) is among Finland’s most versatile and independent architects of the young generation. He is an internationally interesting iconoclast, known for his theoretical and controversial designs, symposiums, installations and exhibitions – as well as techno music. Currently he is analysing the proposals for the Guggenheim Helsinki architecture competition as part of an exhibition the Guggenheim will hold at Taidehalli Helsinki in April this year.
Finnisharchitecture.fi met up with Kalliala at the Cable Factory in Helsinki, where he momentarily has a guest residency with HIAP (Helsinki International Artist Programme).
You have recently returned from New York, where you worked for three months under the Mobius programme coordinated by the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York and the Finnish Institute in London. Mobius is a mobility programme aimed at professionals in the fields of the visual arts, as well as professional researchers and curators in museums and archives. What drew you to this programme and what did you get from it?
I don’t necessarily identify myself as a researcher or curator, but a part of my work is research driven or curatorial. These for me, however, are more of a means to an end that, above all, relate to the definition of the context of my “actual” work, that is, design. For many of the architects who are important to me, such research and exhibition activities have been an integral part of their practice and their specific way of being an architect.
I felt that the Mobius programme was a natural platform to carry out my own Ultimate Exit project and delve into themes that interested me, because I’m not directly attached to any academic community. I spent 3 months in New York. I met people, wrote a few things, carried out research and organised and curated a symposium that took place last December.
The two architects who have had the most enduring influence on me are Andrea Branzi and Rem Koolhaas – albeit in relation to the career and production of the latter, nowadays I’m more interested in his early career. Even though Content, the book published in 2004 by Koolhaas and OMA, now seems an awkward product of its time, reading it as a student was for me a seismic experience. I see the work of Koolhaas and OMA as a series of historically contextualising episodes, each of which in its own way is interesting but on a decreasing scale: post-1968, post-1991, post-9/11, post-15.9.2008 (the fall of Lehmann Brothers and the real beginning of the financial crisis).
If you have to be something for everyone, then you are not really anything for anyone.
In its realistic and analytical clarity, No-Stop City by Archizoom, co-founded by Branzi, is for me among the most central, enduring references. Branzi’s solo career is an interesting project in itself. The full breadth of his written production has only fairly recently become available to the non-Italian-speaking world.
You worked in New York with the historical Van Alen Institute, which is well-known for its progressive work in the fields of architecture and design, and particularly for awakening pubic debate about architecture. What do you feel about the role of institutions in partnering with architects such as yourself?
Working in New York was easy in the sense that the city offers a ready discourse and soundboard on to which one can latch – albeit to a significant extent outside the world of architecture. The Van Alen Institute contact came via Professor Keller Easterling of Yale University. The problem of almost all architecture institutes today seems to be that due to financial reasons they have to genuflect simultaneously in many different directions. The problem is awkward, common and structural. If you have to be something for everyone, then you are not really anything for anyone. In practice the smallest common denominator becomes defined as the focus, for example, “the quality of the built environment”. Because there is no available corresponding inbuilt market mechanism for architecture institutions as there is, for example, for private art institutions, their economic opportunities to support or sponsor projects are always limited.
For these reasons, I feel that the most important task of institutions is to offer a setting and maintain a debate that transcends the cycle of media and hype. Also in Finland, I’ve tried to undertake cooperative works with many different parties, sometimes with less and sometimes with more success. There is little money, but a lot of people employed, and big ships turn slowly. New Academy, an alternative initiated by Tuomas Toivonen and Nene Tsuboi, is as I see it the most important thing to have taken place in the institutional field in Finland in a long time.
For a Finnish architect you have an exceptionally individual, multi-artistic, conceptual and political approach to architecture. For example, in your A Thousand Island project, which you carried out with Pier Vittorio Aureli, Angus Cameron, Keller Easterling and Tuomas Toivonen, you gathered together in the Hakaniemi Cultural Sauna in Helsinki for discussions about recent developments – which have come about perhaps as some kind of counter-movement to the borderlessness of globalisation – where also architecture aims to define, demarcate and differentiate itself as an island, to differ from the prevailing surroundings, to become an exceptional event location. You studied the island theme from the points of view of the zone, xenospace and architectonic project. Could you elaborate on this island theme, which is clearly of central importance to you?
The idea of an island, or enclave, an allegorical island, fascinates me because the theme goes against widely internalised narratives about globalisation. I have grown up in a world which is held up by the liberal narrative: a belief that borders are erased one after each other and the world is a flat space of smooth flows maintained by the market economy and liberal democracy. This has, of course, turned out to be quite false. Around the world there are increasingly more borders between people. At the same time, globalisation in itself demands the creation of different “islands” – concrete spatial gaps in the rule of law – where it can freely achieve self-fulfilment. An island is, in other words, a spatial technique which inbuilt in capitalism.
Cities come about which are outside the reach of state law.
The island has at the same time, however, its own counter-history. Autonomous communes and other spaces positing an outside to the world surrounding them are also “islands” understood in this sense. In anarchist spatial theory one talks about pirate islands, temporary autonomous zones, that exist outside the law, and on to which also the libertarian imagination attaches itself. Likewise, sacral, holy spaces, monasteries, and so on, can be understood as islands of the sacred in an ocean of the profane. And so on and so forth.
The late capitalist tension between these two interpretations makes the island theme an indispensable technique. For example, a myriad of ‘zones’ emerge, good examples of which are the so-called special economic zones inside nation states, such as Dubai or Shenzhen. Cities come about which are outside the reach of state law, which have been separated from the sphere of legislation of their host state. Keller Easterling has studied this theme in her new book Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space. The island is, in other words, an inevitable form that does not necessarily offer anything for the making of architecture itself, but in an increasing fashion defines the contexts in which architecture or urban planning takes place.
In your New York project you organised a symposium and multi-media installation titled Ultimate Exit: The Architecture and Urbanism of Tech-Secessionism. You have referred, amongst other things, to the group Seasteading, who are developing a project where independent self-legislated city states would float in the sea, as well as Balaji Srinivasan’s idea for California’s Silicon Valley as an independent self-sufficient miniature society. Both are, in other words, kinds of social utopias of the digital age. What kinds of ideas were discussed in your Ultimate Exit work?
I have already for some time been interested in technological development, particularly so-called disruptive innovations – both as a real force of change and as a cult-like religion or “ideology”. It’s a kind of subplot to the island theme. Let’s take, for example, the talk about startup companies that has sprung up in Finland: what spatial repercussions could these possibly have? In Silicon Valley the major technology companies report continuously about the restrictions set by legislation because technological innovations move faster than legislation does. Partly for these reasons, there has been a yearning in the debate for a new kind of autonomous space, whether it be an actual island or a piece of land somewhere, or Silicon Valley itself. The objective would be a cradle for unregulated technological progress, a Special Innovation Zone, or a thousand Social Innovation Zones competing with each other.
This is also connected to other issues such as, for example, Seasteading and Californian libertarianism in general. Or Peter Thiel, who has begun to push around ideas about neo-feudalism, with the owning class and the technological enterprises they control as the target. Ultimate Exit aimed to find a spatial form for the shadow geography of this debate. What would these ideas mean as cities? What kinds of space would there be in such places?
“Exit” is really about a basic human drive. Eco-villages, Henry Thoreau’s social critique, a Finnish cabin – all these are part of the same desire to escape, to frame one’s own world beyond the existing world. What kind of outsides are there? Or where can we flee to in a world where there no longer is any outside? “Exit” manifests itself as an alternative to politics. If it’s not possible to arrive at a solution via political means, then one opts out. What kind of spatial forms or architectonic shapes such an escape could take on is a fascinating question.
The esteemed Harvard Design Magazine recently featured a discussion between you and Patri Friedman, the founder of Seasteading. You mentioned the similarity with cyberpunk, which was popular in 1980s science fiction literature, where hyper-technology was often used for achieving the rather dark goals of the anarchists in sub-cultures. You saw in the Seasteading project also features of the Seapunk music culture: playing with the internet expression of the 1990s and idealising everything related to oceans. What is it that fascinates you in these new island state ideas: the critique of the western lifestyle, the social experiments in themselves, the possibilities for architectural expression created by new life forms, or what? You yourself proposed already in 2008 in your design for Talsinki Island an artificial state on the Gulf of Finland.
Looking at it in retrospect, my Talsinki project was actually something of a failed satire, a product of its time which came about just before the start of the financial crisis, and with, for instance, Dubai as its frame of reference. I had just been working at OMA and had been involved in several projects specifically for that location. In Finland there were discussions at the time about the planning system that was considered “Brezhnevian”. Neoliberal voices began also in Finland to become increasingly louder and in architecture, too, its language and logic were adopted – perhaps the purest example being Bjarke Ingels’ BIG. The architecture of the early 2000s was made by means of diagrams. Transforming the logic of financial and property investment through a clever diagram into an “inevitable” architectonic form began to be an increasingly prevailing practice, which was taken on within architecture without any critique.
Satire is not the best genre of architecture.
Talsinki was an artificial island in the Gulf of Finland, which would have been an intermediate station along the tunnel planned between Helsinki and Tallinn, and would at the same time have been its own kind of free trade zone. The project didn’t quite hit the target; satire is not the best genre of architecture. It was through the project, however, that I became acquainted with the Seasteading project. Interestingly enough, the project has nevertheless remained part of the City of Helsinki’s promotion material for the tunnel project.
Your own portfolio of works doesn’t seem to include a single so-called conventional building or urban design, apart from the competition proposals made in your Pro Toto studio. I also seem to notice a certain kind of irony towards the conventional operational models of the architectural profession. Let’s take as an example your “Q&A” text discussing architecture competitions, which was published in the magazine Conditions (#7/2010). What brings you to work in such a theoretical zone, far away from so-called basic architecture?
What has really sidetracked me is that architecture is on a fundamental level unable to influence what it pays attention to, that it is always dependent on commissions. The agency of the architect is by necessity limited when he or she acts using the capital of others in a space framed by laws and regulations in a field that is essentially hostile to “new ideas”. This is in no way a unique observation or cause of anxiety, but circumventing this problematic always requires individual solutions and an eye for tactics.
I’ve been reconsidering the idea of the office. The first step is not to design buildings – and to unlearn the desire to build. This already resolves 80% of the issue. Should one think that the office is a project in itself, a structure inside of which commissions can fit but which primarily has its own agenda and will? The competition system in itself is excellent but of course is able to produce solutions only within a very limited spectrum. Presently competitions do not seem to be the best investment of resources for my practice.
In the 2014 Venice Biennale titled “Fundamentals”, Rem Koolhaas attempted to return architecture from its architect-centeredness to the fundamentals of building. According to him, architecture is currently not in a very good state. What is your own diagnosis of contemporary architecture?
I’m not convinced of the need of the architects of my own generation to be urban programmers or champions of participatory planning. Architects are still at their best specifically at making architecture, designing – even if the sphere of influence for doing it is limited. I’m not convinced that architecture should attempt to be all these other things at which it is not particularly good. Architects seem to have a terribly naïve view of the fields which architecture is trying to infiltrate. Perhaps the most radical position would be to promote certain goals, whether they be cultural, economic or social, via the means specific to architecture, through design. Then, however, one would be required to articulate for oneself one’s intention, that is, define what one is aiming to achieve.
The initiative for radical redefinitions will probably come from outside architecture itself.
Architecture’s value lies in what it enables beyond itself, and its interest factor lies in what kind of form it gives to some activity – not symbolically but concretely. Architects’ political naivety or indifference bothers me a lot, but perhaps it is only a matter of an inherent contradiction within architecture itself, which it would be best to overcome. Architecture is, in other words, always political in the sense that it serves and realises through its own physical existence external and inevitably political goals. At the same time, doing architecture is a business activity taking place in the market and its implementation always requires consensus – neutralising opposition, that is, the so-called political.
I participated in a symposium about the 2014 Venice Biennale in New York, where prominent thinkers such Keller Easterling and Hal Foster spoke. They all condemned the Biennale as cynical, albeit from slightly different premises. My own relation to the Biennale is quite ambivalent and I’m more interested in it as a project with a logical placement in relation to Koolhaas’s career.
I myself agree with Pier Vittorio Aureli, in that on the level of fundamental ideas, architecture is the developing and framing of the space of the human animal. This brings architecture back to the biological and psychological characteristics of the human condition. New ideas associated with this have not been seen much in recent decades. I am not, however, a pessimist in this regard. Yet my guess is just that the spark or initiative for radical (in the actual sense of the word) redefinitions will probably come from outside architecture itself.
Text by Anni Vartola / Archinfo. The interview took place at Kaapelitehdas, Helsinki, on 5 January, 2015.
English translation by Gareth Griffiths and Kristina Kölhi.