Christian Norberg-Schulz defined the meanings of a place in his book Genius Loci, Towards a Phenomenology of Architecture: ” … the meanings which are gathered by a place constitute its genius loci” and further: “Architecture means to visualize the genius loci, and the task of the architect is to create meaningful places, whereby he helps man to dwell.” Tadao Ando has written that “The building of architecture always occurs in a place. Architecture is driven into its place like a sharpened spike. Architecture, then, agitates the environs, and transforms its periphery into a living magnetic field.” This manifesto apparently does not oppose the theories of Norberg-Schulz but rather his words create another viewpoint. For Ando: “Architecture differentiates nature, and also integrates nature. Through architecture, nature is reduced to its elements, and then, drawn into unity. Thus, nature is architecturalized, and man’s confrontation with nature is refined.”
Australian architect Richard Lapestrier insists, when starting a project, on camping on the site with his drawing board. “It is the best way to feel a place out. The form of the terrain, its effect on climate, the path of animals and the sun. Where do you put your camp fire?” Finnish architect Kristian Gullichsen has playfully stated that “You should not read the program or visit the site, but first decide what the house should be like. You should have a vision before you start analyzing the problem because after analyzing you already know too much.”
The meanings of a place disturbed my mind when we were travelling with our students in southern Spain last spring. The present situation of many celebrated monuments is often a multi-layered result of politics, religion and architectural styles. The mosque of Cordoba lies on an ancient Roman site, from where an older Visigoth church was cleared. The structure was altered several times and finally mutilated by a cathedral serving the new ruler. To the innocent eye, this looks like rape, but could also be perceived as an architecture of complexity and contradiction.
On the outskirts of Cordoba the Madinat Al Zahra Museum by Nieto Sobejano Architects gives a contemporary fresh perspective on how to behave within a historical context. The museum exhibits archaeological research on the nearby remains of the old Hispano-Muslim city. The architects did not want to build in that landscape, but rather “to act as an archaeologist would: not building the new structure, but finding it below ground, as if the passage of time had been concealed all this time.”
Vernacular architecture is generally considered to be rooted to its environs. I wanted to show to my students the large area of cave dwellings just outside the city of Guadix, a place I had first visited some 30 years ago. I could not hide my disappointment when arriving at the place. The whitewashed mushroom-like chimneys were, of course, still there, protected by the local preservation codes, while the modern times had pushed much of the living areas out from the caves and the new commercial garden crap is everywhere. But the people who live there are right, aren’t they?
In the Highlands of Scotland the folks have come up with a totally different architectural strategy. Hundreds of bright white houses styled to local popular classics are scattered all over the green fields of the moors. The strangeness and contrast with the surrounding landscape is striking, even frightening, bringing to mind horror movies or the charged atmosphere of Edward Hopper’s paintings.
Sometimes the necessities, in this case the needs, of the water supply system and the only local material available created an indigenous architectural solution. In Viena Karelia, just across the Finnish border on the Russian side, a water tower made of logs hovers as a landmark in the middle of the small village of Vuonninen. I have heard that it had collapsed some years ago, but it will surely last as an essential part in the genius loci of the village.
Wolfgang Laib’s “A Wax Room for the Mountain” turns around the relationship between the work and its location. Laib wanted to dig a small place out of the rock on a mountainside. The room should have a small wooden door and the dimensions of a human being, and be entirely covered in beeswax. It would be a place that only a few people at a time could visit. The location found by Laib was adapted to an existing artistic concept. The cave is totally man-made, blown into the rock and the beeswax elements were transported to the site by helicopter. Laib preferred this site, after having made research widely around the Mediterranean area: “I have gone to the Pyreneans several times; I looked around the massif du Canigou, and found some incredible places. The history of this region is very rich, with all its Romanesque churches and its hermitages dating from the middle Ages. A wax room like this is made in conformity with the nature of the mountain; but it is also linked to history, producing something for the future, and for life in the future.”
Five approaches to the LOCAL
The Embassy of Finland in Washington D.C. is situated along the Embassy Row on a steep site in the lush Normanstone Park. Around the Texan senator’s mansion, which was pulled down, there were more than 20 different species of trees, many of them significant in regard to height and diameter. This stunning park, its rough topography and acoustics became the main reference points for our work. The building is as compact as possible, leaving most of the woods untouched. Only two major trees had to be cut. All façade materials are green or greenish treated, which makes the embassy dissolve into the vegetation. The texture of the green granite, finally found from Brazil (!), may generate associations with forests, rivers or clouds of stars in the night sky. On the inside, the building is like a huge light box with cut-outs letting the sun and greenery penetrate the interior from all directions. A great panorama opens up from the building, from the main level down to the steeply descending park, with some of the huge trees swaying just a few meters from the glass. It is the moment when man meets nature. Many of the people visiting the building have strongly connected their experienced sensations to Finland or Scandinavia, depending on their geographical understanding. However, the locus around is totally Washingtonian, the flora and fauna, and all the materials the building is made of are from the New World, and yet the atmosphere creates a strong reference to our faraway culture. The atmosphere could be “borrowed”, like the landscape in the Japanese garden tradition.
The most inspiring experiences of architecture are made not by single objects but milieus of harmony and with a consistency of style, material or function. An industrial block close to the center of Helsinki belonging to the Elanto cooperative was built from 1920s onwards in several stages, consisting of a bakery, dairy, offices and warehouses. Most of the buildings were designed by architect Väinö Vähäkallio. The main objective for the city planners and Helsinki City Museum, who controlled the process, was not to restore the individual buildings but to save a unique fragment of the Helsinki seafront. Our project included the renovation of a former vegetable warehouse and the construction of a new office block linked to the old building. The original monumental and austere character of the warehouse has been preserved. The enlargement of the old narrow windows is camouflaged by brick-coloured copper grilles in such a way that the characteristics of the facade remain essentially the same. The fenestration of the new wing follows the same design criteria. The distinction between new and old has been consciously obscured. The architecture does not restore as such anything which has at some time previously existed but rather strives to create a new ensemble strengthening the genius loci of the historical industrial milieu.
Often the image which breaks dams in one’s mind might come beyond the horizon, from conditions which have only a superficial connection to the actual problem. The architect’s mission is then to transmit the image to an actual locus. The Hämeenkyrö Environmental School is currently partly operating temporarily in shipping containers and urgently needs new premises. The school looks over the vast open fields of Häme from the top of a steep hill. An architectural competition was organized in 2012 which our team won under the pseudonym Athos. The restricted building area, relatively large program and extensive topography of the site made us concentrate most of the functions within a compact vertical volume, reminiscent of the monasteries of Mount Athos. The classrooms are grouped around a tall atrium, from which opens wide views towards the surrounding landscape.
The centre of Kangasala is in many ways typical of small Finnish towns. Buildings of different functions and periods, architectural styles and ambitions are spread more or less arbitrarily on an asphalt carpet with car parking here and there. But it is also a civic centre for its citizens, with markets, a library, police station and old church together with a graveyard. What is the genius loci of this place? The site of the new Kangasala House lies in the middle of this man-made congestion. It stands along the old village main road within sight of the church tower. It is linked directly to the existing library, and almost touches a new residential block. The building does not try to match any of the countless surrounding heights, materials, colors or orientations. The hybrid room program, consisting of the Kangasala council chamber, an auditorium for concerts and theatre, and an art museum, is broken into four “boulders” with canyon-like spaces for circulation between them. The boulders are clad with concrete elements that have been treated with iron oxide, which gives a monolithic and autonomous look to the building, and expresses its civic significance in the community.
The Arabia factories have had a central role in the history of Finnish design for over 140 years. Many of the renowned Finnish designers have worked at Arabia’s studios, such as Kaj Franck. Birger Kaipiainen, Rut Bryk and Kristiina Riska. In the new housing area surrounding the industrial complex, the city planners’ vision was to integrate art into the architecture. Arabia’s production processes create monthly truckloads of porcelain waste, which we decided to use in the facades of our project. Cups and plates were crushed and glued on to a film, on to which the concrete elements were then cast. The patterns made of pieces of porcelain followed the flower image found on an Arabia’s vase from the 30s, thus referring also to the address of the building, Flora Square.
Text by Mikko Heikkinen
English translation by Gareth Griffiths and Kristina Kölhi