Juha Leiviskä
Juha Leiviskä, architect and Academician of Art, celebrated his 80th birthday in March, 2016. Photo: Rauno Träskelin.

Wow! That euphoric feeling! An anniversary interview with Juha Leiviskä

Juha Leiviskä, who turned 80 this March, has had a stressful spring. The media has been bugging him for his opinion on the big questions facing architecture, though his head is still reeling from an arduous trip to London. The Architectural Review had invited Leiviskä to assess numerous sacral buildings for the AR Faith Awards.

— It was shocking. During the course of a single day we had to go through material on 120 realised buildings, ranging from mosques to monuments, and from these we had to select three. The opinions of the members of the jury were completely at odds with each other. The aspects of communality, cosiness and assembly were emphasised, but architectonically the final three were very mediocre. Every one of our parish buildings is a place of encounter in the municipality, but abroad this is less the case. A place of assembly for the villagers – this function in itself is not enough for me. Essential is what the architect can achieve architectonically from the given location, task and situation.

The essence of the city from the perspective of the residents

In itself being a member of a competition jury is a pleasant task for the experienced Leiviskä, as long as adequate time is allowed for the work. He currently has a number of topical design projects, particularly in Tampere where he has been asked for alternative plot-use studies of the town plan, for instance in the placement of the extension to the Tampere Art Museum along Pyynikintori square.

— In Eteläpuisto park, on the other hand, more and more new urban blocks have just been squeezed in as an extension of the existing urban structure and also on top of the historical landscape garden, instead of opening up the block structure and creating new vistas and connections out into the landscape from bay windows.

Leiviskä is most exasperated by the prevailing narrow understanding of the architectonic essence of a city.

— It’s shocking that the enclosed urban block is seen as the only solution. Enclosed courtyards are designed only because people think that this is what a city looks like. The city isn’t thought of at all in terms of the dwellings, “from inside out”, even though the opening up of the blocks would provide the opportunity for the creation of a much more spatially diverse architecture. Here in Helsinki we have the exact same phenomenon. In itself, of course, the enclosed block is excellent, if we think, for instance, about the large urban blocks from the 1920s in Vallilla and their park-like courtyards. The present urban courtyards, filled with car-parking spaces, are a travesty of the enclosed urban block.

Looking for the best possible solution

When reading about the characterisations attributed to Leiviskä, one easily forgets how diverse an architect he really is, one that indeed avoids narrow definitions. In the jury presentations for the recent AR Faith Awards, The Architectural Review described Leiviskä as an architect of sacral spaces. Other themes connected to him include light, music and the principles of humanity.

— I have designed four churches and one chapel restoration, about one per decade. And of course I’ve done other things in-between these.

The only definitions which Leiviskä himself feels sit naturally with him are contextuality and following one’s own path. Most important for him are good dwellings and good overall surroundings.

— I wouldn’t want to be pigeon-holed in any way. And what I particularly don’t want is to be regarded as a follower of fashionable trends. For me, the design tasks always emerge from the surroundings and those who will be using the building. For example, the urban blocks should always be designed with the starting point of the floor plans of the dwellings. Even in town planning tasks, my passion is specifically the dwellings and exploring the points of contact with the surroundings that open up from these. No matter how small an apartment, every one should always have light and views from at least two directions.

The basic starting points provided by the site and its surroundings are the driving force in Leiviskä’s architecture. He wants to get as much as possible from the design situation. What is most important is to achieve a result in which the new building improves the existing situation.

— I’ve always strived just to immerse myself in each task to the best of my ability, most recently in the Kipparintalo housing in Kalasatama in Helsinki. The wedge-like plot essentially forced me to step the façade on the street side in order to create views for the dwellings all the way towards Mustikkamaa island. The developer and builder at first opposed this slightly more expensive solution, but the residents were delighted. Also in my competition proposals I’ve strived for the most ideal solution in terms of the totality, the surroundings and the users. My proposals have often ended up among the Lower Class entries, but I haven’t worried about that. The best thing is when one is happy with one’s own work. It’s also rewarding to receive praise after the work is completed.

The neighbouring residents strongly opposed at the time, for instance, the Sandels Cultural Centre (Töölö, Helsinki, 2007, together with Rosemarie Schnitzler) and the Soc & Kom building (Kruununhaka, Helsinki, 2009, together with Jari Heikkinen). In both cases, people afterwards come to thank me and tell me how to them it feels as if the buildings have always been there. Such feedback is the best reward.

Kipparintalo facade

Facade of the Kipparintalo housing designed by Juha Leiviskä and Kati Murtola. Kipparintalo is included in the Finnish Architecture Biennial Review 2016 by the Museum of Finnish Architecture (exhibition open 15.6–2.10.2016). Photo: Arno de la Chapelle.

Photo of an apartment interior in Kipparintalo.

Apartment interior in Kipparintalo housing (Helsinki, 2015), architects Juha Leiviskä and Kati Murtola. Photo: Arno de la Chapelle.

The architects’ profession demands complete dedication

Though Leiviskä doesn’t want his own architecture to be tied to any ‘-isms’, when talking about his lighting fixture designs he readily acknowledges his two idols: Paul Henningsen and Alvar Aalto. But here, too, his starting point has always been the prevailing situation and its requirements.

— In my restoration of Lemi Church (1967–69) a lamp was required that would direct light also up into the vaults of the old wooden church. Aalto’s lamps are superb but they don’t really give much illumination. Henningsen’s lamps were available only as models that were closed off at the top. There was no other option than for me to design my own version which is open at the top, following the same principle. Nakkila Parish Centre, the German Embassy [Helsinki], the Villa Johanna sauna, and Myyrmäki Church – all my lamps have been designed for a specific space.

Leiviskä does not, however, consider his diverse oeuvre as being exceptionally extensive, nor does he feel, beyond playing the piano, that he has needed any particular counter balance to his work as an architect.

— Well, it hasn’t been so enormous. My works have generally been fairly small and inspiring, which is enough for me. As regards balance, I can only say that occasionally I get temper tantrums, but they quickly pass and I apologise.

Leiviskä has looked for his inspiration from the modernist tradition of the Nordic countries, such as the works of Aalto, Erik Bryggman and Gunnar Asplund, as well as the history of architecture.

— The utilisation of natural light in our small wooden churches, the South German Late Baroque, traditional Japanese architecture – these have particularly inspired me.

Leiviskä has not profiled himself at all as a writer, though he claims that in recent times he has been a veritable statement-generating machine. He doesn’t feel that he is a theoretician, but rather gives comments case by case, for instance on how he has arrived at the solutions for his own designs. Also, the extensive drawings archive in the attic of his office awaits proper archiving.

— It’s not a question of me not being interested in writing. It’s that I’ve never been asked. I could quite well have felt attracted to writing, just like I do to playing the piano, but I haven’t had the time. The architect’s profession demands complete dedication. I myself – whether it has been a good or bad thing – have not had a family, so I have been able to be virtually continuously at work. Nowadays I work so very slowly. My area of clear vision has unfortunately been completely damaged, so writing and drawing are very laborious. Nowadays I can’t even read properly. I can still see spaces well, and as soon as I get a grip of a task I design in my mind, even at night when I can’t sleep.

Swedish School of Social Science

The Soc & Kom building aka Swedish School of Social Science in Helsinki. Architects Juha Leiviskä and Jari Heikkinen, 2009. Photo: Jussi Tiainen.

Pakila church

One of the lesser-known exemples of Leiviskä’s church architecture is the Church of the Good Shepherd in Pakila, Helsinki. Architects Juha Leiviskä and Pekka Kivisalo, 2002. Photo: Arno de la Chapelle.

Good surroundings and spaces that make people happy

The starting point of quality and a practical approach which encapsulate Leiviskä’s architecture feel refreshing amidst the theoretical noise that prevails in contemporary architecture. Both his small and large works remind us of how easily we forget the universal language of architecture and its power to transcend different eras and cultures.

— The ultimate essence of architecture has over the millennia been the same: to create for people good surroundings and spaces that generate happiness.

Leiviskä firmly trusts in architecture’s potential to change prevailing circumstances and admires the young generation of architects’ attempts to seek peripheral areas of traditional architectural activity. His greatest disappointments concern his own limits of achievement and endurance.

— It’s always possible to have an influence. Opposition can be severe, but it’s always worth fighting. I’ve had feelings of disappointment in almost all my works. I could have done more, put in even more effort, or supervised the execution of the details even more closely. My unrealised schemes don’t upset me, with the exception perhaps of the Kajaani Art Museum (1985, together with Merja Nieminen) that I had completed the drawings for. Ending up in the Lower Class in architecture competitions is really quite honourable when you know or get to hear that your own proposal has nevertheless been the best.

Leiviskä admits that he feels strongly about current topics and is continuously worried about the state of the built environment, whether it’s the case of the Tampere urban fabric, the Töölonlahti area of Helsinki, the new buildings proposed for the Southern Harbour area in Helsinki or new housing areas.

— I have not in a long time, however, experienced anything as horrible as London. The urban fabric of east London is shockingly broken, a mishmash of old warehouses and enormous mega-structures. In such surroundings some small scheme of sacral architecture felt completely secondary.

That feeling of euphoria when you come up with a solution

Leiviskä is not ready, however, to give up all hope concerning the future of architecture. Most of all, he gets excited about the young generation of architects. He’s irritated by the opposing forces of an activism that attempts to foster a good environment and the real estate development that strives for economic profit.

— For example, in Tampere a lot of gratifying, small measures have been achieved, such as the pedestrian and bicycle routes built across the rapids. A lot of inspiring infill sites have also been found. Nevertheless, for instance, in the case of the Tampere Art Museum they want to take away half of the building rights granted to the museum and without any further thought give it to an apartment block that will be built on the plot. They think about just sellable floor area and money. I am not worried, however, about the future. The young generation is excellent; among others Esa Ruskeepää and his superb competition proposals in Porvoo, Otaniemi and Wolfsburg.

What then, amidst the demanding work of an architect which requires complete dedication, has been most outstanding?

— When you come up with a solution. Wow! It’s a euphoric feeling.

Interview by Anni Vartola. Originally published in Finnish in Arkkitehtiuutiset 4/2016, pp. 6–9.
English translation by Gareth Griffiths.

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