Finland has received the highest award at the Architecture Biennale in Venice – the Golden Lion – only once. It happened twenty years ago, in the autumn of 1996. The Leone d’oro was awarded quite unexpectedly to a group of young Finnish architects who had designed and built an unusual translucent forest studio in Espoo in Finland.
“The Group”, comprised of Juha Kaakko, Ilkka Laine, Kimmo Liimatainen and Jari Tirkkonen, following a number of interesting turns was, exceptionally for the time, selected to participate in the main exhibition at the Venice architecture biennale. Architect and architecture critic Tarja Nurmi met Kimmo Liimatainen and Juha Kaakko and tells the story of the unique achievement and its significance.
The story of The Group and the Golden Lion
The story of the Golden Lion, how it came to be awarded to a group of young Finnish architects, as well as how they subsequently have felt about the award is both incredible and heart-wrenching. There was a lot of effort, luck and publicity but also disappointment and misfortune along the way. There were even enough elements in the chain of events for a work of fiction. The story begins with a talented and inspiring group of architecture students from the same year at Helsinki University of Technology in Otaniemi and the joint project of four of those students.
Small and light
Juha Kaakko, Ilkka Laine, Kimmo Liimatainen and Jari Tirkkonen had participated in a student competition for the design of a standard type of cabin for the Puolarmaari allotment gardens in Espoo. The small, experimental building project, which aimed for unconventional leisure-time homes, was built in Puolarmaari in 1992.
They received funding for their experimental building project and workshop already in 1991. They negotiated, mostly successfully, with various companies to acquire building materials. Due to the nature of the project, a scale model had been made, and they took it along with them when asking around for material assistance.
Liimatainen and Kaakko explain how they themselves together built as much of the building as possible. Structural engineer Jouni Järvenpää assisted, and the electrical works were carried out by a certified outside contractor. The drawings were meticulously fine-tuned several times before applying for the final building permission.
On its completion, the artistic and experimental building was unequivocally photogenic. Indeed numerous photos of it were taken, both in day- and evening light. The editor-in-chief of the Finnish Architecture Review, Pentti Kareoja selected it for publication in the 4/5 1992 issue of the journal, and in 1994 it was also published in the internationally renowned journal a+u. Apparently, based on someone’s recommendation, a Japanese representative of the publication had visited the building.
To Venice via New York
However, the real yet pleasant shock came when Liimatainen received a fax inviting them to participate in an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), “Light Construction”, curated by Terence Riley. Funding had again to be raised.
Aboard the plane to New York they were each handed a fresh copy of the day’s Helsingin Sanomat newspaper. In the middle of page three, amongst the main editorial spread, was an impressive photo of their building and the news about its inclusion in the MoMA exhibition. The newspaper’s architecture critic at the time, Leena Maunula, had been observant.
At that moment they had a strong indescribable feeling: “This is it!” Excited by the New York trip, they had had T-shirts specially printed, honouring architect Philip Johnson. Amidst the bustle of the exhibition opening they even went to see Johnson to gift him his very own T-shirt. The “Light Construction” exhibition travelled in 1996 also to Barcelona, and there were successes elsewhere, too.
The invitation to participate in the Venice Architecture Biennale came surprisingly and stylishly in a letter. The project was to be a part of the Biennale’s “Emerging Voices” main exhibition. Again, there was a mad dash to acquire funding. In the spring of 1996, following the MoMA exhibition, Jari Jetsonen renovated the scale model, which had suffered while being on the road for a couple of years. A cross-sectional model in the scale 1:20 was also commissioned for Venice, and built by Olli-Pekka Keramaa. Fortunately, also photos taken by architectural photographer Jussi Tiainen had been preserved, which were ideal for exhibition and publication purposes.
Funding was successfully acquired, as was a reservation at a modest hotel deep in the bowels of Venice. One of the members of “The Group” didn’t even make the journey because it didn’t occur to any of them that they could be awarded the Biennale’s magnificent main prize.
The awards ceremony and a new surprise
The 1996 Venice Architecture Biennale featured the works of the most internationally renowned architects. On display at the Finnish Pavilion in the Biennale gardens were works selected by the Museum of Finnish Architecture. The young men with their own leisure-time atelier had not been chosen to appear among its ranks.
During the evening of the Biennale’s opening day they nevertheless sat and dined with other Finns, such as architect Juha Leiviskä. Notification about the main prize, which was to be awarded the following day, was discretely whispered to them during the meal. Despite their astonishment, the architects were able to keep the secret until the awards ceremony.
There is a photo from the awards ceremony in which Liimatainen is holding above his head the Golden Lion in its opulent red carrying case. There was no opportunity, however, for any grander celebrations because in the middle of the ceremony it was announced that the exhibition area was to be closed. There was turmoil in Venice around the politician Umberto Bossi and the Lega Nord party that he had founded, and there were lots of riot police on site.
“The Group” walked back to their hotel along the Venetian alleys, stopping off at a bar, slightly dumbfounded and with the Golden Lion under their arm. On their way they encountered Wolf D. Prix of Coop Himmelb(l)au and other world-famous architects that they admired, such as Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, Jacques Herzog and Peter Zumthor. It felt that soon they would belong to the same group.
Scarce attention in Finland
The Golden Lion received hardly any attention in Finland. At that time young architects in Finland were not particularly praised. In Helsingin Sanomat there was an article by Leena Maunula, in Iltasanomat Matti Rinne wrote beautifully about the prize in his own column, and Hannele Jäämeri wrote about it in Suomen Kuvalehti. The Finnish Association of Architects (SAFA) was in fact quite silent on the matter, but Timo Keinänen arranged a small reception and exhibition at the Museum of Finnish Architecture.
This was the post-recession era. The cooperation within the group that had started so promisingly began to stumble amidst hardships, and also otherwise it was difficult to make a real breakthrough. Liimatainen and Kaakko had also for a time their own joint office, but it proved hard acquiring any larger commissions. There were lots of smaller works, but they did not satisfy the hunger of the Lion Men. Both worked subsequently as assistants for Professor Simo Paavilainen at the Department of Architecture at Helsinki University of Technology.
Feelings of empowerment, rise and disappointment – but what would be the lessons for the young generation?
Our surprise-filled meandering conversation in the company of the Golden Lion lasted almost two hours. At the end we discussed what teams of young architects should always understand when they touch success. Liimatainen put it this way: “The most important thing is to proceed as a team, even if only as a small one, and to rely above all on a common goal. The rules should be agreed upon unambiguously. Above all, one should be able to recognise the strengths and most natural abilities of each team member. Students should be taught already at the architecture schools how to work in a team.”
In the case of the 1996 Leone d’oro, both amazing luck and incomprehensible misfortune were involved, even at the awards ceremony itself. Also the time period, the mid-1990s, was difficult in Finland for architects, a period of recovery from a deep recession. There is probably nothing that feels as bizarre as receiving no commissions in your home country in the wake of having won such a prestigious award.
They nevertheless can be found and will remain in both books and the history of the success of Finnish architects. Brought out for display during the interview, the Golden Lion in its opulent red carrying case is still a superbly impressive object.
Text by Tarja Nurmi.
English translation by Gareth Griffiths and Kristina Kölhi.
Images from the personal archives of Juha Kaakko and Aslak Liimatainen.