Stories for Tomorrow – Lived Today, Everywhere

A new city district straight from the drawing board

Photo: Goethe Institut / Irina Ginsburg

A new city district straight from the drawing board

Helsinki will gain an entirely new neighbourhood for 30,000 inhabitants all at one go. Communality and care for the environment are important to the town planners. Their task is to preserve traditions but also to find new, innovative solutions.

For a few weeks you could see the sea, but now no longer. You can hear the cries of seagulls, as long as no-one is hammering or sawing, driving in bolts or tearing open packages – if there is no screeching of metal or whining of cranes.
The sea wind decides whence it carries the sounds up to the long balcony on the fourth floor of Malagankatu 3. The street is in Jätkäsaari, an island in the Baltic Sea, only a canal’s width from the rest of Helsinki. But where only a few weeks ago, you could still see the sea, now rises the shell of the next building built of grey concrete slabs

Jätkäsaari is one of Europe’s biggest building sites, where 20 percent of all Helsinki’s housing is being built at one go, so it is no wonder that it creates some noise and dust, as well as quite a lot of plastic wrapping that the wind blows along the streets in the evenings.

From container terminal to urban utopia

There will soon be 30,000 people living in Jätkäsaari, many of them working there as well. Children will go to school through parks and across pedestrian bridges without having to negotiate a single major street crossing. Only some ten years ago, Jätkäsaari was the city’s western container terminal. When in 2008 the terminal moved away, what was left was a fairly flat concrete area, a dream for town planners. They could actually sketch in hills and elevations on the drawing board. If you want to meet an enthusiastic town planner, you have to look in on Matti Kaijansinkko, who is the head project manager: “We wanted to think of Jätkäsaari as a continuation of Bulevardi, Helsinki’s central boulevard”.

  • Photo: Goethe Institut / Irina Ginsburg

  • Photo: Goethe Institut / Irina Ginsburg

  • Photo: Goethe Institut / Irina Ginsburg

  • Photo: Goethe Institut / Irina Ginsburg

  • Photo: Goethe Institut / Irina Ginsburg

  • Foto: Goethe Institut / Irina Ginsburg

  • Photo: Goethe Institut / Irina Ginsburg

  • Photo: Goethe Institut / Irina Ginsburg

  • Photo: Goethe Institut / Irina Ginsburg

  • Photo: Goethe Institut / Irina Ginsburg

In the architectural history of Helsinki, you can follow the development of building from one quarter to another: wood gave way to stone, and 19th century Classicism and Finnish Jugendstil flourished in the better neighbourhoods. The spare lines of Modernism were first seen in workers’ districts, such as Kallio, where the living quarters were contained behind sober facades. In middle-class districts such as Töölö, the facades were furnished with balconies, which were minimally decorative, but sometimes curved right up to the corner of the building. Greyish tones were the dominant colour everywhere, although now and then shades of pastel could be seen. In the post-war years, the Finns turned their back on the city. Here, the automobile became the link to the Finnish dream: a summer cottage in the country. In the city, restraint was the order of the day, with strict rules regarding eave height, and a sparse catalogue of forms that architects could use.

All this has been thrown overboard in Jätkäsaari. “Use colours! was one of the few instructions given to the architects,” says Kaijansinkko. They were also to use a variety of materials and forms.

Scandinavian Modernism in a new form

There really are black brick walls, grey brick walls, light brown brick walls and white brick walls. There is raw concrete and corrugated sheet metal. In a site that is best protected from the humid sea wind, a block of wooden houses is being built. The roofs are flat or desk-type, there are dormer windows, lofts, roof terraces, windows reaching right down to ground level. In fact there is just about everything here – but when you get used to the different colours and materials, you can say that the brick facade is in itself decorative. There are hardly any window lintels, very little decor. Bay windows let in more light. Not one of the buildings is like the next.

A few weeks ago, bridges for cyclists and pedestrians were put up, the massive iron used underlining the solidity of their construction. The bridges themselves consist solely of bearing structures and they are painted bright orange. “We wanted to experiment, but the ideas behind the buildings are still closely linked with Finnish tradition,” says Kaijansinkko. By this he is referring to the functional living quarters, but also the communal facilities such as saunas, laundry rooms and facilities for organising cultural events.

However, Jätkäsaari stands in contrast to normal attitudes towards Finnish architecture. Kaijansinkko puts it in a friendly manner: “The idea that people want to live in the city centres, is still fairly young. But the idea of such a densely built district, where we have banished cars to the outer margins, is even younger.” From the temporary, patched asphalt you can already guess something: the traffic lanes are narrow, as the three tramlines are more important. Kaijansinkko reckons that, thanks to the new city district, the distances travelled by car will fall by some 2.5 million kilometres a year – since families will move to Jätkäsaari from the suburbs, and it will be quicker to go to the inner city by bicycle.

Communality over individualism

Some sixty per cent of the flats are owned by the city, and the rents are affordable for people with middle-range incomes, families who want to move back to the city, or who won’t even need to move to the suburbs in the first place. There is also housing here for people with low incomes, for instance students, and there are solutions for communities that diverge from the traditional family norm.

There is a reasonably-sized park that meanders through the area – exactly the same width as Helsinki Bulevardi, 88 metres wide. In the spacious yards between the buildings there are playgrounds with climbing frames and equipment waiting for the children. Next summer, parents will be calling the kids in from their balconies, to have their dinner. This kind of social control will help to make people feel safe.

The technical solutions used will reduce service traffic by 92 percent – for example garbage collection. On the ground floor of every building there will be a garbage chute that will open with the same chip card as the door to the resident’s flat. Here biowaste will be separated from paper and plastic. “Only pizza boxes will be a problem until people realise that they have to be torn up first,” says Kaijansinkko with a laugh. The hatch was designed on purpose to be small.

It is quiet now on the balcony of Malagankatu 3, the building site is at rest late in the afternoon. As the sun sets, its beams shine on the opposite, still unfinished building, painting red shadows on its balcony, which behind the corrugated sheet metal facade looks like an arcade opening onto the inner yard. In this block some very special ideas have been realised: One of the buildings already completed is a kind of old people’s home for musicians. “We knew that they never earned a lot of money, or more often than not, they drank all they had”, says Kaijansinkko with a wink. At street level there is an already very successful bar. It’s time to go down there: there’s a concert on in the Malaga Bar, as there is on most evenings.


    December 2017
    Space & Housing
    Helsinki, Finland


    Lennart Laberenz (*1976) lives and works in Berlin.

    Translated by

    Rosemary Mackenzie

    Further Topics

    Food & Drink
    Public Relations
    Rural & Urban Nature
    Space & Housing