Architectural tradition in the Finnish Nordic landscape today
at the University of Lapland
This essay is a result and a viewpoint of one individual who has had a chance to spend several months in Rovaniemi, a city marking the southern border of Finnish Lapland. Coming to live in a rather small city so far in the north, from the Central European perspective, opens up a new way of thinking about the living environment. In this case, it opened up a window into thinking about the purposes architecture should have and what functions it should serve. More than that, it started a thought process about the impact architecture has on a person and vice versa. As this topic is written about from the standpoint of an individual human being, the main focus of it will be it a familiar scale, a single person’s interaction with small scale architecture. Regarding Finnish architecture, there is a lot to be written about, moreover, there has already been a lot written. Having that in mind, this text does not go straight in those already familiar directions, but it combines, not solely for the lack of relevant literature, different views on a certain landscape and architectural environment.
When one thinks of Finland, they think of a calm natural landscape that gets very close to feeling limitless. We also think of large and heavy bodies of water lacking a lot of energetic movement, laying in the landscape with a quiet and majestic strength of a very present yet hidden energy. Being present at a lakeside means being present at the edge of a, visually very open and continuous, space filled with light. In contrast with that, there are the endless forests. Considering how flat most of Finland is, the presence in such forest can make one feel lost or closed off, even while being in this limitless and physically open space. There is a whole scale of positive feelings forests awake in people, although when it is a foreign forest, much of the comfort and enjoyment comes from knowing that this continuous maze has an end in reach. Once a person reaches that edge between a forest and an open space, they can choose to prolong their time spent inside the forest labyrinth where one cannot see clearly very far, but with the knowledge of a way out.
The initial meaning behind spending time in this landscape comes from the excitement of discovery. Unfortunately this meaning isn’t one that can be kept alive constantly over a longer period of time. Of course the sense of discovery is maybe the main motivation behind the need of travel, but an essential part of that is also coming back home, where a person spends a majority of their time after all. That is where the second meaning comes in. The reason a person comes back into a space is the feeling of positive familiarity which goes hand in hand with an ever deepening sense of understanding and knowledge of the space. The process of familiarizing a foreign environment is where architecture finally comes in. That is the perspective from which this essay is written, the scale of an individual encountering a natural landscape and making it their own as a living space outside of their home.
Now there comes the question of, where does the architectural historical tradition fit into this topic. After spending some time in a foreign country, you start to get curious and ask about things. In this case, it was the questions about local terms for things with a significance to me that led me to trying to find more about them. These things I am speaking about are represented by the small architecture I naturally came in contact with within the very first few days of my time here. It is the small architecture and the natural landscape through which this new country got introduced to me and it was nothing less than these spaces that lined my own process of familiarization and adaptation into the before foreign space. I found that the term “kota” has been around for centuries and the same goes for many other terms. I started noticing the similarities in ground plans and organization of different types of small scale simple architecture and that process inevitably led to the past, where all of the traditions have their roots.
Because there is a significant focus on the interaction between architecture and a person, a lot of what is written in this text, mainly in the last chapters, is inspired by the writings of Juhani Pallasmaa, an architect and a theoretician of art and architecture of this time.
Following the lines of the introduction comes a brief specification of the spoken environment including a small comparison of the situation of living in a big city of Central Europe with the situation of living in, population wise, a smaller scale city or a town in the Nordic environment being represented by the area starting with the city of Rovaniemi and going north.
Comparing to living in a city of a million-plus inhabitants, nature and landscape plays a much more significant role here in Finland. If we compare the urban area of a metropolitan city to the urban environment of Rovaniemi, we find that the term “urban” has two very different meanings. Though it is probably not about the meaning, but the scale on which this term is played out. If we were to consider a city as a palette of one color, let’s say blue, and we were to mix in a bit of a different color, let’s say yellow, for every sign of nature present in the city, we would, in the end, come up with two significantly differing tones from the same scale. For a large European metropolitan city, in many cases, the result would be some tone of turquoise, reflecting a fair amount of trees or parks. For a Nordic town, that color would be undeniably green, maybe even a yellow-green. For a person living in such cities, it is a very clear representation of the amount of nature they come in contact with in their daily life. That is why it is worth it and it has a significance to discuss such combination of natural and urban architectural living environments in depth.
As had been previously mentioned, this text evolves around the phenomenon of a Nordic forest in combination with a city life. More detail is needed is the definition of a forest at different latitudes and of how far north we are speaking of. With these aspects the landscape changes radically and in result so does the visual rhythm and the feeling of a space. The one very important aspect in this matter is the height of trees. It is astounding how fast this changes when riding up north. One can almost see it as an animation of trees getting shorter and shorter by the minute. Once trees only reach the height of one human or a maximum of two people on top of each other, the light and openness changes very radically compared to a forest of three times that height. With that changes the perception of small architecture within that landscape. We can generally characterize Nordic forests as rather short and accessible in the aspect of bushes and other extra growth. Compared to the more southern parts of Europe, they could almost be called “clean.” There is often the feeling that someone had swept them right before our encounter. So this is, in short, the landscape we will be moving around and in.
The information and literature sources of Finnish architectural history are not thin in general. The issue is that most of them concern themselves starting around the sixteenth century, the time of the Middle Ages, the beginning of urban traditions, the time when simple dwelling had started to change and develop from very simple wooden shelters into more complex living areas that take into account more than just sheltering and survival. They work with society and distinguishing its classes. This time works with different materials in a more innovative and modern way, also on a technical level that exceeds the past. This age works with style and one’s representation of self in the public eye. It expresses a lot more than just basic needs.
The first people known of in the area of today’s Finland appeared some ten thousand years ago, that is, in the south of Finland. At that time, the cold period was just about ending enabling the south to become a livable area. Nine thousand years ago, the ice was gone altogether and Finland and the Nordic region could become inhabited in its entirety. The documentation of those times and a matter of fact the whole time all the way up to the sixteenth to nineteenth century is extremely problematic resulting from the major use of wood as a building material, as it is the most common and workable of the natural resources in the north.
The first people to survive in the Nordic region weren’t settled permanently. They were hunters and herders. The live of that survival tactic is very mobile when needing to follow the herds of animals in their natural long term movements. Being able to move from one place to another while being able to survive in extreme temperature conditions of the north required a dwelling that would be an answer to this very specific set of demanded functions. That is from where the most common shelter of that time came. It was a kota. Kota is a building resembling the Northern American Indians’ tee pees in its shape. There is a slight difference in construction. A teepee stands on a weight supporting tripod tied together, with the fabric stretching itself all the way to the top, resulting in the top not being automatically open for smoke, but having to add a ventilation opening based on valves, whereas a kota has a larger circular opening in the middle at the top with the fabric not reaching the top and the weight supporting tripod not being tied together externally but with the poles supporting each other thanks to their fork-shaped ends. Different Sámi groups would call this kind of shelter a laavu, a lávvu or a kååvas, it could also be called a goathi. A kota is wider and shorter compared to an American tee pee, this is for the purpose of stability in strong wind on the open Lapland planes. Historically, the walls of a kota were created by layering reindeer leathers with a great insulation quality. Later they would be replaced by hard fabric that would be lighter and therefore easier to carry on long distance relocations.
Later on in the historical development, in the Bronze Age, starting around nineteen hundred and lasting until five hundred years before count, came the need to settle. This, within Finland, would again come from the south, as all of the steps forward. The settling areas were, naturally, along coasts and banks of larger rivers and lakes. This would eventually present itself with a problem of the water level decreasing, in other words the dry land rising as a result of which all of these settlements on the water sides would find themselves much further away from the desired water sources.
Although we know that the building techniques were more developed and surely advancing, there are not many findings testifying to the details. As was already said, in the time spectrum of thousands of years, wood is a very rapidly fading commodity. Thanks to the use of clay, there are proofs of the presence of wooden buildings with a square ground plan and upright straight walls. Also the presence of closely spaced tumuli, a historical grave topped with a significant amount of stones as big as one is able to carry. Along the coasts of Bothnia and Finland, they testify at least to the presence of a settled, agriculturally oriented, population. As Pekka Sarras says, those could be considered the oldest Finland’s public monuments with some reaching the monumental size of tens of meters.
The next in the line of progress came the Iron Age timing from five centuries before count. The duration of this age varied strongly with location. Along the coasts, the progress exceeded this age around the twelfth century but further inland, it lasted until anywhere between then and the sixteenth century. For comparison, by that time, the rest of Europe was already living through the late middle ages. Just as before, the progress was present but the evidence scarce. During this time, also primitive forts were built atop steep cliffs. Their purpose was not meant for permanent living, but as a safety providing shelter against various aggressors.
There are a few different kinds of elementary buildings more advanced than those from the Stone Age spoken about previously. In general, there is a strong tradition of using various corner joints and low pitched roofs in wooden log buildings everywhere around Finland. Only some of the Lapp villages far in the north still contain wooden timber huts with a vertical construction, a kota, and the laavu twig shelters spoken about before. The pistekota is a building that also sometimes survived in the south but only as a summertime cooking shelter standing in near vicinity but not right next to the main dwelling, often near a body of water. The oldest of all of the generally spread wooden buildings in established agricultural settlements seems to be the wooden kota. It is a wooden log hut. It has, as mentioned, a square or a slightly rectangular ground plan and a low pitched roof which is supported by joists. There was a door positioned at one side and a fireplace set at the floor level in the middle of the kota. The smoke would go out through a smoke vent positioned at the top near the middle of the roof. This type of building was already spread in Norway, Sweden and some of the Finnish-Russian areas in the east during the late Viking era. This type of building is believed to have its roots in the Hellenic Greece where the megaron was built and after adopted into the area of central Europe in a modified version also as a very traditional building. There it was the oldest dwelling type. Only with the difference that in Europe, roofs became steeper with the Gothic influences. These did not reach the north at that time.
Another, already more developed, building was the savupirtti or savutupa, the so called “smoke cottage.” It was higher than the kota and had a mansory stove near the door which was placed higher to keep in the heat. It is said that it was very well adaptable as a multi-purpose living space for the slash-and-burn farming style of living. It could combine up to a kitchen, sleeping quarters, bakery, drying barn and a sauna.
An aitta is another type of a single-room building again with a pitched roof. It was used as a storehouse, in the summer as farmers’ sleeping quarters. It has a very tight structure for storing grains and food in general. The term “tupa” emerged as a multipurpose room combining the functions of kitchen, dining and sleeping area.
After that, as we are getting closer to the middle ages, the buildings would get more complex, more than is relevant for this essay. As an example of further development I would speak of a luhtiaitta, a store house with a loft, a two-story building with a sola, a partly closed passage. From the sixteenth century, there would also appear a paritupa, a double tupa, double cottage. All of these slightly more advanced buildings would be organized together to form a multipurpose farming area. They were usually organized regularly around a square courtyard.
What remains of that tradition today
When a foreigner arrives into Finland to stay for more than just a vacation, they are gradually introduced to the local ways and traditions. The thing is that they do not usually know a lot before, which is why hearing small pieces of information from different sources can be confusing at times. When I arrived, I was introduced to a kota, a laavu, a teepee and a number of different wooden huts, shelters and buildings around. Except for seeing and visiting one savutupa of the last century transformed into a museum dedicated to an artist as it used to be his home and workspace, I started to find out that none of these buildings have the same purpose as they once had a long, long time ago. A lot of them also adopted a name from a different traditional dwelling. An example of this would be the the laavu. Historically this would mean a tee pee like Sámi hunters’ shelter. Today, it is a term for a publicly accessible lean-to shelter.
Ever since I arrived, I have been noticing and using these various architectural spaces around and in the cities and nature. I find it is a wonderful phenomenon for many different reasons but it was one which’s tradition I had a hard time understanding due to the language barrier and the term confusion throughout the historical development. After three quarters of the past year spent in this environment, it is, for me personally, a thing of high appreciation. Seemingly it may be a fairly small thing, but it is one that mirrors the culture, it mirrors the community and it mirrors the landscape.
For an unknowing mind, this is how this beautiful Nordic phenomenon works. Anywhere you go once leaving the town, anywhere someone has gone before you, you find small paths. Along these paths, you always find a small architectural piece, a shelter, a small wooden hut, a tee pee shaped viewpoint, a watchtower. In such places, you are unselectively welcome. There are wood logs for you to use, there is a fireplace and there is a roof over your head. In the more traditional ones, you find reindeer skin and fur to sit on or a metal grill and a hook to prepare some food or a hot beverage. In general, these places are there for everyone to use, for the community, for the individual, for you, even as a complete stranger to the local ways.
It is one architectural tradition that the communities and the state choose to keep alive by repairing, rebuilding and supplying with wood and equipment. They probably know that it is worth it. A great thing about this system is the communal respect. It can work because there is enough respect for an offered thing to be careful with it, not to damage it, not to steal parts, to clean after yourself. There is enough respect to the place and to the others in the, in this case very public, community and that is a very refreshing phenomenon.
Another thing that needs to be stressed is the importance of fire and fireplaces. They are architecturally significant. They are often the center of a dwelling, for example the wooden kota, and they are always a necessary part of these small buildings in nature. They provide warmth, they provide a cooking source, they provide endless familiarity in a new place and they provide a center for conversation or even time spent and shared by more people simply sitting in quiet. Fire connects us to strangers who we share it with, it gives us a reflection point for ourselves and it connects us to the people that sat at that same fireplace the day before us, or a year before us, or a decade before us and the same goes for all the people that will sit or stand and simply be at that same place in the future.
Fire, just a symbol representing all of these places put together, provides us with a source of energy, safety, quiet and general isolation from hurries, to bond – to bond with ourselves, or to bond with others. These places are built by communities and they are used by communities. It is a place of gathering, sharing and kindness. There are unwritten rules to be followed, most of which go in the very same tracks as the most natural and instinctive human decencies, they are the qualities of unconditionally offered help, support, a piece of your food or a sip of your beverage. These are places which are meant to be shared. When you are present at them alone, you share them with people that were there before and will be there after you. When you share them with your friends and family, it gives you a time of non-scattered focus on each other and when you share them with strangers, it allows you to experience the exciting moment of an initial human connection.
Compared to a large city, for example Helsinki, having these places around in the northern towns such as Rovaniemi provides a community with a communal and time-sharing shelter especially during the long winters. In own experience, this mentioned time of long months of winter did not socially suffer one bit, also thanks to these small buildings around. Compared to a life in a big city, the winter can be a time of isolation.
Tradition of color, material and shape
In general, there is not a strong tradition in using colors other than the ones the used material naturally provide. Because we are speaking of the relationship between architecture and landscape, we need to take into account the colors presented and put into the mix by the natural environment around. As can be easily observed, the Finnish design of light sources is a very wide one and also one at a very good level. Maybe it has something to do with the several dark months every year, maybe it is just a field as developed as the rest of Finland’s industrial and product design. In either case, the results are of high quality and they are used with thought to the placement and environment. In conclusion, the light pollution in the north is not very high. That is why we can often, even near to towns, view the color scales of the natural source of the sun.
In the north, the sun and the light in general have a very distinctive character that is very different from the rest of Europe. Thanks to the dark winters and the light summers, the environment has to go through rapid changes all year long to meet the astronomical systems on time. Also the extremely cold temperatures, even if it does not seem like it, have a great impact on the light character. Except for the summer and fall, which altogether only account for a quarter odd of the year, the rest of the seasons, yes, there are more than four seasons above the arctic circle, do not provide a viewer‘s eye with many different colors. Around eight months of the year, the landscape is covered in a white coat of snow. This white background lets the eye distinguish many tones of colors without visual distractions. Also the dark offers previously unseen colors one would not expect. In general, throughout most of the year, the light is the only thing responsible for the colors around and it is a whole scale, from the deep winter oranges to the everyday blue moments around the time of sunsets. After that there is a few short months, especially one month of fall, where one feels like all the color from the year round has escaped to this time and is present all at once. I am speaking about all of this because an architectural experience is very closely linked to the setting, and color and light character are important parts of this context.
The materials are, in this case, very focused on wood, an endless resource of the Nordic region, a material that comes in hard and soft kinds, light and dark, isolates wonderfully, has a visually pleasing and natural character and therefore is widely used all around the country today and has always been in the past.
As for the shapes these small architectural elements come in can be described in a few ways. One of those ways would be that they are fairly simple. The ground plan remains square or adapts the roundness by polygons put together by various corner joints. The roofs are not very high nor are they completely flat. All shape aspects follow a simple rule of function first. In a context where function comes straight from people’s needs, there is not the danger of being too focused on function for the result not to be familiar. It works in the opposite way. The shape of these places is thought out by tradition and the human-formed past tendencies. The shapes are, unlike a lot of the modern world architecture, dimensioned for humans and therefore feel perfect to be in contact with.
There also is the importance of shapes in a landscape from a view further away. It must be said that the placement of these buildings and shelters follows the very natural ways of human behavior. They are located in places where people need them. Some are in the body of a forest where one cannot see them from very far and some are at the tops or at the bottoms of shapes provided by the landscape, where they mark and gently accentuate these points of change.
The forest as an urban space
As a last chapter, I would like to carry out a thought, an idea, a metaphor. The landscape as an architectural space has been spoken about in depth within this text, but there is still one parallel that has not yet been suggested. It is the parallel between the forest and the urban environment. It this parallel, there are two roles to be considered. The first one is the creator, the architect and the urbanist. The second one is the recipient, the viewer, the user. In a regular urban space, the architect and urbanist create for the target group of a certain city. In the thought urbanism of a forest, the creator and the recipient are one and the same. When a person purposefully creates something, they have to think themselves into the shoes of the recipient, they have to imagine the result from their eyes and try and imagine the future mutual interactions in their good and bad aspects and incorporate all of these embodied reflections into the designing process. It is difficult to get all of these aspects to sit into place and work together for a functional and humanly result. Unfortunately that is often not the case.
In the case of a natural urbanistic process, there is not a single moment of a thought out general planning. All the large and small and more and less significant tracks and paths are created only little by little. They are created by the mass of the area’s recipients, but not as a mass together. They are created by individual decisions made by separate people. The decisions are not thoroughly planned out. They are all made relying on instinct in the maximum possible way. When we walk through nature, we do not stop and think about the direction of every single step we make, we just make them, automatically, instinctively. This way, we either follow an already existing path, or we start a new one. Either way, we leave a small and seemingly insignificant mark on the environment. When countless people move through the same space, their instinct might be the same as ours, they may follow the same path and little by little make it more visible. Or their instinct is very different and we find that our path was more or less off in its direction from the general trend. In this case, the next person chooses a different path and if that happens many times, it comes to a system of natural selection of the most desired directions and ways to get places. No approach to designing a space can be closer to the individual within the public. No other way can be more instinctive. This is not meant as a real proposition for a designing process, it is merely meant as an inspiration, as a way to stress the importance of a natural instinct within an urban space and the paths in the forest are, in this case, the perfect metaphor.
Most countries of the world have various and very interesting architectural and cultural histories. Some choose to learn from them, take the good and agelessly functional and incorporate it into the modern architecture. Some choose to find the inspiration abroad. This essay is a testament of appreciation towards the way Finland approaches its building and cultural traditions. Finland in general is a country from where many great architects, designers and urbanists arose. There was Engle, the Saarinen brothers, Blomstedt, Bryggman, Gullichsen, Nyström, Sonck or Aalto and they were all top class architects with new and often revolutionary ideas and approaches to architecture. With all of the world architecture progress, in Finland, one can sense there is a knowledge of the global progress present, but at the same time, there is always a strong sense of consciousness about the human need, about architectural atmosphere, a concern about materials and visual harmony and last but not least, the respect of traditionalism approached in an up to date manor. The sense of tradition does not in any way hold the progress back, but it reinforces its shapes with the value of the previous centuries. A great example of this would be the Sámi parliament in the very north of Finland. It is a new and very modern building which uses traditional wooden materials and is inspired by the shapes of classical shelters, the original laavu for example. The design remakes all of this tradition into a very present result that feels modern while feeling the support of history. That is a good way to progress in a field and not get led of the tracks.
The choice of landscape and small-scale traditional architecture was a personal one, but non the less one that represents the idea rather well. It is the kind of architecture where a human plays the main role in both creating and using. It is also a sample of the Finnish architectural field, that may be overlooked amongst the more glorious ones, but paying attention to the traditions is important and for me, as a foreigner, this has been a good way to dig deep, discover more, think long about the presented values and in the end, show my appreciation to the way this kind of atmosphere supported by the small traditional architecture and the culture welcomes the strangers and incorporates them into the new, even if somewhat temporary, community. For this natural urbanism and architecture, I am very thankful.
Resources and inspiration
The Thinking Hand, Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture
The Eyes of the Skin, Architecture and the Senses
Architecture and Landscape, The Building of Finland
Wood, Stone and Steel, Contours of Finnish Architecture
Nature and the Idea o a Man-made World