Cape Town has just taken over from the Finnish capital Helsinki as World Design Capital. MURRAY LA VITA visited Helsinki and reports on some of the cities’ 2012 projects in which design was used to create a better city.

As if from nowhere a huge timber structure suddenly appears in front of us one night. It looks like a ship that has moored in the snow on this square in the heart of Helsinki. But the beautiful and mysterious apparition is the Chapel of Silence which was erected on the busy Narrinka Square in 2012 as a space of retreat.

The chapel is not intended for congregational services or ceremonies, but a social worker, Marja Koskenalho, and Lutheran minister, Nanna Helaakoski, are available should people want to talk to them or discuss problems. Helaakoski is a slender young woman in black jeans and Puma trainers. Her white clerical collar peeps out from beneath her black jersey.

Another nocturnal surprise is the building on the Helsinki waterfront which beckons you with its pulsating red sign SAUNA. Like the Chapel of Silence the Kulttuurisauna (Culture Sauna) is one of the legacies of Helsinki’s year as World Design Capital (WDC) in 2012.

The sauna is probably just as much part of the Finnish life style as the braai is part of the lives of many South Africans. The Kulttuurisauna is a new urban Finnish sauna in a striking minimalist building on the Helsinki waterfront in Hakaniemenranta. The couple Nene Tsuboi (designer) and Tuomas Toivonen (architect) created the sauna and they run it.

A Smiling Tsuboi receives visitors from behind the counter at the entrance. On the counter is a bowl of oranges and a small peppermint-coloured plastic image of a dog that looks like Lassie. The placing of this object on the beautiful pale wooden surface in this space (where men and women with towels around their waists come out of the saunas to chat or watch television in the lounge, or to look out over the Baltic harbour at the arrival of a huge ferry ) bestows the stature, the allure, of a sculpture on the plastic Lassie. Tsuboi laughs. No, someone forgot the dog there and now it is waiting on the counter for its owner.

The Finnish design movement, the Design Forum, is 138 years old, older than the Finnish state itself. It is in the elegant headquarters of this forum in Helsinki’s design district where Pekka Timonen, chairman of the International Design Foundation, and Laura Aalto, communications director, tell us about Helsinki as World Design Capital and the legacy resulting from that year.

The room in which we sit on 60-stools designed in 1930 by the legendary Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto (no relation of Laura), is essentially also a gallery. We sit in the shadow of large, polished golden male figures – sculptures by Björn Weckström. In glass cases at the entrance his jewellery is exhibited. One piece looks familiar. It turns out to be the necklace worn by princess Leia at the end of Star Wars IV.

The International Design Foundation was created to organise and drive the WDC-2012 project, but it still exists and continues with its work: to use design for the improvement of cities, says Timonen.

‘’It is often said design is part of the DNA of the Finnish people; we have all grown with design,’’ says Aalto. The is dressed in a black silk blouse and well-cut trousers. Her shoes look like an elegant, black hand-made version of what we know as velskoene.

Design can, must and even will, take a more central role in the development of our society in Helsink

“Design can, must and even will, take a more central role in the development of our society in Helsinki; moving from the city where design exists, to the city which is driven by design. We are not there yet, but we are moving in that direction,” says Timonen.

As a global project WDC is in its infancy; Cape Town is but the fourth WDC. “It is an animal that very few people know anything about before it arrives. And when it leaves; even then people might think it lasted only one year. So it is a very different global designation than any other designations. Because it is so much about the city making transformation. Every WDC takes the concept further.’’

He talks about how difficult it is to communicate to people what WDC is really about. “The traditional understanding of design is a beautiful object in a very expensive store. That is very much locked in people’s brains and one year doesn’t change that but you can try.”

The challenge was to make it clear that the WDC year is not an event.

“It is rather something that brews in the city and moves the city forward. There are lots of events and it has an events nature, but the core of the project is to change your city. It is a transformation project,” says Timonen.

Aalto: “Design is not a miracle; it is not a thing that solves all the problems in the public service. But Its a tool, it’s a method, it’s a thinking and understanding that you need alongside other abilities to solve these very complex problems that we have in the public sector; having design in the tool-kit, so to say, of the city administration.”

It was important to place design on the political and social agenda. This is later emphasised by Marco Steinberg, board member of the International Design Foundation, and Hella Hernberg, architect and designer. They tell us about attempts to bring design and government together. This was done through the Design Exchange Programme in which Hella was employed as a strategic designer at the Ministry of Environment.

The recent creation of the Design Driven City project will enhance these efforts. Professional designers (such as Hernberg) will be hired to work in city organisations.

This two-year project, managed by the International Design Foundation, is aimed at promoting the use of design in cities of the larger Helsinki area and ‘’to put it firmly at the core of the development of public services and to strengthen user-oriented approaches in city service design” . Projects of this nature which were developed in 2012 include the project ‘’School dinners rock’’ by design studio Muotohiomo in which the whole experience of free dinners at government schools was ‘’redesigned’’ to make it (dinners and chefs that create them) more appreciated and enjoyable.

Or the online project by Aalto University to combat sexually transmitted diseases through risk-assessment and home-test-kit orders. It allows students that test positive to notify former sexual partners anonymously.

A visit to the Helsinki City Library also offers a glimpse at such a project. The Library is in a gorgeous functionalist building with gold walls that was built in the thirties and was called The Last Palace at the time. It used to house a bioscope but was originally built with the 1940 Helsinki Olympic Games in mind. Of course that never took place due to the Second World War which came in its place.

The City of Helsinki is planning to build a new Central Library in the center of the city. As part of WDC the Central City project, a international architectural competition, was held to choose architects. The services of the new library are planned with the citizens , and the library will be much more than a storage place for books; it will be a “house of knowledge, a digitally intelligent place, a community centre for the citizens, and a place between the home and the workplace.

Lotta Muurinen, a woman with a pixie hairstyle and playful green temporary tattoos on her forearms, is a librarian and one of the planners of the new library project. She tells us about the Do It Yourself Makerspace which has been in existence since October in the present library and which gives a glimpse of what the new library will be like. In the big open space at the front of the library (with its golden walls) people of all ages are busy with a variety of activities. 3d-printers are in action, IT specialists are giving advice,and, in what looks like something from a space ship, people are reading books or engaging with their laptops or iPads. They are called Silence Chairs, a capsule-like structure in which you can sit and enjoy (some) silence and privacy.

“I am the only traditional librarian here. The rest of the staff, there are six of them, are IT-specialists and mediaworkers. We for instance have a laptop doctor that helps people,” she says pointing to a table where a young man and a grey-haired woman are sitting with their heads bowed over a laptop.

A number of years ago Helsinki announced its first Food Culture Strategy with at its core the enhancing of the market halls and market squares, urban gardening, organic food, composting and environmental awareness. Another aspect of this strategy, which opened in 2012 as part of WDC, is the Abbatoir (Teurastamo) in the cities’ former meat-packing district. This area is now populated by restaurants, shops and gardens – very similar to the Biscuit Mill in Woodstock, Cape Town. Ville Relander, the project Manager of the Food Culture Strategy, told a colleague of mine he regularly visits Cape Town and drew inspiration from the Biscuit Mill Project.

One of the highlights of the Helsinki experience was a visit to the breathtakingly beautiful Kaisa Library of the University of Helsinki. In that white, light-filled building that reminds one of the Guggenheim in New York, the initiatives of WDC-2012 also bore fruit .

The young designer Mikko Koivisto created a system called the Intelligent design-service that reformed the traditional library service and made it significantly more user-friendly.

One of the “tools” of this system is a plain-looking tin containing cards with user-guidelines. Plain but beautiful, very efficient, and above all, well designed.


La Vita was a guest of the City of Helsinki and WDC-2012.


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