Friday, 01 Mar 2024

Material culture: 2023 Dulux Study Tour, Helsinki

The first leg of the 2023 Dulux Study Tour visited Helsinki: traditionally a city of red granite, copper and experiments with new materials.

Material culture: 2023 Dulux Study Tour, Helsinki

Finland considers itself a "young" country. It only emancipated itself from centuries of Swedish and Russian rule in 1917, and for most of the twentieth century, the country's efforts in nation-building and expressing its national identity have been palpable through its arts, culture, architecture and urbanity.

Helsinki Central Railway Station by Eliel Saarinen was completed just two years after Finland declared independence. Its monolithic granite structure and vivid copper roofs epitomize Finnish materiality. Commissioned in 1904 through a design competition, the station was set against a backdrop of Finnish nationalism and opposition to Russian rule among the country's cultural circles. Paintings protesting restrictions on autonomy were popular, and Sibelius's rousing tone poem "Finlandia" was composed to add voice to the national uprising.

Red granite can be found everywhere across Helsinki, from boulders to cobblestoned streets to buildings. They call it "helsingite" here because it is unique. Copper too is abundant, thanks to the Finnish mining industry, as is the spruce that fills the forests surrounding the city.

"I think that's really clear in Helsinki, and they have a really strong material identity. It's very textural and very grounded in the materials they have," observed Bradley Kerr, one of five winners of the Australian Institute of Architects' Dulux Study Tour.

"The strongest identifier in Helsinki on all of the architecture was the consistency of the very textured red granite and copper, and the way that they use those materials in so many different ways on buildings over the last 100 years just tells a really nice story of that place."

Ellen Buttrose added, "We didn't see any plasterboard, we didn't see any composite materials - we saw materials that were very specific to this place, and I think that has naturally generated a particular language. And it's been used in so many different ways."

Post-war building in Helsinki has also accelerated a distinct feel to the city. Sarah Lebner remarked that "the periods of austerity [post-war] and needing to be frugal [have] taught the Finnish how to use pattern, repetition and layout of really simple materials very well, which has seeded part of their design culture."

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