("Happy feelings at the awakening of Finnish Spring" being one of the alternative titles cheekily used by performers of Sibelius' Finlandia in its early performances, in order to escape Russian censorship.)
We arrived in Helsinki in the Finnish Spring, fresh from the Australian Late-Summer. Before long, the Finnish Summer announced itself with glorious sunshine and warmth creeping across southern Finland. Helsinki in summer could be surprisingly warm, touching the mid-thirties on the streets around our apartment. On holiday in the UK in July, I found myself saying something I thought I never would: I miss the heat of the Helsinki sun.
By September it was deeply Autumnal, though. Up in Lahti a month ago, the gutters were already lined with soggy piles of decomposing leaves. To the south, here in Helsinki, we're in a schizophrenic state in which summer and autumn co-exists from one hour to the next.
The next punctuation mark in the seasonal calendar here is ruska, a word which has no particular counterpart in English as far as I can see. Perhaps the diametric opposite of the week of cherry blossom in Japan. Ruska is the one week in which birch, larch, rowan et al really explode into russet tones, turning to richly saturated peaks of purples, reds, yellows and oranges, before rapidly shivering off their leaves for winter. This phenomenon is connected to the level of sugar in the leaves, apparently, which is in turn to do with particular temperature ranges. Some years are more ruska than others. (This may happen in similar climates elsewhere, like Maine perhaps, though I don't know if it has an apogee of one week in this way.) Ruska will already have occurred in Lapland and is making its way south, arriving here in Helsinki around mid-October.
Seasonality is far more pronounced here than in the UK or Australia. Various popular rituals still dot the calendar, particularly in summer, which is a real pleasure. Juhannus (midsummer) was spent on a small island in the Tammisaari peninsular with around thirty Swedish-speaking Finns. The landscape and seascape was as simply beautiful as anywhere I've ever seen. Another presumably pagan ritual marks the end of the season: a crayfish party in the shared garden of a couple of adjacent blocks in downtown Helsinki. Also magical (if fuelled somewhat by schnapps and unintelligible drinking songs poking fun at the Swedes, the Russians, and—Finns being Finns—the Finns.)
The seaons are more pronounced in the food, too. The good stuff anyway. At a dinner at Muru in early September, the dishes were emblazoned with a particular kind of local redcurrant, in season for two weeks only. The berries sequence themselves for our pleasure: strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, whitecurrent, redcurrant, gooesberry, seabuckthorn berry, cloudberry, and many more I've never heard of.
Restaurants like Noma in Copenhagen—the best in the world—have utterly transformed the idea of Nordic cuisine, in doing so emphasising local, seasonal produce like no other equivalent operation. Indeed, the staff spend the morning foraging for ingredients to be used in the evening. While this is an excellent and welcome game-changer in the region, it's hardly replicable at scale. Yet seasonality is more evident in even near-mainstream food culture here than in the UK and Australia. It's a foundation to build upon.
All the time, we’re aware of WINTER looming in the background.
If I had a Euro for every time someone had asked, with a malicious twinkle in the eye, “And will it be your first Finnish winter?”, I’d have around 28 Euros. The sheer duration, depth and weight of the WINTER projects itself deep into August, no matter what the weather outside is. We all know it’s coming.
"The sky was almost black, but the snow shone a bright blue in the moonlight.
The sea lay asleep under the ice, and deep down among the roots of the earth, all small beasts were sleeping and dreaming of spring. But spring was quite a bit away because the year had only just got a little past New Year's.
At the point where the valley began its soft slope toward the mountains stood a snowed-in house. It looked very lonely and rather like a crazy drift of snow. Quite near it ran a bend of the river, coal-black between ice edges. The current kept the stream open all winter. But there were no tracks leading over the bridge, and no one had touched the snow drifts around the house.
But he could no longer forget the one terrible thing—that the sun didn't rise any longer. Yes, it's true; morning after morning broke in a kind of grey twilight and melted back again into the long, winter night—but the sun never showed himself. He was lost, simply lost; perhaps he had rolled out into space. At frist Moomintroll refused to believe it. He waited a long time."
—Moominland Midwinter, Tove Jansson (1957)
That is so different to the months we've just had, which were characterised by hot sun and rich blue endless skies and seas, dusty city streets and islands covered with lush birch, larch, pine, soft green moss and great sun-warmed, mineral-streaked hunks of granite and gneiss. Still, it's good to be in a place with such sharp contrast between seasons, described not least by a 50ºC temperature swing.
We are beginning to enquire after boots of a sturdiness never previously thought of, after coats of such firmness and commodity that they are virtually architecture. As the other mammals around us begin preparing for winter—and by other mammals, I principally mean the local red squirrels with the long ears, scurrying around collecting nuts in-between posing for photographs, as John Updike memorably described their stop-start motion—we don’t so much gather foliage as idly browse Tretorn and Woolrich websites, or wonder about the efficacy of Artek's new SAD-countering white lights.
Back in May, however, it was that splendid Finnish summer that was rearing its pretty little head. A couple of weeks after arriving in Helsinki I was asked by one of my old employers, Monocle, to write the piece accompanying their selection of the city as their no.1 in 2011's urban quality of life survey.
It felt somewhat odd to write about the city having just arrived. Yet I had visited many times, with several deep engagements in the last year. Plus, I still maintain it's possible to capture the essence of a city from fleeting impressions, even if true depth of understanding takes years.
Since writing the piece—and I'm posting the original, longer edit below—my experiences have served to back up most of what I wrote, at least to my mind. Our apartment in Ullanlinna sits at the epicentre of an entirely walkable, entirely liveable existance, exhibiting exactly the kind of naturally high yet everyday and affordable quality in services, amenities and infrastructure that the Monocle index is interested in. More importantly, this sits within a society with modernity and equality at its core.
Yet perhaps paradoxically this even provision of quality is also the root cause of Helsinki's occasional shortcomings. (This also applies by extention to Finland, to some extent.) The outcome of 'spirit level' economy and society is complex. It's essentially A Good Thing: ethically sound; no-one left behind; a comparatively sustainable economy predicated on equality; high-performing across numerous indices. You wouldn't want it any other way, almost.
There are few things more quietly appealing than walking your kids to the local päivakoti (daycare) 10 minutes away down by the sea, bumping into friends in the street on the way and taking a couple of minutes to chat about what's just opened in the neighbourhood as people scurry past on their way to the tram, just before you pass a playground full of kids clambering over climbing frames, wearing fluorescent tops emblazoned with the name of their päivakoti, past miniaturised bits of municipal cleaning equipment buzzing around a square surrounded by well-made 8-storey blocks of stone painted pink, yellow, blue, grey, with shops and cafés at their ground level beginning to glow a warm orange as their day starts ...
It's like a bloody RIchard Scarry book come to life, sometimes, it really is. (And not Cars and Trucks and Things That Go either.)
Yet the same spirit level that produces the evenly distributed daycare, the clean streets and occupied shops, the dads sharing childcare and the mums in work, the pervasive public transport, the squares, the parks, the playgrounds is also a complex, slightly impenetrable system in terms of stimulating 'spikes' of innovation or difference.
It's a system that, as compared to much of the deregulated West, still has effective policy levers to pull, and effective services on the end of them. Thus it's possible to engender positive systemic change rapidly, at least in theory. And yet the same system can also, often inadvertently, resist diversity, difference, external influence, and experimental pockets of change or exceptional quality. And an ecosystem that resists diversity and change is arguably lacking essential resilence. Understanding how to access sweet spots in the middle of the spirit level will be the key to unlocking this place.
This is really something for another day, but you can sense elements of this in my writing below. Critique is not what this piece was about, and so it's difficult to subtly elide notes of caution, hesitancy or equivocation into what had to become <1000 words on Why Helsinki Is So Good. But there are some notes in the mix nonetheless. These are really a concern of the day job, in the first instance, although I know Monocle would be happy to hear more about how the city could incrementally improve.
Monocle's Tom Morris did a brilliant bit of editing to take the following piece and carve it to the required word limit, whilst also Monocle-ising it somewhat. I'm not sure how editors do that.
But what I try to get at in this longer version is the idea of the tacit city, or opaque city. There is a strong element of this to Helsinki. It's possible to visit, and miss the point entirely. It doesn't offer itself up easily at all. The peculiarly distinct language exacerbates this, of course, but there are other ways in which the city remains opaque—cultural, social, environmental. But I argue that that makes the city more interesting as a result, just as it is at a different scale with London. You have to work harder at it, but it's more rewarding.
Although Helsinki has been a constant delight in our few months here, it's not immediately obvious to the visitor with preconceptions about what a city is, or some other prejudice to resolve.
"The officer shifted his gaze towards the city, turned his back on me and replied.
'This isn't just any city. It is an encampment of Mongols who surfaced at the other end fo the continent by mistake; savages whose only thought is to get drunk, even on ethyl alcohol if they can't find anything else!' Pleased with his words, he turned around and drew heavily on his cigarette.
'Welcome to Helsinki!' he added sardonically, then walked away, tossing his butt end into the sea. Perhaps he had had those words stored away for me right from the beginning of the voyage."
—New Finnish Grammar, Diego Marani (2000; English translation 2011)
This, from Marani's majestic little book, of which more later, is of course chosen here as the most ludicrously oppositional counterpoint to my ode below. But some really don't see why Helsinki was chosen as Monocle's #1. To those proffering indices and rankings I'd say there is no objective city (hence, partly, the deliberately subjective criteria behind the Monocle ranking.) Cities are, after Raban, soft, in that they reveal as much about the observer as anything. You get out what you put in, and perhaps Helsinki exemplfies this more than most.
"“For better or worse, (the city) invites you to remake it, to consolidate it into a shape you can live in. You, too. Decide who you are, and the city will again assume a fixed form around you. Decide what it is, and your own identity will be revealed, like a map fixed by triangulation. Cities, unlike villages and small towns, are plastic by nature. We mould them in our images: they, in their turn, shape us by the resistance they offer when we try to impose our own personal form on them."
—Soft City, Jonathan Raban (1974)
When the tacit knowledge prevents urban processes functioning, as can be the case, there's a problem to be resolved, but often you're only a couple of clicks away from unlocking something rare, something so uniquely Helsinki that it's a pleasure to discover in an increasingly homogenous world.
This opacity is also balanced by a form of gentle civic urbanism, humble almost. One of my favourite quotes about the Finnish character is about the peerless footballer Jari Litmanan (of Ajax, Barcelona, Liverpool and Finland fame), drawn from the recollections of Ajax team manager David Endt:
"The press conference is over, and in comes Jari Litmanen, from behind the door. And I looked at his face and I looked at his eyes, and I recognised something in those eyes. And I thought, this is a man with a great willpower. Because he was not shy, not timid, but he was modest. He is not a man who will raise his voice, or bang with his fist on the table and say, ‘We do it this way.’ No, he was more of a diplomat, not wanting to be a leader, but being a leader."
This feels entirely familiar: a leader, but not appearing like one. Again, all the issues pivot around this slightly mysterious, enigmatic character, as well as the assets.
At the level of built fabric, this means that the city's architecture is really all about details and interiors. If I were to start wrting about the componentry—the doors and door handles, window frames, typography, house names and numbers, signage, particularly skyline silhouette, brickwork, ornamentation, lighting, emblems and so on—neither of us would be out of here any time soon. So I've sublimated that desire into a Flickr set about it instead, much of which draws from the 'peculiar ugly-beautiful Jugendstil thru' functional modernism' of our immediate neighbourhood. Enjoy.
There is no particular signature architecture—save several Aalto gems—but this is the corrollary of everything else achieving that spirit level mean. On the whole, I'd rather have this than sprawling mediocrity punctuated by jewels. (And on the whole, I'd rather have a high-functioning spirit level society than exemplary architecture anyway, even allowing for a symbiotic relationship between the two.)
But again it means the genuinely fine craft is only visible at the second glance, or even the touch, and hidden in courtyards, tucked under oxidised copper awnings or inside a gloomy threshold, decorating the roofline well above your head. This is most evident in the Richard Scarry City of downtown Helsinki, replete with pre-modern romantic megastructures that are almost aircraft carriers of such componentry, but that craft is also a relatively straight line drawn clean through modernism and beyond.
As Juhani Pallasmaa pointed out, the door handle is the handshake of the building. I've enjoyed countless such introductions with buildings since moving here. It's an everyday experience of quality in building which is absent in those cities studded with more precious jewels. It may be drawn from the pragmatic need for shelter in a city whose winter can touch -25ºC, but the spirit level means everyone, virtually, has an entirely everyday, taken-for-granted, often subconscious pleasure in building craft. This care for detail doesn't extend in all directions though, and again, sometimes struggles with the new, different or foreign, but if I were to build a city, I'd start with the door handles of Helsinki and work my way up from there. (After the jobs of Shanghai of course.)
Enough context, on with the ode. Here's the full, original version of my essay on Helsinki for Monocle, issue 45, July/August 2011. It should go without saying that this is me writing in Monocle mode. Many thanks to interviewees Martti Kalliala, Mayor Jussi Pajunen, and Ville Relander, whose quotes have a little more space here. (No photos for this piece as, really, where would I start?)