Weekly Studio drops by the Cable Factory to meet Luca Picardi, a London-based communication designer and this year’s recipient of the Helsinki design residency through the British Council and HIAP. Writer Crystal Bennes speaks with him about comparing urban developments across Northern Europe and if it is possible to plan vibrancy.
So this book, Familiar, is the project you’ve been working on while in residence here in Helsinki?
Yes, it’s a book that explores patterns of mimicry in contemporary urban development projects, born out of my initial visit to Helsinki in May as part of the residency. I spent two weeks meeting various people and open-endedly exploring the city. What I found was that two emerging neighbourhoods Jätkäsaari and Kalasatama constructed on some of Helsinki’s ex-industrial land were frighteningly familiar to some of the regeneration areas I’d previously explored in London through my photographic project ‘Private Public Places’.
And what was it that you found so interesting about those places before you came here?
The new neighbourhoods here are being presented to the public as ‘sustainable’, ‘vibrant’ and ‘people-centric’ – things that are seemingly appealing and positive steps forward for the city. So, I was intrigued to see how these concepts are manifested through the built environment in this specific context.
And was that specifically with the aim in mind of comparing Helsinki to London?
Not necessarily, but the two contexts seemed to inevitably collide through the familiarity I perceived between them. Going back and forth between Helsinki and London, I began to realise how strolling through Jätkäsaari felt like an extension of walking around Nine Elms redevelopment zone. I felt this eerie familiarity between the two urban environments and so I decided to begin unpeeling the layers.
And are you looking at these spaces purely in terms of what you see on the surface – the aesthetics – or are you trying to look behind the scenes as well, as issues of planning and development?
I looked at development aesthetics for the bulk of this project, but I also explored the marketing language and open-source information and data available surrounding these projects. A lot of the inspiration came from being here in Helsinki. I’ve been speaking with many people to get different perspectives, from urbanists and developers to people working/studying at Aalto University, artists, and the HIAP community – all of whom have been very useful and graciously given me deep local insight into urban issues. These experiences helped shape the project.
But the urban spaces in Familiar were ultimately examined through a kind of internet ethnography. From an initial look at data, articles, renders, real estate sites and marketing materials related to Jätkäsaari, this expanded out to a broader context of urban regeneration projects across Northern Europe, from HafenCity in Hamburg to Stockholm’s Royal Seaport.
The more I explored, the more obvious parallels began to emerge. And so [flips to page in the book] I found this interesting geo-historical resonance with the interconnected trading hubs of the Hanseatic League…which acted almost like cities within cities. Interestingly, that’s how a lot of these spaces market themselves, as cities within cities.
I divided the book up into four sections: render, language, site and neighbour. So, with renders, for example, I catalogued architectural renders from all these different contexts and you quickly begin to notice that these seemingly site specific renders are actually interchangeable. A render of a block of flats in HafenCity could easily be a render for Kalasatama. You look at a building in Jätkäsaari and you could be anywhere. That became the driver for this project. The more you peel back the layers, the more you begin to see repetitions .
In terms of thinking about conclusions with respect to the project, are you interested in drawing conclusions or not really?
I don’t really have conclusions. I have a lot of questions. ‘Why does everything have to be so familiar?’, for a start. Of course, the question of familiarity doesn’t just apply to urban
regeneration projects. Familiarity as a concept is deeply ingrained in everything we do. Everything has to be familiar to some extent in order for people to understand it and connect with it. Modern-day story telling is often hinged on nostalgia, which is a form of familiarity with something. And today, nostalgia is still perhaps the best kind of marketing technique we know.
But doesn’t this idea of ‘familiarity’ depend on a very specific demographic? In the case of a lot of these developments, it’s familiarity to a white, middle-class demographic between the ages of, let’s say, 20 and 40. Are you trying to push at how we construct the familiar?
Perhaps, but I’m not trying to be that explicit or specific. Familiar is purely an exercise that reframes existing marketing material to highlight certain patterns in urban development to question ideas of authenticity and context. Maybe these themes around the development’s demographic you mention emerge as a result of this study.
It’s open to interpretation. This idea of familiarity in urban spaces presents itself almost like a business plan with a very formulaic and almost modular approach to city building and my question is, ‘why does it have to be this way?’ Has city building become a service industry?
To go back to your previous question, I suppose there are two main things I would say I’ve more or less concluded, both from Helsinki and from developing Familiar. The first is that a lot of these regeneration projects are disconnected from their local context. They don’t feel like a seamless extension of the urban fabric. There isn’t an easily identifiable local characteristic in Jätkäsaari, Nordhavnen or Nine Elms. This ranges from the aesthetics of the buildings, landscape design, local amenities, and apartment interiors to the way these neighbourhoods are spoken about by developers.
The second is the effect these spaces have on our psyches and our personal relationships with our urban environment. Because everything about these places has been master-planned, all of our interactions become curated, pre-determined and formulaic. Not much is left to chance or imagination. There’s already a familiar narrative of how we should be using these spaces.
What are your thoughts on early attempts at place making in these masterplanned spaces? In Helsinki, I’m thinking specifically of the new sauna, Löyly, or Hernesaaren Ranta, the beach club, near Jätkäsaari. These are commercial operations, of course, but have been instigated by the city to build an identity in the area before later housing developments. London, of course, is different in that these initiatives tend to come from the developers rather than the city, but you might get a pop-up something or other…
You mean, distractions from the reality of nearby developments?
That’s sort of what I’m getting at, yes. But I wonder whether you think that there’s a place for these kinds of ‘place-making’ projects in large-scale developments.
Well, it depends on what those kind of initiatives are. They can be exciting and invigorating initiatives that help bring life to areas, but it obviously differs depending on the the context and each individual case. But the examples you mentioned in Helsinki, while being great additions to the experience of the city they are also essentially private spaces, where you have to spend money to spend time there. So it makes you question whether these can even be treated as inclusive public parts of the city?
The sauna does have public spaces which are free to use, but I ask the general question more as provocation than anything else.
Yes this is true. But in general it would be good to see more public facilities and spaces which are freely inclusive and accessible to everyone and which aren’t necessarily driven by a commercial imperative.
Do you know Martti Kalliala? He published a brilliant book a few years ago called Finland: The Welfare Game. It’s a kind of speculative architecture, all related to Finland. One of the propositions was ‘winter garden city’, in which a greenhouse is used to provide climatised public space – a bit like a shopping mall with no commercial use. This brings up another interesting consideration when thinking about commercial vs public space somewhere like Finland, because it’s really cold for half the year. You can’t really put a huge piazza outside and expect it to be a vibrant space, because people don’t really want to sit outside when it’s minus 10 and snowing.
That’s a really interesting idea and yes the climate certainly sets Helsinki apart from somewhere like London so there needs to be a more considered approach to account for winter conditions.
What struck me about Jätkäsaari was how few galleries, independent stores, interesting landmarks and cafes it had, which I guess could be considered as public spaces and destinations to spend time in the winter. There didn’t seem to be much of an extension of Helsinki’s city buzz. The neighbourhood is still in its infancy, of course, but I felt I was walking among dormitories rather than a neighbourhood.
It’s ironic because all the developers use the language of vibrancy in their marketing, but I don’t think you can plan vibrancy. Surely, vibrancy can only be generated through people’s interactions. It brings to mind a comparison with Italy and much of southern Europe, places that are now often being used in place-making strategies as templates for city making. For example, the piazza has been deployed everywhere, in London as the ‘plaza’. The centro storico in Genova, where my family are from, which I think is the largest Medieval centre in Europe.
It’s a network of really ominous, mysterious, dark, intertwined alleys which spiral everywhere. There’s no wayfinding system. No traffic lights, no signage, no CCTV cameras. Everything is very sporadic and you have to live by your instincts, you have to be very conscious in this environment. In order to survive in these kind of alleys, you have to make eye contact with people and experience the local environment on a very physical level.
But it’s so interesting because – and also where these discussions can sometime become a little problematic – while personally, I would much rather have the historic-centre town plan because it’s generally more interesting, isn’t it suggesting cultural homogenisation to a different set of strategies? On the one hand, we have these overly-thought-through masterplans like Jätkäsaari and then on the other, we have a slightly more anarchic, organic way of planning – almost from one extreme to another. And I also cannot think of two cultures more vastly disconnected than Finland and Italy! The idea that what works in one will necessarily work in another seems a bit wilful.
Yes, I agree! Each context needs to be treated in its own unique way depending on the cultural environment. So, maybe there needs to be a compromise?
It’s is interesting, though, that a lot of rhetoric coming from the city is about densification and trying to stop the suburbification of the city, and yet some of these masterplanned developments in the heart of the city essentially look as if they are emulating the suburbs.
As you say, there are no shops, no restaurants, and these are some of the same problems plaguing the suburbs.
Yes, you’re right, a lot of these inner city developments seem to shape themselves as suburbs.
In order for urban development to work, I think it’s important that people are involved in these processes, so that we have a people-centred approach to design that is reflected in urban space. I’m interested to look into that a bit more here to see how people are involved in these processes and then how that later gets translated into the design. These things can get lost, of course. If people really are being involved in these processes, how do they often end up looking so familiar? Maybe it’s that people are comfortable with familiarity. Who knows?
It’s interesting what you say about people being comfortable with familiarity, because a lot of the marketing around these new developments is techno-jargon about smart-city solutions. A lot of these are in fact unfamiliar technologies which people haven’t lived with before. There’s a sense that these developments are trying out new technologies to see what might become commercially successful on a larger scale at a later date. If anything, I suppose it is an interesting time to be living here and thinking about these issues…
There is this unfamiliar, technical Internet of Things language often being used about cities. What the effect of these technologies and strategies will be has yet to be seen. You can only really judge their effects in the future. Time will tell. Who knows, these places might end up being incredibly dynamic neighbourhoods.
Do you think that’s why it’s more interesting to raise questions rather than propose solutions?
Completely. I think that questioning is much more constructive. Let’s focus first on understanding what the problem is, rather than trying to jump to solutions,
Does the publication of the book and the conclusion of the residency mark the end of this project for you?
Not at all! I hope that the project will carry on, as I hope to make it as extensive as possible. Ideally, with funding I’d like to visit some of these regeneration projects detailed in the book in person such as Hafen City in Hamburg and the Royal Seaport in Stockholm . And while it’s nice to have this kind of catalogue, I would really like to pull out some elements from this study and exhibit on a larger scale.
A lot of people aren’t very engaged in urban planning and architecture, I think an exhibition which uses design research to explore the built environment of contemporary urban development projects could be a good way of generating some interesting conversations on the subject. The next step is to find a platform or exhibition space.
And if people here would like to get hold of Familiarity, can they pick a copy up here in Helsinki?
Sadly, at the moment, that isn’t possible. I only printed a few copies in the first print run, but there is additional information on my website for anyone who is interested. Hopefully within the next few months, I’ll look into publishing the research in larger quantities.
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