Insights / Culture & Design
”We see design as a catalyst that inspires people to tackle traditionally more complex societal issues”
On how Helsinki uses design to create better living
8 Aug 2022

Helsinki has a strong legacy and history of design and architecture. Harris explains that it is also harnessed to create better everyday life — from town planning to the conception of new products — and everything in between. Ten years ago, in 2012, the city was the World Design Capital.

— From that point, we began to consider and trial the ways that the city can use design to improve urban experiences, understand the needs of Helsinkians, and in short create great urban life.

This year, you’re presenting major cultural openings and events. Why is design, culture, architecture, and such so important for you as a city?

— In the time we are living, it is crucial that we understand the impact of design and architecture on our life, and how it can contribute to building a sustainable and enjoyable urban future. One example that will have a significant impact on the city is the creation of a new Architecture and Design Museum — a joint project between the City of Helsinki, the state, and the two existing museums; the Museum of Finnish Architecture and the Design Museum. We are committed to creating a culturally-intensive place that brings together local citizens and visitors through the lens of design, calling to attention how the world has been built and how we’re shaping the future. Ambitious cultural projects such as this are important investments in the future for Helsinki. 

How do you stand out compared to other cities within these areas?

The City of Helsinki is the largest employer in Finland, with almost 40,000 people working here. The city organisation is crucial to implementing design into the built environment as well as design as a tool for the delivery of better city services, education, social health, and recreation in Helsinki. Over the last decade we have seen not only how fundamental design and the use of design thinking are when applied to understand the needs of the different user groups in the city, but also how good design responds to and brings forward solutions. Increasingly, we’re also seeing design as a catalyst that inspires people to come together and tackle traditionally more complex societal issues, and our city holds design and its potential in a prominent position. 

A few weeks from now — throughout the first 11 days in September — the largest design festival in the Nordics, Helsinki Design Week, is back for another edition.

— It brings together all aspects of the creative sector here in the city, from fashion and graphic design to furniture design and architecture. The event is an important platform for the design community here and increasingly for international visitors, that exists to showcase the rich creative culture we have in Helsinki, says Harris.

Which other highlights from the culture and design sectors would you like to share?

— The Helsinki Festival and FLOW music festival are coming up in August, both of which have fantastic programmes and use the city space in very interesting ways. One of the landmark spots in Helsinki Festival will take place at Huvilaranta, a waterfront space that usually encompasses an architectural tent structure, and has been expanded this year by JKMM to provide a larger area for the public to enjoy. Meanwhile, FLOW is back after a two-year hiatus, and is one of the most interesting boutique music festivals in Europe, taking place in a historic industrial area of the city called Suvilahti that becomes transformed through carefully landscaped architecture with a design that honours its urban roots. This summer will also see the return of Summer Streets in Helsinki, a campaign that sees parts of the city centre become pedestrianised and enlivened with parklet terracing, wooden seating, programming and pop-up music performances, animating further outdoor urban spaces in an open and inclusive way, says Harris. She continues:

— The opening of Little Finlandia has been exceptionally interesting and people have really taken to it. While Alvar Aalto’s landmark Finlandia Hall is undergoing renovation work, Little Finlandia is designed as a temporary event space in partnership with Aalto University’s wood programme. Featuring a terrace that opens onto the waterfront adjacent to Finlandia Hall, the building will prove an interesting example of circular architecture in that after renovations complete, Little Finlandia will be relocated to serve the education sector as a temporary school facility. 

— Dance House Helsinki also opened earlier this year, and, like the upcoming Architecture and Design Museum, has been a much-anticipated facility for contemporary dance. Designed by JKMM, the building partially repurposes an existing cable factory for Nokia which is now a larger cultural centre, creating a beautiful addition to the cultural institutions and facilities in Helsinki. 

What else do you have coming?

— An important aspect of how design is applied in Helsinki is in relation to children’s education, and there is a range of ways that design thinking and architectural education feature in the school curriculum, in addition to becoming an important part of the new museum once it opens. During Helsinki Design Week, we’re working on a project that will offer a platform for children to work with a cross-section of influential designers across varied creative principles, considering the future of the city through the creation of installations that can be experienced in urban spaces.

— Looking further ahead, we are planning for a new public playground in collaboration with Linda Liukas, who is a global ambassador for technology education in Finland, and has conceived a space that teaches children to use computers and learn coding skills without the use of a single screen. We’ll be unveiling the designs later this year and this is a project that I really believe will become something special for both the children of Helsinki and visitors, Harris concludes.

Hanna Harris.