Annular Further – Finland – Timber architecture and building culture

Lusto, the Finnish Forest Museum and Forest Information Centre 1994 by Lahdelma & Mahlamaki Architects – Photo Lahdelma & Mahlamaki Architects

Past to present – an overview of the return of timber in Finnish architecture and the built environment. You can also find examples of new projects below.


Sibelius Hall, Lahti – Photo Sibelius Hall

The fact that Finland is the forest culture country par excellence at an international as much as European level, leads suggestively to the thought that it must be a centre for timber architecture and building culture. Unfortunately, up until very recently this hasn’t been the case. Things are changing but compared to some other parts of Europe, Vorarlberg for a rural example, London’s borough of Hackney as an urban case study, Finland is still catching up.

Why is this? There are historic Finnish timber buildings, most notably the dense (in Nordic contexts) old- wood housing districts found in some towns and cities. There are also rural examples of traditional timber building, generally viewed through the lens of vernacular architecture, of churches, farms, etc. It is also the case that the vast majority of one-storey (90% of which are timber based), and to a certain extent two-storey residential houses and housing are built from timber. But as with so much of the wider architectural culture, Finnish architecture has, up until the turn of the century, been in thrall to the Modernist palette of materials.

During the twentieth century Finland produced in Alvar Aalto an architect as influential as any of his peers and contemporaries around the world. Aalto identified with Finland’s forests and its wood culture, and has helped give the country the image of being a wood-centric building culture. But it is not too extreme a point to state that the skills associated with timber architecture and particularly construction were on the verge of dying out in the 1970s and 80s, when it was most closely associated with vernacular, regional and backward-looking styles of building. With hindsight, this is something of an irony given architects, engineers, and others from various parts of Europe visited Finland during the same decades to investigate and learn about various industrial wood building systems.

Eko-Viikki Wood Town

One needs to wait until the early 1990s for the beginning of a change in perception about wood as a building material, complemented by a first-step change to wood materials building regulations. The first indications of timber returning to architecture can be identified with Lusto, the Finnish Forest Museum and Forest Information Centre in 1994 (Lahdelma & Mahlamaki Architects), ‘lusto’ translated as the Finnish word for a tree’s annual growth ring. The Centre is cited as a key moment in the change of perception about timber building that spurred wider discussion, even if it still used concrete as its core structural material. Changes in fire regulations in 1997, allowed for taller (e.g. four-storey) buildings. The pan-Nordic Wood Program (1993-2001) and the founding of Helsinki University of Technology’s Wood Studio (1994) also contributed to this first stage in timber’s greater visibility and uptake.

Propelled by a degree of professional and public interest, along with Forest Industry support, initiatives continued to be launched, reflecting an emerging if gradual responsiveness to timber as a construction material. Further initiatives resulted from this national discussion, and government funded programmes were launched. The first of these was the Year of Wood 1996, followed by the three-year Time of Wood programme (1997-2000.) In Helsinki, a plan for a first eco-district moved from idea to initiation with a competition held in 1996, while further projects were integrated into the large-scale Nordic Wood Programme with its R&D collaboration beginning in 1993. Other programmes followed, including Wood Construction 2000, the Wood in Construction Technology Programme 1995-1998, and Wood Finland 1998-2005. These included the ten-year Wood Town programme Sibelius Hall in Lahti, the highest profile showcase timber architecture project aimed at raising the architectural profile of the material and city, and a gradual increase in public building projects, such as schools and community centres. The Wood Town programme began in Oulu, led by the then Vice-Rector of the University of Oulu, Professor Jouni Koiso-Kanttila, and was subsequently adopted by various other major and secondary urban centres in the country.

JKMM’s Vikki church – Photo Jussi Tiainen/JKMM

In parallel, new-engineered wood materials and techniques began emerging from the Finnish State’s national wood research network, METLA (these days Luke), including Kerto or Laminated Veneer Lumber (LVL), and ThermoWood; a heat-treated cladding product which removes the need for artificial weathering coating. Through the 2000s a wave of relatively small-scale yet striking and poetic individual projects emerged applying some of these newly available materials, such as in JKMM’s Viikki church in the Helsinki Viikki suburb, and Anssi Lassila’s Kärsämäki Church project much further north, followed by K2S Chapel of Silence and Halo’s Sajos Sami Parliament and culture centre in Inari. Together these helped project the return of Finnish timber architecture within Finland, though also internationally.

Overall, it is hard to avoid a sense that the turn to timber has been more muted than in some parts of Europe, although it is also evident that among the mid-2000s practices such as OOPEA, Avanto and Lunden Arkitekter, timber was at the heart of several projects. Likewise, in the one-time land of Nokia, digital architecture has likewise seen less than perhaps expected take up, although the planets most northerly architecture school in Oulu, has developed a significant digital platform.

Further: see special Finnish architectural edition of Unstructured extra 6, featuring OOPEAA’s Kuokkala Church , the Sajos Saami parliament and cultural centre, Avanto, K2S and Oulu Architecture School.

The Lighthouse, Joensuu, Finland’s tallest timber

Kumho school by Oulu alt Architects uses CLT, surprisingly unusual in
Finnish school architecture – Photo Kumho School

In 2011 the Government set a ten-fold target in multi-storey timber buildings to increase from 1% to 10% by 2015, revising fire regulations the same year so that buildings up to eight storeys became legally permissible. The policy initiative triggered new alliances between large-scale Forest Industry companies and construction. A number of mid-rise projects were also launched, although by 2015 the increase was reportedly to only 2%, the equivalent of eight mid-rise buildings.

Several of these projects were showcases, and therefore couldn’t afford to fail, although they illustrate the scaling of showcases becoming progressively larger and more ambitious, even if they do not represent any larger scale wave of timber housing blocks. They include Anttinen Oiva Architects Wood City on the Helsinki waterfront, the three eight-storey housing blocks Puukuokka, by the Office for Peripheral Architecture, in Jyväskylä, and in the eastern city of Joensuu, the Lighthouse – at 14 storey’s and 50 metres, Finland’s tallest timber tower. All are clear indications of the building projects that Finnish engineered timber is looking to increase its share of.

By contrast smaller buildings, and building typologies considered generally smaller in form, have been increasing. Schools have been at the head of this gradualtransition and by 2019 one in four schools (and 31% of all educational buildings) were designed with wood. Recent examples include Mansikkala school in Imatra, south east Finland, by Perko Architecture  (2020), and Finland’s largest timber school to date, Kuhmo byalt Architects, where CLT was at the heart of the design, orOOPEA’sTaika Kindergarten inSeinäjoki. Schools, community centres and housing are all identified for new targets in the current National Wood Building Action Plan, the most recent programme linked to the broader bioeconomy strategy. The aim of over half (55%) of educational building being wood design, and just under two thirds (65%) three years later seems more viable than residential housing. Targets for housing blocks where only 3% were built using wood in 2019, and with an action plan stating a seven-fold increase by 2022, and that 21% figure more than doubling (46%) by 2025 may be harder to achieve.If one cares to search out English language sections of the Finnish architecture and timber media, there is quite a bit of talk about timber on the increase and the sheer numbers of projects accelerating. So perhaps with momentum across Euroland, post “Fit for Fifty Five” (the EU’s plan for the bloc’s green transition) on the move, this is a genuine time for timber. One shouldn’t have to wait for long to be able to tell if this is, or isn’t, indeed the case.

Places – Cities and towns in Finland

Oodi – Ala Architect’s Helsinki Central Library in the city centre Kansalaistori Square’s cultural district – Photo Vadelmavene/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

Finland lies in northern latitudes, between 60° and 70° north, so it isn’t surprising that the further south you go, the more populated the country becomes. The capital Helsinki (population 625,000), like other Nordic capitals, is by far the largest city. Greater Helsinki makes the region a significantly large urban unit in the country, though modest by continental, let alone international comparisons. Woodland is a continuous feature across many urban Finnish cities and towns. This includes Greater Helsinki, which merges surrounding large towns and urban districts including Espoo, Vantaa and Kauniainen, into a fast-growing metropolitan region with a current population of 1.2 million. Recent recorded population growth in Espoo is 62% and in Vantaa 44%. Despite these sorts of urban growth, timber projects across Helsinki remain relatively few and far between. There are recent large-scale showcase projects such as the Wood City blocks beside the city’s waterfront, while crosstown Oodi, the central library is located amidst Kansalaistori Square’s city centre cultural district, featuring architects A_LA’s signature swooping timber canopy, though the structure remains steel. Similarly, a six-storey Helsinki University building, Think Corner by JKMM, decked out in a stone façade and from concrete, but with timber interior was opened in 2017, illustrating how far timber has proceeded, at least in the capital’s city centre. There is a CLT designed hotel for the American Marriott’s budget brand Moxy, set in the West Harbour district by the younger Helsinki studios, Avanto, though whether it will make it to completion in CLT is an open question. Avanto have form though, having completed the Löyly, a seashore swimming pool and sauna decked out in timber in 2016.

Think Corner interior, JKMM and Avanto’s Moxy Hotel Photo left JKMM, Mika Huismann, rendering right, Avanto

But these are showcases, the exception rather than any kind of rule. Helsinki, like other principal Finnish cities, is a concrete, brick, and steel city. Timber, until recently out of fashion and in any case restricted due to fire regulations, remains an outsider material even in this land of forests. Granted, small one-floor residential homes are predominantly from timber (around 90%), as are a smattering of other single-storey buildings, schools, community centres and libraries. There are next to no timber offices, apart from showcases for the major timber companies, the Metsa Wood (or originally Finnforest) and UPM Kymmune HQ’s, both designed by Helin & Co, can be found in Espoo. On the eastern edge of central Helsinki, Eko-Viikki, the capital’s eco-district is the most concentrated example of timber housing.

Further: see the Eko-Viikki feature in Unstructured 2 here.

Viikki church is also a well-regarded timber project by the equally well regarded JKMM. One can also find older timber houses in and around Viikki, as one can in most Finnish cities and towns. There are also many individual houses and homes designed and built with wood dotted across the capital.

Helsinki’s Eko-Viikki was one such fruit, of the turn-of-the-century Modern Wood Town programme, emanating from the country’s northern capital Oulu, in the early 2000s. Wood Town districts spread from Oulu, and can be found in other towns and cities, including Porvoo, Lahti and Jyväskylä. There have been other larger housing projects, but the most obvious construction type, larger scale housing, hasn’t begun to take off yet, with isolated examples found in Jyväskylä: OOPEA’s six to eight-storey Puukuokka housing blocks, and most recently in the capital of Finland’s eastern Karelia region, Joensuu.

OOPEA’s Puukuokka apartment complex in Jyväskylä comprises three 6-8-story buildings – Photo JKMM

What are considered cities in Finland might well be described as towns in more densely populated parts of western and central Europe. Be that as it may, after Helsinki, there are five further cities with populations of over 100,000: Tampere (317,000), Turku (257,000), Oulu (188,000) Jyväskylä (140,000) and Lahti (116,000). Helsinki is just above 60° latitude, and apart from Oulu, all the others are well below 62°, with Jyväskylä at 270 km further north, the furthest of the group from the capital. By comparison Oulu is 600 km from Helsinki. Between these major cities are smaller towns and villages but these disappear into the ever-present forest, and behind the walls of wood, given they’re often invisible from road or rail, lies the country’s hundreds of thousands of lakes. Like Espoo and Vantaa, both Tampere and Oulu are experiencing rapid growth, the former at 34% a year, the latter 48%. There are examples of timber building culture in these various urban centres, as well as schools, community buildings and libraries, for instance, but it remains difficult to make the case that timber cultures have really taken root at any scale in these cities.

Current timber architectural projects

Here are a few projects which are either being realised imminently or in the next years:

Tampere central station- by Denmark’s COBE and Helsinki’s Lunden Arkitekten

Katajanokan Laituri; New Stora Enso Headquarters by Anttinen Oiva Architects, South Harbour, Helsinki

The Puu-Kivistö New Wood District OPPEA and Lunden Arkitekter

Finnish Pavilion at the 2020 Olympics, Japan – Helin & Co architects

Woodhope Siilinjärvi – pioneering Wood Village, Toivala, Eastern Finland – Lunden Arkitekter