Utopia Inc

Why are there so many buildings with flat roofs in Helsinki?

After all, we’re at 60 degrees north Latitude, snow is measured by height above parked cars, and the weight of all that snow on those flat roofs adds up to more than 20 pounds per cubic foot.



Little wonder that one of the best businesses in Helsinki, besides Nokia and high tech, is converting those leaky, collapsing flat roofs into peaked roofs.

To understand how this happened, I returned to Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House. Although he’s railing against American modern architecture, it could just as well be Finnish.

Wolfe writes, “Pipe railings…ramps…metal spiral stairwys, sheets of industrial plate glass, banks of tungsten-halogen lamps, and white cylindrical shapes…it looks like an insecticide factory…driven to the edge of sensory deprivation by the whiteness & lightness & leanness & cleanness & bareness & sparseness of it all.”

The story, Wolfe explains, begins at the Bauhaus School in Weimar, Germany in 1919. It was more than a school. It was a commune, a spiritual movement, a Utopian compound, presided over by the “Silver Prince,” Walter Gropius. “The  young architects and artists who came to the Bauhaus to live and study and learn from the Silver Prince talked about ‘starting from zero…’ as long as it was in the name of clean and pure future.

“Starting from zero! And why not…Europe had been reduced to rubble, smoking ruins. Starting from zero! If you were young, it was wonderful stuff.” Gropius wanted to bring all the arts together under the wing of a great architecture, which would be in the interest of the entire people. As everyone understood in 1919, the entire people was synonymous with the workers.

Of course, “Gropius’ interest in the proletariat or socialism turned out to be no more than aesthetic and fashionable, somewhat like the interest of President Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic or Chairman Mao of the People’s Republic of China in republicanism. Nevertheless, ideas have consequences; the Bauhaus style proceeded from certain firm assumptions. First, the new architecture was being created for the workers. The holiest of all goals: perfect worker housing…O White Gods.”

Social democrats in Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere needed inexpensive worker housing projects, and lots of them, to jumpstart their war-torn economies. For their own political reasons, they commissioned the young, antibourgeois arcthitects like Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and others. Wolfe’s White Gods and Silver Princes. And that’s how it began: worker housing, with flat roofs, low ceilings, narrow hallways, no mouldings, cookie-cutter mass-production clean lines.

I happen to like modern architecture. But why is it so prevalent in Helsinki, land of Saarinens, Paavilainens, Aaltos, and other assorted unpronounceable names? Finland was part of Sweden until 1809, and then became part of the Russian Empire until 1917. While most of Europe was mechanizing in the Industrial Revolution and churning out mass-produced products, Finland’s economy long remained dependent on wood and forest industries. Nokia was founded in 1871. They made paper, bicycle tires and rubber boots. Nokia didn’t get into electronics until 1960, and mobile phones in  1982.

The transformation from agrarian to high tech required something special for an entire country with a population smaller than New York City. How could 5 million people compete for global markets against the much larger factories of the US, Germany, France, Japan, and now China, India and everywhere else? The answer: design.

Finnish businessmen, artists, politicians and economists realized early on that the way to compete was to create products with unique and beautiful design. Form follows function. And so we have Marimekko fashions, Fiskars scissors, Iittala glass, Arabia ceramics, Nokia phones and more.

And what does all this have to do with motion picture technology? To be continued….


Leave a Comment

1 Response:

  1. Yaron Harel says:

    A very interesting article, it was a pleasure to read it.