The Secret Gardens of Garden City


Last week I visited the suburban paradise of Tapiola and the Hakalehto courtyard houses on its outskirts. This group of 17 houses from 1963, originally perched in a small birch forest in southern Tapiola, is even now beautifully situated but quite brutally close to the later built motorway. The group was designed by Pentti Ahola to be a mediating low element between the higher apartment blocks of Tapiola and the free landscape. Locally it is known as “Arabikylä” or Arabian village.


The nickname grasps the idea: These are whitewashed one-family houses that close themselves almost completely off to their surroundings and instead open up to an interior courtyard, which is invisible to passersby – most often called courtyard houses or atrium houses. This was a home typology that gained popularity from the late 1950’s and had its heyday in the late 1960’s as the more luxurious and private version of a row house (but having the same efficiency in terms of land use and infrastructure). The roots of this type of course can be traced further than the obvious examples Pentti Ahola must have had on his mind: the Atrium houses designed by Arne Jacobsen presented at the Interbau in Berlin 1957 and the Kingo houses by Jorn Utzon from 1956-58; this type goes all the way back via Scandinavian farmsteads to finally Roman homes with atria and ancient Middle Eastern courtyard houses, hence also the nickname, that suggests an Eastern pedigree.

In fact we do have a tradition of courtyard houses in western Finland as well. There are examples of “umpipihatalo” or closed courtyard houses that protected people and animals from perils lurking in the outside world (thieves and wolves mostly)  and had everything neatly under one roof. One of the most prominent preserved examples is Kauppilan umpipiha in Laitila that dates back to the 17th century.

hakalehto hakalehto_area  hakalehto_plan

At first sight this would seem to be the perfect home solution for a country with late but speedy urbanization like Finland in the 1960’s, where city dwelling was still finding its shape. The most valued things from the rural living environment remained: connection to nature and privacy. You lived closely with your neighbors in a suburb but in complete and controllable privacy, with a sauna and storage space in a side building and a sheltered outdoor space that served as an extra room in the summer. The apartment is spacious and allows wonderful views through courtyards and rooms even further enhancing the feeling of space. Although quite a few of “atrium-houses” were built in the 1960’s it still makes me wonder why it never caught on big time. Why didn’t this become our favorite kind of house? Was it the energy crisis that made these quite large and sprawling houses expensive and impractical or is a closed garden not enough for the Finnish soul – should there be a view to the external world (to the forest, to Lapland) as well?


Hakalehto was built with 1960’s  state-of-the-art prefabricated elements and huge windows with probably little consideration for energy efficiency and seems now to be in need of repairs, whitewashed walls grey with dirt. The park around the buildings feels deserted because all life happens behind walls and not in the common space. In terms of neighborhood sociability this is maybe not the best urban model. All evidence of life I found was an empty swing hanging from a tree. But what I loved were the high set living room windows by the entrances, like friendly eyes welcoming inhabitants and guests. I also loved the small glimpses into gardens and trees growing over the walls, allowing one to imagine the secret garden within those walls.



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