Housing Normcore

Olari © Hanna Meriläinen


I am extremely happy to announce that my first book, Tavallisia koteja (Ordinary Homes) will be published February 29 by Rakennustieto!

In an offspring project from the Strange Home Atlas I went searching for typical Finnish homes from the 20th century, wanting to document the everyday architecture of the last century, architecture that is so ordinary that it is hardly noticed, missing from glossy magazines and from interior decoration TV shows. The initial thought was that strange houses are so rare that there must be some special reason for this homogeneity of building and living. The homogeneity suggests a strong, generally accepted model for good living that changes very slowly, and I wanted to see how people actually live in those model homes, that were once, and some of them still are, examples of good life.

And luckily I found the best homes!

I also found good stories and made interesting discoveries. The lovely photographs took my talented cousin, Hanna Meriläinen.

More about this soon!

Pikku Huopalahti © Hanna Meriläinen




Keeping it real


Happy (finnish) architecture day! Today we stick with the classics.

Our tour of Timo Penttilä houses finally ends in Tammisalo in 1966, back when modernism was not a bad word and when houses were photographed in strict black and white contrasts. The three luxurious apartments on a hill are cross-shaped and interlock with each other to form a majestic entity. On plan level the cross shape is also intriguing, opening the central room to all directions and creating a flow of rooms with changing light and views to all sides. Built elegantly with brick, teak and copper.

Ground floor plan
Upper floor plan
Pellonperäntie in 2014

Hello Mr. and Mrs. Koivisto!

Kotiliesi 8/1981

Kotiliesi is a well-known Finnish magazine for things around the home and it also used to present interesting homes. In 1981 they visited the then prime minister and future president of Finland, Mauno Koivisto and his wife, Tellervo Koivisto in their new home in Katajannokka.

What is especially intriguing about their home (apart from the fact that it is not a seaside villa with a five-car garage and a pool, or a jugend penthouse, but a pretty ordinary 107m2 apartment in a new building in a nice but hardly upscale part of town) is that almost everything from lamp shades to carpets is almost identical with everybody elses home in the early 1980’s. This is further emphasized in the text: Tellervo Koivisto mentions that they had a professional interior architect but she chose (surprise!) birchwood Artek furniture, natural colors, standard white kitchen furniture with teak trimmings (Serlachius Timjami), a dining room lamp that I remember my parents having (Orno Onkel, Länsisähkö) and a blue Tampella table cloth. The decorator and the Koivistos are a little sressed whether the red oriental carpets are a little too much, but in the end everything feels just right.

I don’t know how magazines would write about Alexander Stubb’s or Juha Sipilä’s home today, or how different their home would look from mine, but they would certainly not feel as comfortable telling where they bought their curtains (Stockmann) and carrying salad bowls and pottering around their home as the Koivisto couple. Different times?

This pronounced modesty and practicality of the article is striking and somehow lovable (Mauno is also presented as a handy-man and Tellervo has clever ideas about organizing the laundry space). It might have to do something with Finnish social democracy, a near-perfect welfare state, or the timeless Finnish design that the decorator  was trying to achieve, but is most certainly has to do something with a lost homogeneity of culture that either existed at its clearest in the early 1980’s – or just in my nostalgic mind?


Anyway, this is a perfect home to start a new, better year. Friendly, light & ordinary. Happy new year 2016!

Ordinary Homes

After a long silence I am happy to be back, soon with more strange homes.

But before that a sneak preview into the life of ordinary homes:

an ordinary home in Helsinki from the 1950's. copyright Hanna Meriläinen
an ordinary home in Helsinki from the 1950’s. © Hanna Meriläinen
© Hanna Meriläinen
© Hanna Meriläinen

After looking for some time for unusual architecture and actually being usually surrounded by more or less ordinary architecture the subject of everyday started to fascinate me more and more. So I’ve spent the last year searching for the best examples of ordinary homes I’ve been able to find, drawing them, documenting them in all their glorious normality – which turned out to be different than what I expected. Ordinary does here not mean boring but real, typical, standardized and in many cases ideal/idealistic. I think I found some of the best Finnish homes as well.

But more about this soon!

Facts of life

Homes as found by photographer Simo Rista, taken on December 2, 1989, in a few apartments in Sofianlehdonkatu 10. The only criterion in the choice of apartments was that someone opened the door and let the photographer in.


Photos by Simo Rista, originally published in the Finnish Architectural Review 1/1990 – now poorly reproduced by the Strange Home Atlas. Bonjour tristesse!

Bonjour tristesse / Bitte lebn

Schlesische Strasse, Alvaro Siza (1982-1983)
Schlesisches Tor, Alvaro Siza (1982-1984)

This, at first rather plain, corner house was built as part of the International Building Exhibition IBA 1984 in Kreuzberg, Berlin. It was also the first building the internationally known architect Álvaro Siza Vieira realized outside his native Portugal. The thought of an infill block with regular facades, contextual sensitivity and shops on the ground floor was almost revolutionary after the anti-urban modernism of the 1970’s. Back then this house was close to the Berlin wall, practically at the edge of town, but now it stands in the middle of 24-hour-party-people Wrangelkiez.

I did not pay much attention to it, seeing it for the first time ten years ago – just noticing the strange graffiti at the gable of the house saying “bonjour tristesse”. Just recently it has acquired a new graffiti stating: “Bitte lebn” – please live. The original graffiti, french for “Hello sadness”, was added around 1985 and could refer either to the austerity of the architecture, the austerity of living in Berlin in the early eighties and/or to a french novel and Deborah Kerr movie by that title from 1958. The eye on the movie poster actually resembles the eye-shaped hole in the curving roofline of the building.

Movie Poster, © IMDB
Movie Poster, © IMDB

One critic called the building an architectural modulation of the neighboring 1950’s houses and argued how the graffiti and its message actually enhance and affirm the gestures of the building. Or at least lend it a feeling of soft irony. They blend together in such a recognisable and emotionally expressive way that people were very upset about the new boisterous graffiti and demanded that it must be removed and the “bonjour tristesse” restored to its former glory (with upside-down s and all).

So, seeing the house now, being back after ten years, my first feelings were tenderness and melancholy.

For plans and stuff, check ArchDaily classics, for the book, see here.



Dream of Marble

Koy Hirviniemenranta
© Kiinteistömaailma

The Strange Home Atlas continues to explore the architecture of Timo Penttilä. This is probably the best known of his residential buildings, Hirviniemenranta in Kuusisaari, Helsinki from 1981. Perched on a tiny peninsula on a small island filled with embassies and private villas it is of course quite something special and not intended for ordinary mortals. You notice that when you enter through a gate decorated with a huge elk head sculpture by Kari Juva into a closed courtyard, completely clad in white marble. In the middle of the square is a huge oak tree the architect wanted to leave at the center of an open square. The buildings turn their expensive-looking white marble backs to this square and open each to the sea and to a private beach strip. Finnish architecture is hardly ever glamorous, but this might be as close as it gets.


On the northern side of the square there are a few smaller apartments and two attached houses with a swimming pool downstairs and living quarters upstairs, but the real highlight are two gigantic apartments with swimming pools, spiralling staircases and countless bedroom suites. They are so out of scale with 1980’s housing standards that they were clearly intended for representational uses. One of the apartments is apparently the home of an ambassador. On the shore side of the buildings there is a complicated terrace system on two levels sheltering the private gardens, probably designed so that there is a direct access to the sea from each bedroom via balconies and elevated walkways.

Alongside Carrara marble Timo Penttilä and architect Heikki Saarela used only very luxurious materials like grey granite, copper and Oregon fir. The details inside and outside also reveal a healthy amount of design work.

The architecture seems partly high-brow (small cultural center), partly high-life (case study house, Los Angeles) and self-confident above everything else. While the architecture language is recognisably Finnish the attitude is not.


There is a strange but evident connection with these buildings and Penttilä’s writings (and their attitudes) from the same period. In the same issue of “Arkkitehti” magazine where these buildings were published in 1982, Timo Penttilä was invited to review the exhibition “Suomi Rakentaa 6”. He does not really bother with the exhibition, but spills out an angry five-page monologue about the inadequacy of the new pluralist architecture around him. In the same fierceness that he used to attack the structuralists a decade earlier, he now claims that the emerging environmentalist attitude is nothing but a praise of mediocrity. He uses the word environmentalism in a broad sense encompassing all that annoys him: post-modern ideas, historicism and a pronounced sensitivity to place.

He can hardly control himself when he states that “preservation is the embodiment of cowardice” and that in the long run the “good environment” (that all architects are all suddenly trying to achieve) will turn out to be prude, boring and welfare-socialist (I don’t know exactly what that means in this regard). He tries to plea for the integrity of good architecture in itself and also for a theoretical structure for 1980’s architecture that is not based on relativism, but probably only managed to upset everybody.

There is a strong ambivalence between this outburst and his built marble outburst. While not mediocre in any way, there is a strong sense of the exact attitudes he disagrees with so strongly: a careful adaptation to the environment, the symbolism of the materials and archetypal forms, and even the quest for a “good environment”.

But surely Penttilä would have hated the fact that this house is now listed by the City Museum as a candidate for future building preservation.


Hirviniemenranta, fake fireplace tastefully in marble probably added by resident, © Kiinteistömaailma
© Kiinteistömaailma

And by the way: those of you who really liked the place: there is actually one apartment on sale at this very moment! And only for 2,9 Million euros.

Wrong House / Right Architect

As Oy Tammiväylä
As Oy Tammiväylä, Timo Penttilä 1984-1985

The Strange Home Atlas kicks off 2015 with a little known specimen in the very small genre of  monumental Finnish residential architecture: As Oy Tammiväylä in Tammisalo, Helsinki – pine trees, brick, cylinder towers, symmetry, no regrets.

The buildings of architect and professor Timo Penttilä (1931-2011) were at some point nearly forgotten, or at least not in the center of attention, although his most famous buildings are so massive that it is hard to overlook them. These are of course the Helsinki City Theatre house (1967), the Hanasaari Power plant (1976) and the Salmisaari B Power plant (1985). Times have probably changed sufficiently that there is renewed interest for his sensitive pragmatism that always resisted stylistic labeling.

Residential buildings were not his genre, but the few homes he did design are all very peculiar, and I might start by presenting his probably least known project, As Oy Tammiväylä, built in 1984-1985 in Tammisalo, Helsinki. It was fairly published in its time but forgotten quite soon afterwards. Four identical family homes grouped around a central courtyard with very distinguishable cylindrical stairs that push out of the building volume. According to the project presentation from the 1986 “Suomi rakentaa” exhibition, the layout was chosen to protect the trees on the site and to ensure maximal privacy in each private garden.

As Oy Tammiväylä, ground floor plan
As Oy Tammiväylä, ground floor plan, (Suomi rakentaa 7, 1986)
As Oy Tammiväylä, 1st floor plan (Suomi rakentaa 7, 1986)
As Oy Tammiväylä, 1st floor plan (Suomi rakentaa 7, 1986)

There is a cubic dining room, the stair with a sky light reminiscent of a small opera house and a remarkable sauna suite that takes up half of the upper level. The terrace is positioned centrally, symmetrically and in a 45 degree angle to all this. In its postmodern form play the whole ensemble seems at first a little pretentious or even theatrical; features that do not coincide with the attributes usually assigned to Penttilä and his more serious work. After all, he has become known as the maverick of Finnish architecture, the loner who did not hesitate to say no, first to the Miesian structuralists of the 1960’s and 1970’s and later to the postmodern movements of the 1980’s.

On the other hand, one could (with the eyes slightly squinted and in a poetic mood) read it as a reference to Kahn’s archaic forms meeting in a pine forest around the brick laid patio of Aalto’s Muuratsalo. Hmm.

A possible explanation could be found in an article that Jorma Mukala wrote about Timo Penttilä in the appendix of Penttilä’s posthumous book “Oikeat ja väärät arkkitehdit” (transl. Right and Wrong architects). There he tells about a group discussion at the Finnish Museum of Architecture in 1974, where an angry Timo Penttilä argued for less dogmatism and more pluralism. He called out for an architecture that, instead of always being so damn honest and restricted could, for a change, be romantic, individual, playful, incoherent, organic, grotesque, monumental, exotic or even nostalgic.

Any of his adjectives can be used to describe these four strange little houses, and their order can be chosen according to the viewer. I could add rigid, monumental, silly and fantastic. But to search for a theory here is futile. According to Mukala’s article, in 1985 Penttilä wrote to the leading Finnish architecture theorist Juhani Pallasmaa that “the crap that architects present as theory must be got rid of as soon as possible”.

And, there is more strange (Penttilä) houses to come!

As Oy Tammiväylä, interior view (Suomi rakentaa 7, 1986)
As Oy Tammiväylä, interior view (Suomi rakentaa 7, 1986)
As Oy Tammiväylä in June 2014
As Oy Tammiväylä in June 2014
As Oy Tammiväylä, view to the courtyard (Suomi rakentaa 7, 1986)
As Oy Tammiväylä, view to the courtyard in 1986

Strange Home Atlas reads: The Happiness of Architecture

” We are also creatures who, with no possibility of profit or power, occasionally carve friars out of stone and mould angels onto walls. In order not to mock such details, we need a culture confident enough about its pragmatism and aggression that it can also acknowledge the contrary demands of vulnerability and play – a culture, that is, sufficiently unthreatened by weakness and decadence as to allow for visible celebrations of tenderness.”

Alain de Botton: The Architecture of Happiness, 2006.

Muuratsalo Experimental House, Alvar Aalto 1952-53, photo © Moritz Bernoully
Muuratsalo Experimental House,
Alvar Aalto 1952-53, photo © Moritz Bernoully
Finnish Landscape, Cosroe Dusi (1808-1859)
Finnish Landscape, Cosroe Dusi (1808-1859)


Strange Home Atlas recommends: the tiniest houses

Needlepoint houses © purlbee.com

For those who are feverishly thinking about christmas presents or don’t know what to do in the long dark winter evenings (and have a secret tendency for all things craftsy, like a secret Pinterest board): delightful little needlepoint houses with instructions and ready kits from Purl Bee.

Those with more eccentric tastes should go here, or maybe even try this:

Olga Kostinas House in Kamarchaga, Siberia, image © reuters / ilya naymushin, via designboom
Olga Kostinas Bottle Cap House in Kamarchaga, Siberia, image © reuters / ilya naymushin, via designboom