Malagueira morning

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A while ago I visited Quinta da Malagueira in Èvora, Portugal. It is Alvaro Siza’s architecture classic, that often serves as a prototype for social housing architecture. And while many classics have lost quite a bit of their charm over the years, this one hasn’t. The everyday clutter that unavoidably takes over cities and that architects often accuse for ruining their masterpiece, has here managed to merge comfortably with the austerity of the original buildings.

Alvaro Siza started to design Quinta da Malagueira in 1977 and it took more than 20 years to be completed. Built outside the city walls of Èvora, the neighborhood of 1200 houses contrasts strongly with the city. The open spaces in Malagueira rather resemble a Scandinavian suburb than the picturesque density of old portuguese towns. The housing shortage after the 1974 revolution was the starting point for building and Siza was invited to work together with workers’ councils. Due to this 60% of the houses are co-operatives and the rest mostly rental houses. The involvement of the councils and future residents helped control speculation, prices and allowed residents to buy their own house little by little. This has been one of the reasons that the neighborhood has aged so well, despite of being built with very little money for low-income workers.

For the plan Siza carefully studied the landscape, existing buildings, pathways and even traces of older inhabitation and adjusted the built structure to these. The result has often been stated to combine modernist ideals (notably the German siedlung architecture of the early 20th century) with vernacular architecture, but it is not as simple as that. The influences are much more subtle and refined. There was no money for public architectural gestures, so Siza planned a grid of aqueducts (that was also the cheapest way to do technical installations) to bind together the houses and form gates over the narrow lanes. These technical aqueducts are dictated by an aesthetic of necessity, and at the same time bear traces of Roman and medieval architecture. They create a combining tissue that is recognisable on many levels.

The architecture of the yard houses is simultaneously ancient, modifiable and a nod to modernism – that in turn has borrowed from the mediterranean vernacular as well. Siza’s architecture is not about superficial citations, but about complexity beneath a perceived simplicity. This makes Malagueira’s architecture succeed and live on. It is not destroyed by changes, but manages comfortably with people adding, changing and painting the doors in the traditional Alentejo way.

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Siza also had a house of his own in Malagueira where he stayed during the 20 years of design. It’s inner courtyard has almost a Pompeian feel to it. You can see more of it in the lovely documentary by Ellis Woodman for the Architectural Review.

© Architectural Review
© Architectural Review

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The large green central spaces do resemble a modernist Scandinavian suburb: empty and slightly melancholy. Much criticism has been directed to the unfinished feeling of the public spaces – and this is true. There were several horses quietly grazing on a quiet sunday morning, knowing it is a pasture more than a park. But to me this was also a familiar space – the kind of open, almost controlled nature between buildings, that is part of modernist urbanism where I grew up. And as much as I love the order of built city squares with fountains and shops, there is a secret place in my heart for this as well: green, open and quietly happy.

Model Home No. 4

© Hanna Meriläinen

In the 1960’s modernist architecture suddenly started to be appealing to the masses. It was presented in magazines as white, clean and luxurious, symbolizing a new modern, progressive way of life. Something that the middle class wanted to have alongside a private car, a television set and a new kind of independence. Although people were moving into cities, the bourgeois ideal was very much privacy and freedom of choice as a counterbalance to busy urban life. Architect Toivo Korhonen built a supermodern atrium house for his family in Lauttasaari, Helsinki in 1960 and described the benefits of his home:

Meitä eivät häiritse pikku sateet, hetken auringonpaisteen voimme käyttää hyväksemme, lapset pääsevät jo maaliskuussa eroon talvitamineistaan j.n.e. ja ennen kaikkea olemme kääntäneet selkämme muulle maailmalle – elämme rauhassa omaa elämäämme.

(We’re not bothered by a little rain, we can enjoy every moment of sunshine and the kids can take off their winter gear already in March. Most of all we’ve turned our back to the rest of the world, we live our own life here.)

FINLAND. Helsinski. Portrait of architect Toivo KORHONEN. 1969.
Portrait of architect Toivo Korhonen 1969 in the atrium court of his house. copyright Rene Burri / Magnum Photos
Model home for the modern family. Orapihlajatie, Helsinki. Jaakko Laapotti 1964. Documented 20.5.2015

This is one of the model homes from that era. An elegant row house apartment, designed by architect Jaakko Laapotti (who used to work for Toivo Korhonen as a student) in 1964. Black and white, spacious and full of light. This one does not have an enclosed atrium garden but an inside atrium with skylight windows, an elegant fireplace and two balconies opening to the forest beyond the houses. The buildings are slightly lifted off the ground to emphasize the contrast of the forest site and the white buildings.

It hasn’t changed much from 1964. The current resident has only opened the kitchen into the living room to make the downstairs space even bigger and changed the upstairs bathroom, that originally had a bath tub, to fit larger washing machines.

This home makes you almost believe in modern times again.

copyright Hanna Meriläinen
copyright Hanna Meriläinen
copyright Hanna Meriläinen


Model Home No.3

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Model home for the nuclear family, Helsinki, Maunula. Hilding Ekelund 1951-1956. Documented 30.7.2015.

With the emergence of the suburban home in the 1950’s many people had for the first time suddenly the opportunity to actually live inside the modern society. The suburban high-rise home met the technical criteria of the future and had standardized, functional spaces and modern comforts designed by the best experts for the ideal domestic life.


That ideal was of course a family with a working father, stay-at-home mother and as many children as possible. In Finland it was touchingly promoted by Heikki von Hertzen in his book Koteja vai kasarmeja lapsillemme (Homes or Barracks for our Children) since 1946 and finally started to bear fruit in the early 1950’s when building was started on a bigger scale after the war.

© Hanna Meriläinen

That ideal has of course its blind spots, at least in hindsight, but it transformed our ideas of homes in a way that has not changed a lot in the last 60 years. Earlier working class apartments were mostly rooms with little possibility for privacy or even most basic needs like cooking or personal hygiene. Upper class homes had until the war primarily continued a tradition of representation, where the emphasis was on entertaining guests comfortably, servants and children hidden from view.

The middle class of the post-war era had no use for either and readily adopted the technically modern but socially conservative, even paternalistic view on how to live. This view was translated into reality luckily by talented architects as Hilding Ekelund, who managed to design homes that actually improved homes for women and children. Indoor bathrooms, larger kitchens connected to the living rooms, balconies and laundry rooms made domestic life a lot easier, but these homes were beautiful as well. Some of them had even architectural qualities, like this attic floor apartment that uses the empty space above a neighboring apartment as an extra room. The living room is higher than usual and opens to the north, east and south.

The big open courtyards and forests surrounding new suburbias were good places for children to roam.In places like Maunula the roaming children have grown up and left. But some homes are still filled with the memories of family life.

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Sahanmäki, Maunula 1955. © Helsingin kaupunginmuseo, Heikki Havas

Model Home No. 2

Rautpohja Apartment 20.8.2015 © Sanna Meriläinen

Model home for a factory worker & family, Rautpohja, Jyväskylä, Finland 1938-1940. Designed by Airi Seikkala-Viertokangas & Märtha Lilius-Tallroth. Documented 20.8.2015.

Kitchen, water closet (unusual luxury back then), living room, bedroom & alcove with window. Very little in this home has changed since 1938. The kitchen has been renovated somewhere around 1960 (replacing the wood-burning stove with an electric one) and fridge and washing machine have been later added by residents. Originally the residents had a separate sauna building with laundry rooms, nowadays shared shower and sauna facilities are in the basement.

Rautpohja apartment © Hanna Meriläinen


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!

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