Helsinki East Urban Centre was an international two-phase ideas competition held in 2019-2020. The goal was to find innovative, inspiring, technically and financially feasible solutions that would generate a change in the Itäkeskus area from being a major traffic junction to a genuine eastern centre for Helsinki City. We were awarded the first prize in the competition in November 2020.
At present, Itäkeskus, the centre of Helsinki’s eastern suburb, is situated at the intersection of major traffic arteries and the urban milieu is dominated by large-scale shopping centres. Our competition entry proposed a new pedestrian-centric urban environment by continuing the grid plan across the motorway as an uninterrupted structure with smooth level changes. Our design drew primarily from the existing different levels in the site and the need to create an easier pedestrian access across the highway. Our landscape architects’ thorough study of the grand landscape and rock formations on the site helped us to understand how to treat the different areas of the site and decide on the green corridors, recreational routes, etc. We saw the city centre as a densification of functions and possibilities, centred around the little person on the street. So, despite the large amount of traffic in the site, the pedestrian experience will be reminiscent of an easy-going hill town. Our traffic planners had earlier worked extensively on the site and they helped us create this vision with ease. In our vision, the future centre of Itäkeskus will not just be a concentration of massive amounts of building, but will rather be created by a concentration of people, activities, events, cultures and possibilities.
In our office, we follow a value-based design process, whereby values identified at the beginning of the process guide our design decisions throughout. However, architecture is often presented so emphatically through visual material that the ideas and values behind the design decisions can remain vague to the general spectator. We wanted to use this opportunity to look back at our journey through the two stages of the competition and analyse, in retrospect, the underlying reasons behind our design decisions. We hope that this timely exercise will guide the work ahead.
To some extent, this idea of a retrospective analysis was triggered by our interview with Hossam Hewidy of Aalto University, who was studying ethnic retail in Helsinki’s architectural competitions. Taru Niskanen and Iines Karkulahti, the core competition team members from our office, participated in the interview along with Humphrey Kalanje, our team member and socio-cultural diversity expert. Hewidy had organised the discussion around a tripartite framework of the competition process focussed on Program, Site and Competition Entry. In the course of this discussion, we realised that our work in the competition stage had also been organised around a tripartite value framework. In this competition, the core values that also became design drivers were People-Centric Inclusive design, Walkability and Carbon Neutrality, with special emphasis on the ethnic diversity of the region.
Image by Play-Time
People-Centric Inclusive Design
Our understanding of the site began with a street-level walking study of the entire site. We also gained new insights about everyday life from our colleagues in the office, Trev Harris and Dali Gaysanova, who are local residents. During our walking study, we were approached by a local staff member of the Jalkautuva Nuorisotyö, an urban outreach organisation working with youth in public urban spaces. He offered us insights into the ways that locals use and see the site, and how the use of public space differed between people of different generations, and how gendered urban space worked within the site. As the Itäkeskus area has the most varied resident and user pool in Helsinki, we considered it necessary to include a socio-cultural diversity expert, the forementioned Humphrey Kalanje, in the competition team. By nominating a special expert, we could be sure that this issue would not be accidentally buried under all the other requirements of the site but would remain an active part of the design throughout the process. All of these aspects provided us with a significant understanding of the site, its community and special characteristics. However, considering the fact that the socio-cultural diversity had also been recognised as a strength and key factor for the future identity of the area in the competition brief, we were surprised to notice that none of this information had been provided by the competition organisation but depended solely on the competitor’s own interests, and nor did the local residents or representatives of the large multicultural community have any representation on the jury. In order to achieve a just, considerate and diverse plan for the site, it is necessary to recognise and take into consideration the current and future residents’ and users’ needs and wishes, which can be achieved only by listening to them.
In such projects of large-scale urban transformation, the challenge is to facilitate a smooth transition for the inhabitants and local actors. The general structure of our design allows the area to evolve in multiple phases over time, but also to start the development from multiple directions, depending on the situation on each site, avoiding disruption caused by the new development and the current city structure. While this kind of a phased development strategy goes a long way, there is also a need to create temporary spaces that will cater for the needs of the users while the larger spaces are being built.
It was with this intent that we created the Raakatila or raw space, which is a space that provides basic services and structure for a market hall but allows the business owners and other users to inhabit and shape the space according to their needs. The competition jury was not very receptive to this idea but were more concerned about the economic feasibility. Due to this concern the space was already scaled down in the competition phase to a single-storey height and integrated with other public services. This solution would still be worth reconsideration in terms of organic growth of the urban fabric and respect for the local communities.
Combining the Raakatila market hall with other services led to the development of the Kulttuurien kortteli, the Culture Quarter, a mixed-use city block with public, cultural and commercial functions combined with workshops and other free-use spaces. The quarter creates a space for the local community to thrive and develop further on their own terms, and refers back to a village neighbourhood where acting, sharing and low-threshold encounters strengthen creativity, local community pride and ownership of the area. Supporting social participation and active involvement enhances the socio-cultural diversity of the area and helps to keep it as an asset and central source of identity.
To achieve this aim, it is essential that the public spaces, as well as the cultural and public services of the area, are developed with the same attention and care as they would be in locations closer to the centre of Helsinki. For example, the public swimming hall could be further developed to create a multicultural bath centre, hosting culturally important bathing spaces (Hammam, Onsen, Sento, Banja, Snanam), thereby supporting cultural diversity and making it visible in the public services. The socio-cultural diversity needs to be emphasised when developing the general area as well as the housing typologies. In our plan, we acknowledged the need for different kinds of housing that would cater for various multicultural households, in which social and privacy needs differ from that of a traditional Finnish household. For example, major public housing providers have strict guidelines about the size and type of apartments. There is a lot of scope for improvement in terms of revising these guidelines to make housing inclusive to different ways of living. The communal spaces within housing also need re-thinking in order to cater for the necessary variations in levels of privacy and social interaction.
Walkability formed the second pillar of our tripartite design framework. The vision of a pedestrianised centre in Itäkeskus is starkly different to the current situation, in which the urban environment is dominated by cars. Our immediate response was to focus on the creation of pedestrian-friendly and pedestrian-priority spaces, meaning car-free zones or shared spaces where cars would follow the pace of the pedestrians. One of our main planning guidelines was that in the pedestrian dominated areas the immediate environment should communicate clearly that pedestrians are the priority. This meant, for example, following a design principle where one would never need to step down onto a car lane, but rather cars would have to cross the pedestrian walkway. Taru Niskanen’s experience and extensive studies on walkability helped us with this aspect. Special attention was given to accessibility and the uninterrupted flow of walking. The need to cross the Itäväylä highway on elevated levels complicates the pedestrian movement. We wanted to smoothen this level difference by creating intuitive, accessible and atmospheric connections between the levels. The pedestrian network has to cater for different users, which is why we evaluated the usability of our design from the perspectives of different user groups, such as parents with prams on a Sunday stroll, or school children hurrying to the metro on weekday mornings.
Another perspective on walkability highlighted the openness of the public space and pedestrian network. The aim was to create a livable centre which is active, open and accessible at all times, day and night, weekday and weekend. We tried to avoid creating more indoor spaces that open only to interior mall boulevards with opening hours and that turn their backs on the street. The main aim was to turn the area into a quality city centre, where these indoor connections would no longer be a necessity, but the shops, cafes and restaurants could open up to the public spaces, streets and squares, as they do in traditional city centres. We also proposed turning some of the mall boulevards into semi-outdoor spaces and connecting them as elemental parts of the public pedestrian network. This would connect the stores to people’s everyday routes and allow, for example, dropping by the playground with the kids while doing the daily shopping.
Rendered Image by Play-Time
The second pillar, walkability, tied nicely in with our third – the supporting of Helsinki’s objective of carbon neutrality. The carbon footprint can be seen as a sum of building methods, landscaping and functional choices. The intensifying of Itäkeskus facilitates the transition to a carbon-neutral lifestyle, in which public transport, pedestrian and bicycle route connections are accessible and attractive, reducing the need for private cars and in which the proximity of cultural and recreational services as well as community spaces reduces the need for oversized apartments and in which communal neighbourhoods increase people’s awareness and appreciation of their neighbours as well as the immediate and broader environment.
The sustainable solutions of the future are not technical solutions separated from the rest of the design, but at their best are intertwined as an inherent part of the whole. Currently, the main through-road, Itäväylä, has a dominant role in the urban fabric as an element that not only divides the different areas but also creates lots of disturbance. We wanted to use its dominant role but turn it around into a symbolic, energising and connecting element combatting climate change and bringing the community together. To achieve this aim, Itäväylä was highlighted as an energy corridor as well as a green stream running through the area. Our energy specialist, Henri Horn, proposed a seasonal thermal storage network on and around the current street. All the new construction on the site, as well as the willing current actors, would be connected to this network to form an energy community. The uneven and desynchronised production and consumption of energy could be balanced between different actors within this community. For example, the excess heat from the grocery store’s cooling machines could be led to the energy storage and used for heating the housing in the winter. This community is brought together around the energy corridor of Itäväylä, making new energy solutions visible and tangible to the residents and users. As the energy corridor sets requirements mainly to the underground spaces, the ground level of Itäväylä was designed for large scale storm water treatment. Thus, the green structure of Itäväylä addresses climate change and the increasing extreme weather conditions and uses these temporal weather and storm water conditions to create atmosphere and identity for the area.
In addition to storm water treatment, our team wanted to study what other benefits could come out of temporality. Itäkeskus is a large scale development area that will take years or decades to be completed. Our carbon neutrality expert, Matti Kuittinen, proposed Massapuisto, a demolition debris treatment area based on locally-treated material cycles that doubles as a curated land art park. This proposal turns a technical carbon neutrality solution into art and a source of local pride. As environmental art creation it would be constantly changing, like the city around it.
All of these ideas and many more could be shared and presented in the local community centres situated amongst the housing blocks. Guidance and information on ecological lifestyles could be offered in these community centres, which could include places to recycle and share items and resources in the neighbourhood. Spaces for sharing can strengthen the sense of community, which brings us back to the principle of people-centric design.
This study clarified to us that the three pillars of our value framework supported each other, overlapping and eventually serving the same goals. Especially at a time when the climate crisis is posing new challenges for architects, the step to the future needs to be just, inclusive and innovative. Architecture that aims to serve its users needs to tackle the questions of today and tomorrow.
We hope that this retrospective analysis of our winning competition proposal has clarified the goals we set for ourselves in the design and will help us to keep them on board in the coming phases.
Core Design team
Trevor Harris, Prof. Emeritus, Architect SAFA RIBA
Iines Karkulahti, Architect SAFA
Henna Kemppainen, Architect SAFA
Hennu Kjisik, Prof. Emeritus, Ph.D.(Tech.), Architect SAFA
Taru Niskanen, Architect SAFA, MS (Chemistry)
Kathleen Dieme, B.Sc. (Arch)
Other team members
Hannin Alnimri, Architect
Can Özcan, Architect
Lauri Kontiainen, B.Sc (Wood Technology), Architect SAFA
Charlotte Nyholm, Architect SAFA
Aino Raatikka, Architect SAFA
Catarina Ketonen, Architect SAFA
Elina Jaara, Architect SAFA
Kelly Corcoran, Architect
VSU Landscape architects
Outi Palosaari, Landscape architect MARK
Terhikki Vaarala, Landscape architect MARK
Elina Lindholm, Landscape architect MARK
Laura Virtanen, Landscape architect
WSP traffic planning
Esa Karvonen, MS (Civil engineering)
Jouni Ikäheimo, B.Sc (Traffic engineering)
Aleksi Kankaanpää, B.Sc (Traffic engineering)
Humphrey Kalanje, Architect (Multicultural Helsinki)
Matti Kuittinen, D.Sc., Architect (Carbon neutral Helsinki)
Henri Horn, MS (Energy technology) (Carbon neutral Helsinki)
Saara Suojoki, MA (Culture and art specialist)