How Is Experience Connected to Urban Design?

In connection with urban design, the importance of social and cultural sustainability is often talked about, but these values are not visible in the data that is provided for designers as a basis for their work. Harris-Kjisik Architects decided to collect this data themselves, when the development of the Itäkeskus district began.

When architects start the design of a residential area, they are provided with initial data such as site plans, building stock reports, gross external area targets, as well as satellite and aerial images. The residents of the area and their lives are not visible in the material based on statistics and land use plans. Human and experiential knowledge is drowned out, and the planning area takes shape as a rational object. One can define the price, schedule and scope of an object, but will it respond to people’s needs today and in the future?

In 2019–2020, the City of Helsinki organised an open international two-stage ideas competition for the Itäkeskus district. The competition searched innovative and inspiring entries – that supported Helsinki’s carbon neutrality goals – for the development of the district. We participated in the team of Harris-Kjisik Architects, which won the competition. After the competition, the commission for further planning was shared between our architectural practice and a team that consisted of K2S Architects and Playa Architects.

The initial data for the competition was comprehensive. We were provided with maps, satellite and aerial images, a three-dimensional computer model, drawings of the buildings in the district, previous plans of the traffic solutions for the district, as well as the Carbon-neutral Helsinki 2035 Action Plan. We looked for initial data that concerned pedestrians, as well as social and cultural sustainability. However, there was no data regarding the number of pedestrians in different areas, when and how the areas were used and who were moving in the area. Multiculturalism was given a significant role in the competition brief, but still, it was, in no way, visible in the initial data for the competition and further planning. How is it possible to plan and design a socially and culturally sustainable city, if these perspectives are already excluded from the initial data of the design task?

After the competition, Harris-Kjisik Architects launched a research project that dealt with the Itäkeskus district. We went to Itäkeskus and counted the number of people who moved in different areas on weekdays and at the weekend. We studied which routes on the squares were the most popular. We estimated how well the 12 criteria of protection, comfort and enjoyment – as presented by Jan Gehl in his book How to Study Public Life (2013) – were fulfilled in the district. The countings, surveys and quality assessments told us who were in the district, what they did there, what kind of routes they chose, or what the quality of the pedestrian environment was. However, we noted that our experience of the urban space was only visible to a small extent in the results of these studies. In addition, the perspectives of the residents and users of the district were missing, and so was their experience of the urban space, even though we had carried out a survey on Tallinnanaukio Square, with 52 respondents who were on the square.

More Focus on the Senses

Architecture and urban design are often understood as an art of organising spaces, without any human, conscious or unconscious meanings. A space is often perceived as figures and measurements particularly in area planning projects, in which the future area does not exist yet or the designer is not able to visit the planning area. We describe and interpret urban environments by using technical attributes rather than our senses, even though it is the senses that connect places to emotions. A one-sided method – that focusses on technical qualities – of processing and organising data that deals with urban spaces ignores the human experience. Architect Phyllis Lambert has stated that “the spectrum of all sensory phenomena that is present in our everyday experience is missing from urban studies”. Sociologist Richard Sennett sees a connection between the technical character of cities and the poor city life and claims that the sensory sterility of our cities is a result of the prioritisation of visual experiences.

We collected sensory data by means of a sensory survey. In addition to the sensory experiences gained by the researchers, we also wanted to collect sensory data from Itäkeskus residents and users of the district regarding their everyday environment. The study became personal interaction with the residents and actors. We also interviewed residents by carrying out walking interviews along their everyday walking routes. Our aim was to find those urban space qualities that are meaningful in the everyday environment and in the walking experience. We tried to understand the subtle nuances in the environment. They make the experience special in a space or when walking. As stated by Filipa Wunderlich, who has studied the temporality of urban spaces, walking is an appropriate activity, as well as creative and critical experiencing of a space. In the walking interviews, the bodily experience of people was approached together.

A Photograph Creates Interaction

We aimed to receive more abstract and tacit knowledge from the users of the district by using the Photovoice method. We interviewed 25 people who happened to be in the district, and we asked them to send us photographs under the theme a “healthier Itäkeskus”. The method, which seemed to be easy in the current mobile culture, only produced a few photographs, which is why we approached the actors in the district.

We managed to engage the youth centre – which activates the Stoa square – and young people in the study. An important role was also played by youth leaders with the help of whom the networking took place. According to architect Heini Korpelainen, children’s perceptions are filled with senses, as children perceive their environment with all their senses, unlike adults who rationalise their perceptions with financial and functional factors. The children’s experiential relationship with their environment is a good foundation for the planning, design and understanding of the environment.

A group of young people were familiarised with the theme and photography and handed disposable cameras. After they had returned the cameras, we interviewed them on the basis of the photographs they had taken, as well as discussed the photography experience and the meanings of the photographs. From the interviews, we received stories that supported the photographs. With the help of the photographs and interviews, we received a new way to understand the views of the photographers regarding their environment.

A photograph as a research instrument created an interactive relationship between the young people, residents and researchers, as well as guided them to move and find new meanings in the district.

It provided an interaction method – irrespective of the age, ethnic background or language of the photographers – as well as a way to interpret and display their experiences and the meanings in the Itäkeskus district. With the help of the visual research material, the reality of the place was transferred to the photographs. The popularity of the disposable cameras, as well as the quality and quantity of the received knowledge, were impressive.

We wanted to display the research material for the residents of the district and for the photographers, which is why we decided to organise an exhibition on the Stoa square. The exhibition functioned as a platform for the designers, researchers and residents on which they were able to share their thoughts of the district. For the participants, it was important to see their own material displayed at the exhibition. The photographs chosen and edited by the researchers showed the residents the researchers’ interpretation of the residential area. With the help of the exhibition, new experiences and images regarding the Itäkeskus district were created. The exhibition was focussed on the visual experience, which is highlighted in our culture, but aimed – with the help of discussion, voice recordings, a sensory walk organised at the exhibition opening event and moving together in the area – to offer a multisensory experience for the exhibition visitors.

The researches edited the photos taken by the youth and equipped them with comments concerning the photographed events and spaces. The full list of participants can be found at the end of the article.

From Statistics to Meanings

The study was enabled by the funding that Harris-Kjisik Architects received from Business Finland. The situation was unique, as in the background of the study, there were no other partners, objectives or requirements than the researchers’ own interest in the utilisation of the experiences in urban design. The City of Helsinki was interested in the completed study and told about their own needs. At the exhibition opening event, the architects who were designing the district, the City of Helsinki representatives and land use planners, as well as the actors, users and residents of the district, met each other in the same space.

Initially, we began to study the Itäkeskus district as a space based on statistics, but during the research process, Itäkeskus became a meaningful place for us, a home and a residential area. It transformed from a geometric space into a place and a more open-ended experiential state of mind.

When carrying out the study, we noted how challenging it can be to perceive, document and display experiences. However, we succeeded and learned a great deal with an open mind, trying different methods, and, partly, by trial and error. The study encouraged us to try new methods and ways to approach the planning and design of the district, and it also provided us with an opportunity for carrying out more multidisciplinary perceptions. Some of the methods did not work due to the scope of the assignment, technological difficulties, or the complex formulation of questions. However, we still got a bunch of practical methods in our toolkit, and we hope that we will be able to use them in other projects in the future.


Planning of the study: architects Aino Raatikka and Taru Niskanen.

Implementation of the study and the field work: architects Aino Raatikka, Taru Niskanen, Hannin Alnimri and Lauri Kontiainen, Yuxin Wu, BArch, and Kwan Yui Ip, architecture student.

Participants involved in the study: Lina Kostoy, Dali Gaysanova, Sylvi Siisiäinen, Henna Ojalehto, Diidan Hassan, Astrid Makengo, Heikki Koivistoinen, Daniel Ollas, Axel Walday Næss, Laura Lahtela, Kirsikka.

Published in Arkkitehti Finnish Architectural Review, 1-2022 Kaupunki Urban Space

Lähteet References: Gehl, Jan & Svarre, Birgitte: How to Study Public Life, Island Press 2013; Korpelainen, Heini & Yanar, Anu: Askeleita arkkitehtuurissa: Arkkitehtuurin kansalaiskasvatus Suomessa: raportti. Suomen Arkkitehtiliitto, Taiteen keskustoimikunta 2001; Lambert, Phyllis: “Preface”. Teoksessa Zardini, M. (ed.): Sense of the City: An Alternative Approach to Urbanism. Lars Müller Publishers 2005; Sennett, Richard: Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization. Norton 1996; Wunderlich, Filippa: “Walking and Rhythmicity: Sensing Urban Space”, Journal of Urban Design, Vol. 13. No. 1, 2008, 125–139.