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Letter From Helsinki

Building with care in the Finnish capital.

Architect, October 2008

Everyone knows that Finns like saunas and heavy metal. But brochures?

“Finns really like brochures,” a local warned me, and sure enough, wherever I went in Finland’s capital, Helsinki, this August, I was steered toward a display rack stuffed with them. Not taking at least a couple at each stop seemed rude. After four days, I had acquired enough printed matter—and not just brochures, but postcards, maps, and honest-to-God books—to stock my own newsstand. Thoughtfully, the folks at the city planning department gave me a custom-printed shopping bag to stash everything in. It was handy, until it broke under the weight.

One reason for all the paper: Finland has a lot of trees, and printing is a time-honored national industry. But there’s another, less tangible explanation that has to do more with the Finnish social contract. As far as the government and its satellites are concerned, The Public is the all-important, perennial client, who must be informed of every new planning goal and design concept, sounded out, and (in some cases) mollified well before ground is broken.

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Rendering courtesy ALA Architects