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

The Rise of the RN

With healthcare construction booming, architecture firms are hiring from an unexpected talent pool—registered nurses.

Architect, December 2007

Marion Fraser and Alison Wesley-James are in remarkably good spirits, considering what they have to accomplish over the next several hours: squeezing 27 surgical beds, six operating rooms, labs, CT scanners, and support areas into 30,000 or so square feet of planned hospital space.

Sitting with healthcare architects in a meeting room at the Omaha, Neb., headquarters of the firm HDR, Fraser and Wesley-James—the CFO and planning manager, respectively, of the Ottawa Heart Institute in Canada—study CAD drawings and stacks of spreadsheets as they weigh all the factors. These include work hours (If the ORs were used more hours per day, wonders Fraser, could they make do with five?) and hospital politics (Where is the best spot to put the CT scanners, so as many doctors as possible can have them close by?).

Most tortuous of all is phasing, the logistics of which can be paradoxical: “You have to build new, to take out the old, to be able to refurbish, to build new,” says Fraser, who wears the sensible clothes of an accountant but a ready smile.

The planned cardiac unit might be new construction or an existing facility that’s been renovated—or a combination of both. It’s too early to say, since ground won’t be broken on the project, a major expansion of the Ottawa Hospital, for another decade. And some of the changes that Fraser and Wesley-James foresee won’t take effect until 2031.

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Photograph by William Anthony

Industrial Strength

Can the remnants of Bethlehem Steel be reborn?

Preservation, May/June 2005

“It’s like a cathedral,” I exclaimed as the SUV swung through a weedy doorway and onto an expanse of cracked concrete. My guide smiled. “You’re not the first person to say that.” On either side of us, beneath a soaring roof, stretched long rows of columns dwindling into a V in the distance. We stepped out of the car into air that had the savor of an old English church: dank, dusty, and still.

We were standing inside the No. 2 Machine Shop at what used to be the Bethlehem Steel Corp.’s main plant in Bethlehem, Pa., about 70 miles north of Philadelphia in the Lehigh Valley. Here, the sheer scale of American industry at its preglobalization zenith is overwhelming. During World War II, Bethlehem Steel, then the world’s second-largest steelmaker, employed 30,000 people at this factory—800 or more of them working in No. 2. When engineer John Fritz built it in 1890, No. 2 was the largest industrial building in the world, a shop that could turn out 20 or 30 battleship guns per day to equip the rapidly modernizing U.S. Navy.

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Photograph: PollyKanter / Wikimedia Commons