The Design Observer Group


Posted 02.21.13


Ken McCown

Creatures of Helsinki





In the summer of 2012 I traveled from Las Vegas, where I now live and work, to Helsinki, where I spent several weeks teaching. As it turned out, my weeks in the Finnish capital also provided the opportunity to re-engage with architecture, after years of teaching landscape architecture — in particular, to explore the ways in which architecture can create meaning through its effort to harmonize with landscape. I'd expected to focus mostly on site designs by architectural masters like Alvar Aalto or Reima and Raili Pietila; so I was almost surprised to realize that what most fascinated me were not scenic views of landscapes artfully framed by architects, but rather the myriad "creatures" that you discover adorning the walls and cornices and rooflines of buildings, and often the commercial displays of the city as well.


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As I wandered the various neighborhoods of central Helsinki, especially the Katajanokka district with its legacy of Jugendstil, the creatures — that is, building decoration in the form of animals, crafted usually from stone — became a way to intuit the past mythologies of place. Different historic districts of the city even yielded distinct taxonomies! So I began photographing them, and after a few weeks I had dozens and dozens of images — owls, cats, pigs, lions, frogs, peacocks, bats, serpents, snakes, dogs, sheep, even a sphinx. At first this seemed simply an enjoyable summer documentation project, a bit like a puzzle (identify the animal on the building!). But ultimately it provoked bigger questions. As a landscape educator, I couldn't help but wonder (or hope) whether this kind of expressive decoration, especially its sheer abundance, might actually help reinforce a connection between the urban and the natural. At the very least these "creatures of Helsinki" are a cumulatively powerful presence in the contemporary city.