It’s postcards from the edge this week, as our globetrotting architect flits from the antlers of Helsinki to the Buddhas of Bangkok
Helsinki is the most boring capital city in the world. I was invited there to give a lecture, but the real attraction for me was the expectation of seeing the work of one of my heroes, Alvar Aalto.
My fantasy was a crisp snow-covered city with a rich architectural heritage of Slavic baroque and exquisite 1930s gems, populated by stunning blond people. It was cold, for sure. But there was no snow to conceal the absence of great architecture or the absence of a critical mass of population. It was as if all the attractive youth had escaped and left behind a charmless and somewhat frumpy group of inhabitants.
The Finns appear to operate a strange work-to-rule system that results in everything you might possibly want to see being closed. So I didn’t get to see Aalto’s studio, which like that of Le Corbusier is a lesson to us all in the value of modesty; or the Savoy restaurant, a complete modernist interior to rival any of those exhibited at the V&A modernism show; or the groundbreaking sanitorium, out of town but also closed.
Of the shops that were open – and this was a Saturday – almost all had some kind of Aalto memorabilia. Aalto’s Savoy flower vase is ubiquitous. This is the piece that influenced a generation of designers and later inspired perhaps Foster’s best work, the Willis Faber building in Ipswich. Its form is used on objects from breadboards to ice cube trays. It is sad when such a brilliant move is devalued by pattern-making for tourists – I don’t think I will ever be able to look at the vase in quite the same way again.
The one historic space I did experience was a restaurant designed by a group of architectural students in the thirties. It was beautifully preserved and not over-restored. However, the Finns had managed to turn the ground-floor bar – replete with plush red leather banquettes trimmed in chrome and original mood-softening light fittings – into a morose self-service canteen for lonely people.
The restaurant upstairs was a little more glam. It is always a treat to have a vista from a restaurant dining table, but this view was rather marred by Helsinki’s only contemporary building, a disappointingly banal museum designed by Steven Holl that lacks coherence and soul.
We thought a reindeer antler bottle opener would make the perfect birthday gift for Zaha, but it was quite pointy
But the food was good. It was reindeer week so we had reindeer every which way you can. And talking of reindeer, there was a street market – well, more like two stalls on the quayside – that specialised in all things reindeer. We thought a wonderfully absurd reindeer antler bottle opener would make the perfect birthday gift for Zaha, but it was quite pointy and an awkward shape to carry around so we decided to leave the purchase until our return journey. Of course, we’d forgotten the work-to-rule rule, which requires all Finns to go home before it gets dark, and the stall had closed by the time we got back. So Zaha had to make do with Aalto’s ice cubes.
A couple of weeks later, I was in Bangkok. Another lecture but this time to a young and enthusiastic audience of beautiful Thais.
The venue was, rather bizarrely, screen six of a Multiplex cinema, but the talk was branded cleverly, not just with posters but with T-shirts and bottles of water, which were badly needed. Every time I stepped outside I thought someone had left the heating turned up to 38°C. It was a short visit packed with meetings, interviews, drinks and dinners. I was so shagged out by this full-on city that I failed to muster the energy to see the sumptuous Grand Palace or the 46m long gilded reclining Buddha of Wat Pho.
But what I did experience of Bangkok was total gridlock from morning to night; a tantalising fusion of street markets and luxury super brands; a department store that houses a design centre. Why can’t we have a design centre like that? TCDC (Thailand Creative & Design Centre) is entirely government-funded and boasts a state-of-the-art resource for designers with a restaurant, lounge, library, galleries and shop – and inside a piece of retail heaven.
The architecture is generally unremarkable and the city is chaotically planned, with scores of high-rise buildings abandoned halfway up, reinforcement bars projecting from unfinished concrete frames like an economic catastrophe version of 9/11.
The heat of the city was too intense so we headed south to a spa hideaway designed so you can avoid ever seeing the other guests, for three days of heonistic bliss. By the time of my next column, I will be less chilled. I promise to write a serious piece then.
Amanda Levete is a partner in Future Systems