17.09, Saturday 22 Oct 2005

What struck me about the architecture of Helsinki, and then of Reykjavik, was the use of layers and grid textures. Modern buildings in both cities seem to decorate their surfaces more than those in London, and maybe it's because they tend to be shorter, but they seem less like someone has designed the base and the top, then merely extruded in-between. Reykjavik buildings, especially, seem to be total shapes: pyramids, prisms, intersecting glass and copper cuboids. Materials overlap, making use of transparency and sudden turns in the surface to let you see through, then obstruct, then see through again. The idea of the double door, a necessity in the cold climate, has extended to the whole.

As well as these sturdy buildings with permeable edges, the texture are grids: repeating copper rectangles; studs like rivets from the walls; cages over concrete. The grids are too dense and too vast to let you see their individual elements, and instead they're carpets of regularity. Matt Jones told me that the architecture was drawing on Japanese ideas of artificiality and nature, side by side, playing off each other. Beautiful--and all over both cities.

Iceland; Finland; Japan. I remember reading on Matt's weblog, ages ago (the post is gone now), about the Arctic ice-cap melting and the Northern Passage opening. There would be a new northern culture, connected by open ocean, global warming, and a different kind of aesthetic. Ben Hammersley, preparing for his 2007 North Pole attempt, tells me that the ice is getting thinner year on year. And people are buying up land in Canada, in preparation for the ports they'll be able to build there.

From Sergei Medvedev's 2000 essay, The _Blank_ Space:Glenn Gould, Russia, Finland And The North, the section on the idea of a Northern Europe: A shared periphery, a cooperative psychological setup, and an experience of local networking exempt the North from the traditional territorial discourses based on power, history and identity, placing it in a deterritorialized post-national paradigm in which spaces are increasingly imagined and communicated. The North emerges as one of the so-called "meso-regions", i.e. less determined by geography than by ideas, symbols, visions or strategic instruments, all aimed at mobilizing resources to solve common problems.

The architecture I saw reflects this. The openness of the government in Estonia, the mobility of Japan and Finland, cheap energy in Iceland, the competing narratives that have filtered up to the north from lower latitudes, the reality of the melting ice: These elements combine to produce an approach which is pragmatic, uncentred, combinatory.