Walking past Porthania Square, one can't help but notice a wooden structure with plants growing out of the windows reaching out towards the sunlight. Tourists passing by peek inside the greenhouse's windows. The structure seems somewhat disconnected, even peculiar, in its environment. You can tell that it hasn't always been in its current location. The cucumber vines sprouting between the window frames bring life to an otherwise stony and concrete environment. In fact, just as random as the structure appears, it's a series of coincidences that the Kasvihuone (Greenhouse) even exists in its designated spot.
This is an experimental urban space project called Galleria Kasvihuone, by doctoral researcher in urban geography Lauri Jäntti and urban artist Maarit Myllynen. Kasvihuone is not just a greenhouse; it serves as a venue for events and urban experiments. In Jäntti's own words, the small structure serves as a collision point for people and ideas; a space for branching out. Kasvihuone is a place for art workshops, dance performances, and music. The doctoral thesis is related to an educational experiment in which students collaborated to design the art content of the Kasvihuone, including the "discussion booth." The discussion booth takes place through the question wheel found in the Kasvihuone.
Behind the project, there are numerous happy coincidences, with the most significant perhaps being Lauri Jäntti's journey into becoming a doctoral researcher. He has a long and active history in the urban culture scene of Helsinki. Jäntti has been involved in organizing festivals centered around the theme of death, experimental hitchhiking for city officials, as well as a study space experiment for elementary school students. Through the latter, Jäntti connected with Noora Pyyry, an assistant professor of geography education. Jäntti was searching for an urban researcher to collaborate on a performance-based urban space experiment, in which sixth graders participated in a city research laboratory based at Helsinki City Hall. The goal was to creatively highlight the much-discussed Finnish school system. Pyyry had become familiar with Jäntti's projects and suggested him to Petteri Muukkonen, a senior lecturer in geography, as a possible doctoral researcher. Jäntti's current dissertation is evolving in the field of geography, surrounded by urban geographers.
Background-wise, Jäntti is a scholar of religious studies. In religious studies, he was fascinated by how experiences and perceptions of reality take shape. Religious studies provided a pathway to understanding different people and their actions.
"I thrive on the edge of mysteries, contemplating the world and existence together with others. It's not directly related to religions. It's where the question arises of how a person connects with the world and how the world becomes meaningful," reflects Jäntti.
Although urban geography and religious studies often grapple with the same significant human questions, Jäntti's path to becoming a doctoral researcher is quite unusual. Typically, doctoral research is undertaken fairly linearly after specializing in a specific field. However, Jäntti's path reflects his open approach to the study of human activities. In the end, the decision about the dissertation work was quite easy.
"It's associated with a kind of fascination that, why not. My existence is perhaps an aesthetic orientation to the world, where the best things come as surprises. If you trust and believe that the world is supportive and open to all kinds of experiences in life, it constantly produces. Not a day can pass without some incredible opportunity unfolding at every bus stop, something you couldn't have imagined before," says Jäntti about his unconventional path to becoming a researcher.
Chance played a significant role in the birth of the Kasvihuone (Greenhouse) idea. While still living on Mariankatu, Jäntti began creating a greenery space on his balcony. Around the same time, he happened to chat with a friend who mentioned that, with permission, you could put various things in front of apartment buildings in Helsinki, even flower boxes.
"Then I thought, where else would my planting box be if not in front of the front door. So, I built a small structure on wheels. If someone would have got upset about it, I would have just moved it somewhere else," Jäntti said about the idea. At the same time, he invited his neighbors to join in cultivation.
This bold experiment eventually bore fruit quite literally: "It turned out to be quite fun. The result of the experiment was that no one destroyed the structure throughout the summer. We grew potatoes, sunflowers, and zucchinis. It also became a small meeting place."
The full-fledged Galleria Kasvihuone (Greenhouse Gallery) initially came into being at the end of Lönnrotinkatu. The structure was constructed from old windows found at a recycling center. The use of recycled materials hasn't been forgotten in the latest version of Kasvihuone either. The transformation into an art gallery took shape once again through a chance encounter and conversation with artist Maarit Myllynen. The functional essence of Kasvihuone began to take form. The inspiration for involving people came from the surroundings, as there was a kindergarten near Kasvihuone. This gave rise to the idea of involving children in Kasvihuone's activities, including art and plant cultivation.
"Things and ideas tend to branch out. They are situational coincidences, like having a kindergarten nearby. Why not invite them if the children spend time here? Then the thought continues that if we have children here, why not involve the elderly as well."
When Jäntti decided to pursue further studies, he felt it was meaningful to connect the Kasvihuone project to his dissertation. He had previously worked on the project with different groups of people, including young and old, children and adults. His dissertation on geography education helped narrow down the collaboration group this time to middle school students from Käpylä lower secondary school.
Porthania was chosen as the location due to its proximity to the university and central location. The proposal was received with an open mind in the university administration. According to Jäntti's own experience, experiments in urban spaces are most successful in reaching people when they are placed in a spatially central location, near the flow of people, but not directly in their path, allowing for peace to explore and investigate. Porthania Square sees the flow of people passing through, but the sheltered space of the square also offers the opportunity for stopping by and explore.
"It was somehow obvious to put Kasvihuone on Porthania Square. Architecturally, the environment is fantastic and open. On the other hand, the square is a wasted space that people pass through," Jäntti explains.
Jäntti clearly has a lot to say about getting people more actively involved in urban spaces. He wants to awaken and shake everyone to look at their everyday environment differently and take more liberties in using urban space. But Finland is known as a country of reserved people. How do you approach people in such an environment without scaring them away?
"There are no practices or ways to be close to each other here, no such way that says you sit next to someone on the bus. Finns have lived in cities for so little time that there are no well-developed forms of urban culture that create everyday encounters," Jäntti explains.
According to Jäntti, culture guides behavior in the city as customs and routines, which he, however, turns into an opportunity: "At the same time, it creates an incredible playground for all experiments."
People on the street get involved if the threshold is low and the situation is inviting enough. Jäntti believes that setups aimed at encounters should be designed in a way that doesn't give people a reason to refuse.
"If you don't demand anything at all, there won't be much resistance either. Kasvihuone is related to this because it doesn't ask anything from anyone: the doors are open, do as you please," Jäntti illustrates.
Furthermore, social initiative is difficult, so different spatial arrangements can act as initiators. Similar to how walking a dog creates opportunities for conversation between strangers, a certain physical element can serve as an initiator. Thus, the built environment also has agency and is not limited to people alone.
Through his experiments, Jäntti aims to challenge the notion that a person's role in the city narrows down to being passive spectators and consumers compared to institutions. For example, he mentions the experiment on Pohjoisesplanadi, which has sparked a lot of discussion among Helsinki residents:
"Our role is as consumers to admire and express our opinions, instead of our role being creative and participatory."
Jäntti wants to provide an example and an opportunity for experiments to non-official actors through urban space experiments like Galleria Kasvihuone. It opens up possibilities for people to be active contributors in urban space. Even spontaneously formed urban space usage patterns, such as public saunas, art walls, and small gardens, can be places for culture, artistic expression, social interaction, activism, and fun.
"It's an inclusive urban culture that asks how to support the idea that a city dweller's role isn't just to be a passive audience. Often, even in participatory urban projects, the role given to residents is advisory only."
When residents are involved in creating their environment, a sense of meaning is born. Ideas are more fertile when they are connected to reality and its actions. Jäntti emphasizes that people take care of what is important to them and in which they are involved. The benefits of creative participation extend beyond individual lives; it can lead to broader care for the common environment and the city. That's why it's important to involve residents as active participants. Through physical experiments, stimuli are sought for creative thinking. In Jäntti's thinking, the function of concrete action is clear:
"Thinking is the same as action. Thinking doesn't happen in a vacuum; it arises in a functional relationship with the world."
Jäntti emphasizes that a genuine opportunity to participate and influence motivates people. For example, if the city organizes a workshop for planning a new green area, there should already be some assurance of the project's realization, and residents should be involved in the planning and implementation from start to finish. Jäntti's strong belief is that through participation, care can be fostered. He also points out that participation involves concrete actions and experiments. At the same time, every genuine experiment is a risk, and it can also fail.
Often, the most fertile ground for something new is created through trial and error, according to Jäntti. He believes there must be courage to fail and deviate from existing plans in order for something new to emerge: "Often, the moment of failure is the one that opens up thinking the most." Experiments are risks, but necessary ones. They open up dialogue and reveal the diverse ways in which urban space is used and desired to be used.
The significance of Galleria Kasvihuone lies precisely in the sense of detachment it creates: "Oh, you can do this, this is also possible in urban space." The physical environment anchors city residents to their surroundings. Even a small detail or crack in the familiar landscape can shake up well-worn paths. Suddenly, one has deviated from the daily commute route to admire a structure in which enormous cucumbers are growing. Perhaps this new sight plants the seed for a new idea, or a detour from the usual path leads to a meaningful new encounter. No one can fully predict what will emerge when people and things unexpectedly collide. That's the essence of Jäntti's research.
"One of the aims of the Kasvihuone project is to collide academia with the rest of the world, which is done on a small spatial proposal rather than by trying to force it. The idea is that Kasvihuone could generate fun, spontaneous collisions and conversations."
The gallery will delight you at Porthania square (Yliopistonkatu 3) until September 30, 2023.