From an outlier in Töölö to a graceful newcomer in Kruununhaka

Ten years ago, in August 2009, the Swedish School of Social Science (Soc&kom) moved to a new building in the Kruununhaka district of Helsinki. The Soc&kom community had long dreamed of a new building of its own. Today, a decade later, it is safe to say that the building has lived up to the high expectations.

Henrik Hägglund, then-rector of the Swedish School of Social Science, says that the new building had many positive effects right from the start.

“The move provided a major boost for our operations. It raised the profile of Soc&kom and bilingual (Finnish and Swedish) activities at the University of Helsinki.”

It became apparent during the very first academic year that the Soc&kom students began to complete courses and minor subject studies at other faculties on the City Centre Campus on an unprecedented scale, while the number of minor subject students from other faculties grew significantly at Soc&kom. Research cooperation, particularly with the disciplines represented at the Faculty of Social Sciences, increased, as did interaction at many levels.

“It’s a beautiful building and you can’t miss it if you move around the area of the Faculty of Social Sciences. Somehow it also raised our profile at the Faculty and among its students, making them aware of us and our excellent facilities,” Hägglund says.

The current rector of the Swedish School of Social Science, Johan Bärlund, also mentions the building as a reason why Soc&kom is currently doing so well.

“The building was like a jackpot for us, and it has contributed significantly to all of us thriving here. It meets our needs now and well into the future.”

Bärlund also emphasises the positive effects on learning that can result from a safe and pleasant environment.

“The building is full of life, which our students love. Guests who visit us find the building functional and react positively to the fact that it is so bright and open.”

An outlier in Taka-Töölö

From 1964, the Swedish School of Social Science was located in a building designed by Erik Kråkström at Topeliuksenkatu street 16 in the Taka-Töölö (“Outer Töölö”) district of Helsinki. But due to a lack of space, which became ever more apparent over the years, Soc&kom had to rent additional facilities on Pohjoinen Hesperiankatu street, mainly for researchers.

“We began to question the division of the unit as a peculiar and impractical solution because researchers and postgraduate education were located in a different place than teachers and administration. The Topeliuksenkatu building also started to show signs of wear and tear, not on the outside, but there were leaking pipes, and a replacement of the building’s plumbing system was imminent,” Henrik Hägglund explains.

In addition to the lack of space, the location in Taka-Töölö, a long way from the City Centre Campus and the Faculty of Social Sciences, was seen as problematic. According to Hägglund, Soc&kom was considered something of an outlier, separate from the University’s other operations.

The first concrete step towards the construction of a new building was taken at the turn of the millennium, when the leadership of the Swedish School of Social Science contacted the University to enquire about larger and more appropriate facilities.

The University initially responded by offering existing buildings that were or would eventually be unoccupied. The venues proposed included an old Swedish-language primary school in Vallila and a school building on Bulevardi, which now houses the European School of Helsinki. But the location of the Vallila building was at least as disadvantageous as that of the Töölö facilities, and the Bulevardi facilities were old-fashioned and ill-suited for the needs of the Swedish School of Social Science.

“But then, during a chance discussion between Hannu Niemi, then dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, and Toivo Vainiotalo, the director of the University’s technical department, the latter mentioned that there was a plot available near the Faculty’s existing facilities, should the Faculty need it, and Hannu Niemi recalled that the Swedish School of Social Science needed a new building,” Hägglund says.

The idea was soon given the green light, and as early as 2001 the University Senate made a policy decision on the construction of a new building for Soc&kom. It then took about two or three years until all the relevant organisations, including the Ministry of Education and Culture, had commented on the proposal, and the project could officially be launched.

Not the cheapest, but the best

The next step involved an architectural competition for invited participants, organised by the University of Helsinki and Senate Properties, the developer. The objective was to select a high-quality building that would meet the needs of the Swedish School of Social Science, but also suit the surroundings.

Launched in June 2003, the competition concluded at the end of the year, by which time the five architectural companies participating in the competition had all submitted their entries. The jury praised the high quality of the entries, but unanimously selected Juha Leiviskä’s entry, Trio, as the winner.

“The structure of Leiviskä’s entry, with walls at different angles and large glass surfaces, was clearly not the simplest and cheapest option. Some of the proposals were more rectangular in shape, which would have made construction easier, but the jury agreed that Leiviskä’s work was the best,” Hägglund explains.

Explaining the reasons for choosing Trio as the winner, the jury described it as a fragmented and graceful newcomer in an area with fairly compact separate buildings. The building was also praised for both highlighting and preserving the openness of the city block and for having a strong, distinctive and timeless look.

In addition, the proposed building was considered best suited to the identity of the Swedish School of Social Science.

One of the requirements of the competition was that the new building should have an interior passage to an existing building at Snellmaninkatu street 12, which was completed in 1946 for the department of forensic medicine. This old part now houses, for example, the student organisation of the Swedish School of Social Science as well as a staff break room, which was previously used for autopsies when the department of forensic medicine occupied the building. The motto painted on the wall of the break room, E Mortuis Verum (“The Truth from the Dead”), is a concrete reminder of the building’s past.

The academic year began with paint tins and ladders

After Leiviskä’s proposal had been selected, the project proceeded to the next stage with further planning and work on the winning entry. This entailed a few more years of waiting, this time for the building to be included in the government budget after some other University buildings.

During the further planning phase, a number of changes were made to the original design. For example, the original plan included a basement floor with an auditorium, but it was scrapped at this stage.

“Leiviskä also had to eliminate a planned IT room, which he replaced with computers placed on the second-floor balcony. It has proved an excellent solution: there are always people there.

“Although the result is not exactly what Leiviskä originally envisioned, he has said that the changes actually led to a better overall design, despite some facilities being eliminated from the plans,” Hägglund states.

The actual construction phase got underway in early spring 2008 and should have been completed in June 2009, so that the staff would have had time to put everything in order during the summer. But the construction process was delayed by a few months because more land restoration works were necessary than anticipated. Finally, on 15 August 2009, the building was handed over to the new occupants, and the subsequent move was so efficient that the autumn term could commence just a few weeks later.

“When the first students entered the building, the floors were still covered with paper because painting works had not yet been finished. Ladders and paint tins were strewn around the facilities. We decided for the first time in the history of Soc&kom to commence the academic year without an opening ceremony because it would have been so inconvenient.”

Praise for the end result

Distinctive features of the building include its stepped form and transparency. Thanks to the open glass façades towards the inner courtyard and Yrjö-Koskisen katu street, the building and the surrounding park are effortlessly connected.

“I wanted the park outside to continue throughout the building,” stated Juha Leiviskä in an interview for the Soc&kom informerar magazine in December 2009.

Another idea behind the transparency of the building was that it would promote social interaction to prevent people feeling alone. Leiviskä was also inspired by the mission of the Swedish School of Social Science and thought that the students should become accustomed to social diversity and interaction.

Leiviskä has also previously stressed the importance of knowing traditions and history and ensuring continuity and connection between the past and the future. As a testament to his success in taking the environment and different time periods into account, Leiviskä received positive feedback as early as autumn 2009 from city residents who felt that it was as if the building had always stood on the site. There is no higher praise for an architect, he has said.

Now, ten years later, Henrik Hägglund says that the building still meets the needs of the Swedish School of Social Science and has boosted its operations.

“Leiviskä himself really likes the building and appreciates the fact that we like it. He has said in an interview that he always feels good when he comes here – something architects do not always feel. Those working in a building often vent their anger when the architect comes for a visit and question the architect’s choices. But that’s never happened here.”

Juha Leiviskä has also received more formal recognition for his work. The City of Helsinki Building Control Commission presented Leiviskä with its Rose for Building award in 2009. In the grounds for the award, the commission writes that the building of the Swedish School of Social Science is an example of highly skilful, high-quality infill construction in a historically demanding environment.

Source: Margaretha von Troil’s master’s thesis on Juha Leiviskä and the building for the Swedish School of Social Science.

Photos by, among others: Madicken Malm, Mats Engblom, Anders Westerholm, Veikko Somerpuro, Simo Rista (Helsinkiphotos)