Poetics of true sustainability – thoughts after Alvar Aalto Symposium 2018, pt. 1

Alvar Aalto Symposium in Jyväskylä is organized every three years. It is an international forum for architects and other related professions to share the newest discussions of the field.

Four Dwellers in Agile Cities researchers had a special opportunity to present their work and participate to the debates this year. In the two following blogs, we briefly highlight Symposium discussions and intriguing themes.

People, Performance and Poetics

On the days when IPCC gives us alarming reports of global warming we cannot avoid talking about sustainability. Alvar Aalto Symposium brought to light how surprisingly different situations we have in Europe regarding sustainable building. For instance, architect Mikkel Frost from Cebra stated that in Denmark the national norms on sustainable building are set to such a high level that sustainability is for them a self-evident part of the design. It is not a question of experimental building, but of the business as usual.

Beddington zero energy development in London represents the trend of sustainable houses that look like machines. (Photo: Oliver Heath)

Assistant professor Sofie Pelsmakers painted a much more critical picture of the realization of sustainability in the British context. According to her, in many cases, sustainability is just rhetoric. Measuring e.g. energy consumptions show that projects do not achieve their aims. Problem is that we are afraid to admit that our experiments partly fail. Before new honesty in this question, we cannot really start solving the problem.

Pelsmakers also asked why don’t we pay more attention to aesthetic qualities in sustainable solutions? According to her, for truly sustainable architecture we need to include People, Performance and Poetics. With including people she referred to designing for the real needs of the communities. Aspect of performance is about the question above, about honestly looking into the fact whether our experiments work or not. But why poetics? Here she really hit the point. Just browsing through latest architectural magazines illustrates this.

Sustainable buildings often seem like machines of sustainability. Can machine ever be a home for human life?

There also seems to be some kind of a new brutalist aesthetic trend going on. Especially in latest social housing in Europe spaces are mostly raw unfinished concrete with grids of steel, like prisons. From the point of view of sustainability, if we build new houses, they should last long. Houses that are loved last long, they are taken care of. We need poetics. We need beautiful buildings that last time over trends of the magazines, buildings that have the warmth to become homes.

IBeB project in Berlin by Heide & von Beckerath is one to follow the aesthetic trend of brutalism. (Photo: Andrew Alberts)

Does it work?

Anders Tyrrestrup from AART Architects presented a promising practice of their office. They are not afraid of learning from their mistakes. His team is a forerunner in multidisciplinarity. Accompanied by anthropologists, they boldly return to their projects after some years from completion. They ask from the people who live their buildings, whether the design really works or not? They take the question of performance seriously. Of course, this brings to light also the parts where they have succeeded.

With methods of humanist research they make visible the qualities of architecture that engineering sciences cannot measure.

Thus they gain knowledge that can be used as arguments to build these spatial qualities. They can explain why we should choose natural materials to be touched or why we should realize a variety of shared spaces for the differing needs of the people. They are exactly these kinds of unmeasurable qualities that can bring the longed poetics back to modern architecture.

Elina Alatalo

Faculty of Management, University of Tampere

On the speciality of Finnish coworking network

About eight years ago, as a group of inspired coworkers, we started an experiment on bottom-up urbanism.

We had our own small coworking community in Helsinki and we wanted to learn to know other similar. We were familiar with only couple of communities established by our old friends, but we also knew that already in our neighborhood there were many more, of which we just did not know exactly. Self-organising coworking communities prefer places of low rents that allow all kinds of experimenting and are thus often hidden in the cityscape. We wanted to test, what would start to happen, if these small pioneering coworking communities would interact more.

Since the beginning as facilitators of this emerging network we learned to lean on openness.

We experiment with a combination of conscious design and letting bottom-up practices emerge (or whither) in the network.

The idea of openness is present in many scales, for example the use of network is open to anyone, free of charge, and our internet service is based on open source platform. We have not had any fixed idea about what the network should become. Even us facilitators hold several concepts of what the network is at the moment. I see that this diversity has been one of the reasons why network has flourished.

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Self-organizing coworking communities create places for themselves. (image from Paper Bee by Leena Kisonen)

With a taste of humor, we call the network Mushrooming. Name describes facilitating connections between communities that were earlier isolated from each other, growing mycelium in other words, and seeing what results, what mushrooms, pop up.

Network has grown to biggest cities in Finland having about 8000 users. It has developed to a curious combination of platforms, having the national and international hub at webpage with an AirBNB-like service. Then there are the very important local city groups in Facebook, of which Mushrooming Helsinki is the oldest.

These local groups allow for complex enquiries when in search of new members or space. They also allow all kinds of informal interaction that the communities have come up to, from informing about a special shareable machine to searching urgent help to finish a project. Then there is the forum of face-to-face meetings, varying from specific problem-solving workshops to yearly Open Studios-happenings. This kind of informality is rare in other coworking networks.

Mushrooming has grown special in comparison to other coworking networks abroad. Having just been in a seminar of Urban Studies Foundation in Greece, concentrating on new places of work in city, supported my earlier findings.

In other countries researchers do not really have access to self-organising coworking communities.

I presume it does not mean that they are rare, it just means that they are not networked and thus they are not visible. Coworking trend has developed especially in big metropolitan cities, where the networks on sharing coworking space memberships have been developed as startups. These start-ups have had the need to make profit, thus their networks consist mainly of enterprise-led coworking spaces capable of and interested in paying for networking.

It is difficult to say how much Mushrooming has just brought visible the scene of self-organizing coworkers and how much it has morphed it in its becoming in Finland. Nevertheless, it is an unique situation to have a network of at least 300 coworking communities of which majority is self-organising. Due to openness of the network different kinds of processes of specialization and mixing have occurred. Other coworking networks seem to consist mainly of the usual suspects of creatives or knowledge workers with laptops, while in Mushrooming nowadays the variety of professions reaches from physical doctors to craftsmen, mechanics, cooks and yogis. As the variety of professionals has grown, so has grown the variety of spaces of work available via Mushrooming.

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Spaces in Mushrooming have become varied by different professions sharing their environments. (image from Workshop of Rankka by Wang Mandi)

The everyday life in enterprise-led coworking spaces is different to self-organizing coworking communities. Self-organising communities practice shared decision making and problem solving in the intimacy of 2-30 people, while enterprise-led ones collect together hundreds of people to interact with the help of community agent and other payable services. Many of the observations are even opposites to each other. For example in enterprise-led spaces the coworkers usually form professionally homogenous groups of same ages, while self-organizing ones develop surprisingly varied combinations.

With an unusual way of doing research by Mushrooming kind of an experiment of growing a network, we have created in Finland an unique pool from which to draw for a more whole picture of the phenomena of coworking.

The profitability of enterprise-led spaces is noted questionable, while self-organizing communities develop practices to shelter over periods low income. Thus as majority of the international research on coworking has been able to reach only the enterprise-led realities, our understanding of the phenomena remains twisted and partial.

Elina Alatalo

Faculty of Management, University of Tampere