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Finnish buildings go back to the future

By Wif Stenger, July 2012

Photo: Sinimaaria KangasFuturo house, WeeGee Exhibition Centre, Espoo, Helsinki design, FinlandIt’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s – Futuro, a plastic blast from the past that resembles a UFO but is actually a house.

A UFO has been sighted behind the WeeGee Exhibition Centre in Espoo, just outside Helsinki. A restored plastic Futuro house from 1968, it forms a whimsical capsule of Space Age idealism – one that still inspires debate over sustainable construction methods and materials.

Around the same time as Futuro touched down in Espoo, two bold new structures popped up in central Helsinki: the World Design Capital Pavilion and the Chapel of Silence. Like the Futuro in its day, both represent cutting-edge design. Yet they rely on one of humanity’s oldest building materials: wood.

Futuro was designed by Finnish architect Matti Suuronen as an ultra-groovy ski lodge. The prefab structure could be quickly installed just about anywhere.

“In the late 1960s, there was this idea that since man had landed on the moon and we were in the Space Age, why should we keep on building the same way?” says Marko Home, producer of the WeeGee exhibition and co-author of the book Futuro: Tomorrow’s House from Yesterday. “People thought that housing should reflect the Space Age.”

Just too weird

Photo: Sinimaaria KangasFuturo house, WeeGee Exhibition Centre, Espoo, Helsinki design, Finland
On the inside, Futuro features living quarters for up to eight people.

Futuro was marketed as a futuristic summer cottage for up to eight people. “It attracted a lot of attention at fairs and in the media, but it was just too weird for the mass market,” says Home with a wry smile.

The first Futuro was given to a popular TV comedian who used it to host parties and overnight guests at his summer cabin. As intended, this created a rapturous media buzz. Some 60 to 80 Futuros were produced under license in ten countries, but when the oil crisis hit in 1973, the price of plastic tripled and sales collapsed.

There are now 47 known remaining Futuros, from New Zealand to Japan to Delaware, USA, where an artist-author couple has lived in one on and off for 35 years. There’s even one at an altitude of 2,400 metres in Russia’s Caucasus Mountains, which has been rented out to skiers since 1976.

From plastic back to wood

Photo: Gustavo AlavedraPavilion, Helsinki World Design Capital 2012, Finland
Students at Aalto University’s Wood Studio designed the Pavilion, a gathering place during Helsinki’s year as 2012 World Design Capital.

As director of Aalto University’s Wood Studio, professor Pekka Heikkinen clearly has a different take on building materials. He does credit Suuronen for his bold vision.

“It’s important that experimental projects like this be done, so that technology and design can develop,” says Heikkinen. “Futuro was part of a movement that included a strong faith in new technology. People believed plastic was an eternal material that you’d never have to maintain. This was proved wrong in quite a short period of time.”

Wooden buildings are definitely healthier and more durable than those of plastic or concrete, he asserts, “as long as you lift them up from the ground and protect them from sun and rain.” Moisture control is becoming more crucial as climate change brings more precipitation and storms to many areas.

Summerhouse in the city

Photo: Gustavo AlavedraPavilion, Helsinki World Design Capital 2012, Finland
Trash Design constructed furniture out of recycled wood for the Pavilion’s café.

Heikkinen oversaw his students’ design and construction of the Pavilion in Helsinki, a central structure of the city’s year as 2012 World Design Capital. Made mostly of birch plywood, glue-laminated wood and structural pine, it features a café and furniture made from recycled wood by Trash Design.

The open-sided Pavilion symbolises openness to the public and the variety of partners who host events there. Come autumn, the pavilion is to be dismantled – then recycled.

Wood Studio’s vision of the future includes “simple, natural solutions,” Heikkinen says. “The most promising solutions combine old materials and new technology. For instance, StoraEnso has developed a totally natural, non-toxic, impregnated decking method.”

He also cites the Chapel of Silence, another World Design Capital project. “Though the chapel looks quite simple, it’s crafted with modern technology. Its spruce surface is coated with nanotechnology-based wax.”

The layered structure of wooden building components cuts energy use by providing optimum thermal, acoustic and moisture insulation. And, as the European Commission recently declared, wooden construction plays a role in climate change mitigation, as carbon is stored in harvested wood products.

“No other material is so widely renewable,” says Heikkinen. “Timber regenerates within 80 years in Finland and even 20 years in some parts of the world. Globally, more timber grows than is being cut, so the balance is improving. Still, we have to reuse and reduce everything, including buildings – even if that’s not good news for architects.”

See also:

Design pavilion sustains Helsinki summer
Sounds of silence resound in Helsinki


Futuro at WeeGee Exhibition Centre, Espoo (until Sept 16, 2012 and again in summer 2013)
World Design Capital Helsinki 2012 Pavilion, Helsinki (until Sept 16, 2012)
Trash Design 
Chapel of Silence, Helsinki

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