Gentrification at Ark Rex

Ark Rex was a two-day architecture documentary and film event at Bio Rex. I never knew there were events like this where architecture and film collide. The curator told the audience that they are fairly scarce. I was glad I had a work-related reason to go. Sadly, I was unable to attend Friday screenings due to work and had to make mine a one-day event.

The Nobel Snowflake was a tragicomic tale about Gert Wingårdh’s team’s efforts to design a new Nobel Centre in Stockholm. They did well, but their proposal ended up not winning the competition. In fact, even the winners of the competition lost, because the people of Stockholm (including some very rich neighbours next to the barren lot of the proposed centre) simply did not want a new building on Blasieholmen. The documentarists were present at Ark Rex and took part in a discussion that also took aim at Helsinki’s mayor and his strange solo effort to get something – anything – built on the site where Helsinki’s Guggenheim Museum was supposed to be built some time ago. The Guggenheim project suffered the same fate as the Nobel Centre. You could feel the tension in the room rising as the discussion progressed.

Thomas Haemmerli relieved much of it with his adorable antics. His film I Am Gentrification was a frantic tale about why left-wing activists in Switzerland have historically been against rebuilding Swiss cities and why right-wing officials absurdly claim that “Switzerland is full!” (It is not.) His broad historical view of gentrification reached Tbilisi, where the lack of renovation and rebuilding has led to dilapidated buildings that would actually benefit from a little gentrification: conservation without renovation leads to ruins. We learned that there are two sides, many sides, to arguments for and against gentrification.

Whose City? by Hans Christian Post transported the audience to Berlin, the hippest of Europe’s hipster cities. Here, more than in any of the other films, you could actually see how money ruins everything. Creatives who rejuvenated certain areas were ousted by businesses and city planners, each of whom had their own ideas about the city’s character. One of the artists spoke about Berlin’s “breached character.” I was not completely sure what he meant, but it sounded like he was talking about how cleaning up everything and subjugating the city’s spirit under plans for yet another chain store that sells overpriced handbags leads to barrenness and, eventually, death. And in this case, empty office blocks. Creatives are treated like reverse-locusts in this scenario, people who rejuvenate the earth only to be evicted to another plot of misery once the fruits of their work are ready for harvest.

Needless to say, I left Bio Rex feeling slightly depressed. Architecture begins with spaces meant for people to live in, and it often ends up tangled in bureaucracy and NIMBYism. Or luxury goods manufactured in sweatshops. On the other hand, it made me think that architects really have to be great communicators to get their plans off the ground. Persuasive communication skills can be taught, even if they are only the first hurdle of many that have to be overcome to fulfil a vision.

Helsinki House of Culture

Sunn O)))

Kulttuuritalo (Helsinki House of Culture) is possibly the most iconic concert venue in Helsinki today. It was designed by the legendary Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and Duke Ellington played there. Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Cream, too. When a relatively new band called Queen played in 1974, the room was half-empty. The list of past performers is long and very impressive. The last two shows I saw were Iron & Wine and Sunn O))) – very different performers, but both sounded great (Sunn O))) played at around 124 dB, Iron & Wine at considerably lower volumes).

Kultsa hosts other events as well. The Helsinki Tonefest, a guitar exhibition, for example. Right-wing troll Jordan Peterson visited once, I am told. This is significant, because the venue was erected 1955–1958 by the Communist Party of Finland. Lefties rarely shy away from debate and are pretty tolerant of opposing viewpoints, probably due to their ideas about dialectical materialism. Capitalism has changed a lot since the 1950s, and Kulttuuritalo’s website currently advertizes Ty Dolla $ign’s show. I do not know who they are, but I am sure fans will be delighted.

The decor is impressive. Like at a few other classic venues in Helsinki, it looks old-fashioned and I confess I was a little taken aback when I first saw it. It has that worn-out elegance that interiors and antiques acquire from years of careful maintenance and care. This is coupled with functionality that one often dissociates from old decor. For some reason, my view on this has changed only recently and I have come to see that functional things can be beautiful; or more specifically, that beautiful things can be functional. Add to this acoustics and a sound system that can withstand Sunn O))) and you have a true classic.

The Helsinki Book Fair

The Helsinki Book Fair is an annual celebration of the printed word. It is held at the Expo and Convention Centre in Pasila and fills vast halls with publishers and shops great and small. I am told 90,000 visitors came this year, which is a new record. It is a bustling market of books and magazines. A wine and food expo is held at the same time on the same premises. It gets crowded and sweaty very quick. The event is also a place to be seen and spot celebrities, and every year I bump into friends I did not expect to bump into.

Much has been said (and written) about the death of print. Based on the sheer number of people attending the fair on Saturday, it is easy to say that stories about the death of books have been greatly exaggerated. From what I saw this weekend, people still want to spend time with books. It is true that new media poses stiff competition, but there were things to distract us from books before and there always will be. We should remember that new media provides opportunities for marketing books on a very different scale than before. Maybe the effects cancel each other out in the end. In any case, at least I felt a new surge of enthusiasm for books after the fair. So much so, that I am afraid I have neglected my work, created very little new media today (which is what I currently do for a living) and mostly just read a new book.

My favorite pastime at the fair is to get lost between the shelves of the second-hand books sections. Another is to look for strange, small publishers among the larger ones. Sometimes you find more interesting things by accident than on purpose. This year, for example, I picked up a little something from a publisher of weird esoterica. With the help of my new strange tome, I may just be able to call up a few demons to help out at the next fair. However, I may also skip the conjuring, because the fair seems to be doing fine.

Love and Anarchy

Helsinki International Film Festival 2019 brochure

I have visited the Helsinki International Film Festival for a few years now. I forget how many, to be honest. The festival has been around since 1988, and I am certainly a newcomer. This year I was fortunate enough to go to many screenings, which makes me feel like I am happily making up for lost time.

Helsinki’s many movie theaters are put to good use during the festival, and there were many sold-out screenings this year. It seems to be going well. The theaters range from very large ones to small, intimate rooms. You get a very good idea of Helsinki’s theaters just by going to see a few interesting films in the programme.

The programme itself is always surprising, which shows that a lot of thought and work is put into it. Curating film festivals is out of my expertise, so I cannot analyze the programme at all. And I never do. It is a pleasure to experience it every year and there are always exciting surprises in the mix. What I can analyze is my reaction to watching the films this year.

During the final film I went to see (a Miles Davis biopic), I noticed I was thinking back to the way television used to make me feel. It was a vague sense of a community somewhere out there. Something I was linked to in some mysterious way even if I never had a good grasp of the way how it all worked. Before I stopped watching television regularly, television served the same purpose. Had I had a more religious upbringing, I might have thought back to church. I did not, but we did have TV.

Festivals like the Helsinki International Film Festival promote cinema, but it is also interesting to think about why cinema needs promoting. It is not my intention to sound blasphemous, but to mark that sense of community that has existed at least since the Greeks invented theater. Theater was a service to the community that gathered around the stage to gain a sense of identity and explore who we are and what we could be. That may sound pompous, but it is also an answer to why theater exists in the first place. Television seems a bit too alien these days and online communities are much too fractured. The theater is the real deal, but it can be overwhelming. The cinema feels like a suitable modern compromise. It is a place where you can play the tapes of the day, find out something new about yourself and, more importantly, about the people with whom you share your city.

On Hidden Gems

Magu at Sturenkatu 36

I don’t think any restaurant really wants to be a hidden gem. It is more likely that restaurants want to be popular hot spots for hordes of customers. Most restaurants are in the business of making money, after all. As they should be. At the risk of sounding condescending, trite, cliched and all the rest of it, I think Magu in Helsinki’s Vallila district is a hidden gem.

Restaurants in Vallila have a hard time. They have to try just a tiny bit harder to succeed. Vallila is hip, but not that hip. It is a little out of the way. You usually have to make an effort to get there. I am biased, but I think it actually can be worth the effort to get there. The restaurants have free tables, the bars are cosy and nobody bothers you unless you make a scene. But these things are a blessing and a curse for a restaurant.

Magu’s dinner menu is tiny, but everything is good – we should know since we basically ate the entire menu. The food is vegan, but you can take your non-vegan friend along and they will love it. (Make them try the carbonara.) Magu serves lunch on weekdays and brunch on Sundays. The ambience is quiet and reserved, the lights are dim and the music is quiet enough to make you focus on the food. Nothing is overstated and everything seems just the way it should be.

You could say that it is nothing special, but it is nothing special portioned just right.

How Do You Choose a Barber?

Choosing a barber is serious business. Yes, you must select someone who can make you look presentable. But you also have to trust them enough to let them hold a razor to your throat. There are few professions that require that level of intimacy and trust. Only dentists or doctors get this much access to your personal space.

There are a lot of barbers and hairdressers in Helsinki. (I think there are half a dozen in our block alone; who knows how they all manage to turn a profit.) A number of them cater primarily to men and many look fairly similar: the decor of a men’s barber shop typically has something retro or vintage about it, some rock’n’roll items and a cheeky attitude. When you have seen a few, you start to recognize the modern copy-paste capitalist mechanics behind the aesthetic.

I do not want to sound cynical, because I like the fact that we have these shops around Helsinki. Some have a genuine and thought-out aesthetic that really works. Your choice should primarily come down to what the people in the shop are like and whether or not you feel comfortable in their company. My rule of thumb is that your barber should be friendly, but not too friendly. They should listen to your wishes, but also let you know if they think your idea is no good. In other words, you should look for someone with the necessary skills and enough of an edge to tell you when they really, truly know better.

Come to think of it, choosing the right barber is probably more important than choosing your dentist. You will probably (and hopefully) see your barber much more often than your dentist, after all. So take your time and choose wisely.

I go to Dick Johnson, because I learned most of the above from them.

The Best Pizza in Helsinki

Via Tavastia

It is very easy to find good pizza in Helsinki. Putte’s is the classic. Daddy Greens is my favorite after homemade pizza. There are numerous other small places peppered around town that serve perfectly acceptable pizza. Then there is Via Tribunali.

Via Tribunali became famous after their first location opened in the more touristy section of Helsinki. The reason I am writing this post, however, is their new location at Sörnäinen. The pizza, wine and service are great, but there is something that does not quite make sense.

Hämeentie, on which Via Tribunali is located, is under major renovations. The specific stretch of road is known as “Kurvi”. It has a reputation of being a rough part of town. It is normal to see less fortunate and heavily intoxicated Helsinkians go about their business around Kurvi. There are a number of dive bars. While there have always been a few brave gourmands around Kurvi, it is not the place for a fancy restaurant. At least not one as loud as Via Tribunali’s new place.

It is only a pizza place, a good one, but it is difficult to adjust to the fact that Kurvi is now undergoing gentrification. It was inevitable, I suppose. Kallio has long since been established as a hip part of town and the label is being dragged down to Vallila as well. Kurvi has resisted the trend by being tough and mean. Until now.

There is certainly room for another restaurant at Kurvi. I will not lament the loss of Kurvi’s essence or the spread of gentrification. If you want to go to a dive bar or a cheap pizza place in Helsinki, they are easy to find. But it is surreal to watch Kurvi’s scruffy characters looking in at you looking out at Via Tribunali. It puts gentrification on a plate and serves it to you with a nice syrah. It all makes sense, but it does not seem quite right.

Then again, perhaps that uncomfortable contrast is what Kurvi is all about.

Kumpula Botanical Garden

Kumpula Botanical Garden

The Kumpula Botanical Garden is one of Helsinki’s best kept secrets. The premises seem smaller from the outside than they actually are. Once inside, you will find that its collections include domestic species and exotic plants from around the world. There is a nice little café on the grounds. A manor house has stood on the site since before the city was founded. The current one – a stylish building worth a visit for its architecture alone – houses a geological collection that includes rocks and meteorites placed in formidable custom shelves. Walking around the garden in the middle of summer, you have to wonder why it is not teeming with visitors.

We visited only once this summer, but there is still some time for another visit. For next summer, I am seriously considering a season ticket. It is one of those locations in Helsinki that would merit daily visits, if you had the time. Green spaces and gardens are said to be good for your overall health, so you should probably make time to stroll among its trees and bushes transported to Finland from places like Japan and North America. In another world, doctors might even prescribe tickets for stressed out city workers.

There are many parks in Helsinki. You can find serious woodlands not far from town. Still, there is something mesmerizing about this particular garden. The Kumpula Botanical Garden opened in 2009, but it seems like it has been there for much longer. The location and architecture make you think it has been there for centuries. The manor house and some of the trees are fairly old, but that is not the point. The garden induces in idle flaneurs a state of mind where time becomes a present, tangible thing. Somehow, you are simultaneously transported out of time in strange mind-bending ways that are hard to describe. I suppose the effect is what the Romantic poets called the Sublime. A ticket is a small investment for such bliss.

Tallinn Is Not Helsinki

Tallinn, Helsinki’s cool cousin

I know this blog is about Helsinki, but it would be silly not to mention Tallinn. It’s a Helsinki thing.

Several ferries crisscross between the two cities. Some are more luxurious than others, but even the scruffier ones have food, drinks and entertainment. If you need a break from your fellow passengers, you can reserve a cabin.

We visit Tallinn often enough and have a few regular stops. My last trip was slightly different, because I went by myself. What follows is a mix of the places we frequent and a trip report. There are of course many more shops, galleries, museums and restaurants to visit in Tallinn than are listed here. We all have our favorites.

Gowri is a new stop for us in Tallinn. All shirtmakers have something flashy on display to attract customers and show off their goods. The British shops are muted – the really posh ones are the most understated. Italian shops have a familiar Italian flair to them, of course. Finns are minimalists. Gowri’s shop is shiny, extravagant and fun. Naturally, they also cater to more conservative tastes.

Muhu Leib is not a shop, but a rye bread. We pick up a loaf every time we visit Tallinn. For some reason, we tend to get it from their shop near the train station. I don’t think you can buy it in Helsinki, which is very strange – let me know if it is sold here. Why no one is importing it by the truckload is a mystery.

Sigari Maja is a tobacconist and cigar lounge next to the main square. I normally visit them to pick up a few cigars, because it is a nice shop. Their lounge is a wood-paneled, leather-upholstered oasis of peace and relaxation. If you like, you can also get a drink with your cigar. I had an amontillado, because I was on my way to lunch.

Rataskaevu 16 is our usual stop for a late lunch or dinner. I have had amazing and not-so-amazing meals there, but never a bad one. The last couple of times I ordered their elk for nostalgic reasons. The wine list is well-edited and the service excellent. If you have a table next to the front door, you may observe an endless stream of potential customers being turned away. Make a reservation!

Pudel is a bar in Telliskivi, the hip part of town. Finns joke that you can actually see more Finns than locals there. I did not go this time, but we have previously bumped into Finnish friends there, so there is some truth to the jokes. When in Tallinn, we often stop at Pudel for a beer. There is usually something interesting on tap and an art exhibition nearby.

Crème de la crème is one of the few niche fragrance shops near Helsinki – I noticed there is a new one in town, but more on that later. They are located in a fairly depressing shopping center, but they are worth a visit if you like smelling things.

The New Orion

Stairway to the Midnight Sun Film Festival

Before I moved to Helsinki, I started dating a local film buff. The theater of choice for buffs at the time was Orion. The theater was founded in 1928 and is a Helsinki institution. Last year, we were reminded of how fragile it actually is despite its iconic status. The National Audiovisual Institute decided to move to a new theater and left Orion to fend for itself. There was talk about shutting it down. After vigorous and successful fundraising by distressed filmgoers, the ELKE association took over and the theater was saved. The new Orion is essentially the old Orion. Just the way we like it.

The programme is very varied and ambitious. There are art house films, strange old films, the occasional new blockbuster, events and curated film series. Helsinki has a number of small niche cinemas and we are often spoilt for choice, but Orion is the grand old dame of the city’s theaters. It obviously requires a lot of maintenance, but it is still beautiful in all its Art Deco glory. The facilities are a bit cramped, but the seats are incredibly comfortable. They don’t sell popcorn, but you can get a candy bar at the counter if you need one. In a word, it’s perfect. It’s perfect because everything in it matters to the people who regularly go there.

Not much has changed since my date and I first started going to Orion. Now we live together in Helsinki and went to see A Moment of Innocence by Mohsen Makhmalbaf just last night – the film was shown to celebrate the director’s visit to the Midnight Sun Film Festival earlier in June. The programme is the main reason we enjoy going, but the theater itself is a close second. It’s like an old, fuzzy blanket that never fails to comfort.