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Hämeenlinna Provincial Archive by Heikkinen-Komonen Architects, Hämeenlinna, Finland

Working with Finnish artist Aimo Katajamäki, Heikken-Komonen confounds the stereotype of the archive as a dull, hermetic box, transforming it into a richly decorated casket. Photography by Jussi Tiainen

‘We wanted to tell a story of the contents of the building,’ says Mikko Heikkinen, partner in Heikkinen-Komonen Architects, of the new provincial archives building in Hämeenlinna. But by definition, archives tend to be inward-looking and container-like, their contents stored out of sight in secure, climate-controlled conditions. How do you make this the focus of the architecture?

Heikkinen-Komonen’s response is to turn the imperforate container into a richly decorated casket. Acclaimed artist and graphic designer Aimo Katajamäki selected an array of letters, stamps and symbols from material held in the archives and turned them into a kind of runic wallpaper ‘imprinted’ on to dark, precast concrete panels. The concrete walls enclose and seal that part of the building in which the archives are housed. ‘It should not look like an anonymous storage or office building,’ says Heikkinen, and through creative collaboration with Katajamäki, coupled with the skills of the concrete fabricator, it certainly doesn’t. With a spirit more madcap Superdutch than sober Scandinavia, the blizzard of symbols animates and ornaments both the facade and the building’s interior.

Hämeenlinna lies about 70 miles north of Helsinki. Famous as the birthplace of composer Sibelius, it also boasts the more prosaic distinction of have the oldest provincial archives in Finland, dating back to the 16th century. As befits a repository of five centuries of historical data, sensitive to both natural and human intervention, the building’s default setting is that of a brooding fastness, but the decorated box of the archive floats over a vitrine at street level containing a public library, exhibition space and lecture hall, all loosely defined by serpentine glass walls. This is where specialist researchers and the more general public congregate, and their presence gives some sense of the building’s inner life.

‘The bipartite plan pits the four-storey archive against a narrower five-storey volume of offices wrapped in a more demure skin of unpatinated copper perforated by horizontal gashes of glazing’

A canyon-like zone of circulation separates the two contrasting volumes, and its glass roof brings light down into the depths of the building. It might seem like an obvious move, but it’s deftly executed, and perhaps the canyon.

The ‘printed’ effect on the concrete panels is achieved by applying a surface retarder to a special membrane which was spread on the mould table when the concrete panels were cast. Depending on the specification, the resulting surface can be patterned, smooth or rough (where the aggregate is completely exposed). One-off, customised designs such as Katajamäki’s are created by manipulating the contrast between the smooth, fair-faced surface and the exposed aggregate underneath. Varying the colour of the cement and aggregate adds another visual dimension.

‘Here, letters and symbols appear chiselled into the dark surface, but in reality it’s all down to the mechanics of the casting process’

Finnish firm Graphic Concrete supplied the technology and a local contractor then fabricated the panels under supervision. Smaller sample slabs were initially produced to gauge the effect of Katajamäki’s complex design, which translates powerfully and poetically to the full-scale facade.

Architect Heikkinen-Komonen Architects, Helsinki, Finland
Project team Mikko Heikkinen, Markku Komonen, Markku Puumala, Karola Sahi
Structural engineer Contria
Concrete facade Graphic Concrete
Artist Aimo Katajamäki

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