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The Swedish School of Social Science by Juha Leiviskä, Helsinki, Finland

Moments within the Swedish School of Social Science are reminiscent of architect Leiviskä’s churches, where the nobility of height is never ignored. Photography by Jussi Tiainen

Finland has two main languages: Finnish and Swedish, the latter a result of 400 years of Swedish domination before the country was ceded to Russia as a grand duchy in 1809. When the nation finally got its independence in 1917, Swedish speakers remained and, though they now account for only six per cent of the total population, they can legally choose to be educated in their native language, even up to tertiary level.

The Swedish School of Social Science (known as Soc&kom), part of the University of Helsinki, is one of the results of this policy. In the largest Swedish-speaking unit of the university, Soc&kom’s 80 staff teach a wide range of disciplines, from journalism to law, psychology to political science. It has some 500 undergraduate and graduate students.

Located near Senate Square, the centre of the 19th-century capital’s neo-classical matrix, the new Soc&kom building is clearly of the early 21st century, yet it retains some of the scale of its surroundings. Its architect, Juha Leiviskä, is best known for his churches - few contemporary designers have captured the numinous to such powerful and moving effect. He admits to being influenced by the south German baroque, architecture in which modulation of light is the vital component. Another major source of inspiration is De Stijl, from which he derives his love of parallel planes: opaque, translucent and transparent, often lit obliquely from the side, subtly generating a sense of depth and mystery.

How can such a sensibility and approach be adapted to more mundane building types? Working with Jari Heikkinen, Leiviskä adopted two basic strategies: to mass the building to respond to the texture of the neighbourhood, and to complete the block structure of the corner site by drawing the existing into conversation with the new. Leiviskä is fond of quoting his revered professor Aulis Blomstedt, who believed that ‘locating the building on the site is the key issue… Blomstedt’s teaching was that once you’ve found the place where the building is going to stand, 80 per cent of the problem is resolved’.

So Leiviskä arranged the accommodation on the long side of the plot as a pair of pavilions that relate to the surrounding neo-classical and 1930s object buildings in scale but not rhetoric. The four-storey pavilions contain teaching and office areas, and are connected by what he calls ‘an open lobby’ - a transparent glass link in which common services, cafeteria and main lecture theatre entrance are to be found. Here, the plan is reminiscent of Leiviskä’s Myyrmäki church (AR June 1994), where he made an almost imperforate back wall against a busy commuter train line and allowed daylight to enter mainly from side windows, streaming over the parallel solid planes that form the volume of the church.

In Soc&kom, the link is partly transparent, particularly on the southern side, where glass rhythmically alternates with vertical panels of masonry that step backwards towards the street named Yrjö-Koskinens gata, making the lobby thinnest (and most luminous) in its middle. In doing so, the new building responds to the thrust of the heavy late 19th-century neo-classical lump that up to now has dominated the site.

Leiviskä says his new work frames the older, and its clear, undecorated lines do much to reduce the pomposity of the earlier building; pale bricks and metal-framed glass are the only materials seen from the outside of the new structure. On the long Yrjö-Koskinens gata side, scale is established by dissecting what could have been a dull expressionless Neue Sachlichkeit facade with vertical glass strips, which contrast with the more conventional office fenestration and give a gentler scale to the elevation.

A key requirement of the brief was to incorporate one of the existing buildings on Snellmansgatan into the new complex; its ground-floor level is adopted throughout the new work, so obviating any need for changes in floor plane. Spatial drama is provided in the lobby by making it double height, with galleries that look down from above on to the entrance level. Here again is a memory of Leiviskä’s churches, where the nobility created by height is never ignored.

At Soc&kom the lobby floor is liberally strewn with cafeteria tables, and is clearly the social hub of the school. In summer, the tables move outdoors to the terraces that define the new building’s southerly side. By drawing the face of the building back, an external court is created that, with the lobby, forms what Leiviskä calls ‘a living room for the compound’, enclosed, yet offering views of the rest of the university and other parts of Soc&kom. He says: ‘The goal has been to create an “architectural microclimate” to engender and reinforce human contacts.’ Time will tell but, so far, his proposal seems to be working admirably.

Architect Vilhelm Helander, Juha Leiviskä Arkkitehdit, Helsinki, FInland
Project team Juha Leiviskä, Jari Heikkinen, Kati Murtola, Pekka Kivisalo, Rosemarie Schnitzler, Peter Paalanen, Christopher Delany
Structural engineer Pertti Määttä / Pontek
Services engineer Timo Svahn / Airix

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