Published in the Finnish Architectural Review 5/2021, pages 31-37. English translation by Päivi Perasto.
Today, anything that is highly valued by a community can be cultural heritage. Hence, how should the built cultural heritage be safeguarded?
Your hangout, your regular route through the forest or the skate park of your youth can be valuable cultural heritage in the same way as a historically valuable building. This is – as stated bluntly – a message to which Finland has also committed itself in the Faro Convention, or the Council of Europe Framework Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society, which was put in place in 2011. Finland is currently drawing up a cultural heritage strategy on the basis of the Convention.
In the 20th century, conservation measures expanded from individual monuments to old towns and cities, as well as to cultural landscapes. It was radical at the time: people wondered what the point was in preserving private, authentically modest buildings, or former pastures. Today, the communal values and the sustainable use of heritage are emphasised. This can be heard in the answers of those working within building conservation, when I ask them what kind of cultural heritage they would like to bring up today.
Iida Kalakoski, teacher of History and Theory of Architecture in Tampere University, would give more value to everyday life. In Finland, everyday life takes place mostly in surroundings constructed after the World Wars – the building stock in Finland chiefly consists of that, and that represents, to a large degree, Finnish values and meanings, states Mikko Härö, Director of Cultural Environment Services at the Finnish Heritage Agency.1 In Finland, there would only be a little built heritage worth conserving, if the conservation measures were limited to the period before the 1920s, which is commonly regarded as historical and beautiful. In Mikko Härö’s opinion, the evaluation of sites still stems too much from monumental thinking and institutional themes: marginal phenomena should be paid more attention to.
Iida Kalakoski regards the current suburbs as a similar conservation issue as the wooden towns of the 19th century were in their time. The value of the wooden towns was not identified before they became rare. Similarly, the value of everyday environments of the 1960s–1980s is not yet extensively recognised, but they are often demolished to make room for denser construction. It is difficult to identify young cultural heritage.2
“I would like to bring conservation into the mainstream and make demolition radical and exceptional”, Kalakoski muses. Let’s continue this play of thought. What if buildings were principally preserved? In this case, the conservation issues regarding built heritage would flip on their head.
Shells and Contents
If we presume that buildings are principally saved, we will receive a refreshing break from materialism that prevails in building conservation. Instead, intangible values would be foregrounded in the safeguarding of historic environments: their use, traditional ways of life and stories that we want to tell to the next generations. Would they help to identify the values of young urban heritage?
Iida Kalakoski believes that talking about the ways of life that prevailed in the welfare state that was built in the 20th century might also explain the value of buildings in a different way than the current ugly–beautiful debate. According to Kalakoski, the way of life led in the 20th century can be seen, at its best, in local services, flats with windows on opposite sides – which are rarely built today – or in a snowy park path along which you can pull your child’s winter sledge. Abstract, intangible values could also promote the safeguarding of tangible values, if they could be put into words in public discussion.
Mikko Härö also assumes that there will be an increase in the weighting of intangible heritage. However, the Act on the Protection of the Built Heritage has not been made for this. Based on the Act, it is not possible to affect the use of a building in any other ways than in which the tangible heritage values are not jeopardised. This way, one may try to preserve the functional preconditions for a public sauna, for instance. On the other hand, the goal is often to enable changes of use in order to maintain the use value of a building.
Change and Continuity
However, if one attempts to safeguard the uses of individual buildings, it will soon be a dead end. Material and instrumental values, or the ensuring of the continuity of a use of a building and the enabling of a change of use become opposites. These kinds of conflicts disappear when studying a larger area, such as a street or city district. In this case, change and continuity can take place simultaneously – in fact, both are required for maintaining the urban culture.
I realised how change and continuity function on different scales in different ways when comparing two Victorian suburban centres in London on a timeline of one hundred years.3 One of the centres had preserved its active socioeconomic character despite the drastic societal changes. In the other centre, the decline was seen as deserted pubs, for instance. Along the high street of the more successful centre, uses of the buildings had often changed but some uses had remained the same for one hundred years. Buildings had been extended and plots rebuilt, which perhaps helped the high street to adapt to the change taking place in trade, for instance. In the weaker centre, most of the uses of the buildings along the high street changed but plots were not rebuilt.
Consequently, it appeared that the ability of the building stock to change and maintain continuity was connected to the socioeconomic resilience and viability of the suburban centre. This is, for its part, connected to the vibrancy of the pub culture, which is so dear to Britons.
If an economic recession is gnawing at cultural values in one place, the same will also be true in the other place due to the increasing land value. In San Francisco, people became worried about the fading away of small businesses – which were characteristic of the city – and now they protect their traditional bars, bookshops, erotic shops, dental clinics and garages. The small businesses receive advice and they can apply for a rent subsidy.4 One of the traditional businesses in San Francisco is Sam Wo Restaurant – a Chinese restaurant, which is famous not just for its food but also for the world’s rudest (and loved as what he was) waiter. Sam Wo had to move to another location, as it was unable to follow the hygiene and fire safety regulations in its original, tiny facilities. Still, it remained a traditional Chinese restaurant.
Consequently, what do people in San Francisco actually protect, as they do not protect physical restaurant facilities or intangible food culture? This is about place attachment and safeguarding local culture.
In the end, the conservation of cultural heritage deals with cherishing precious things. This is why talking about the feeling, i.e. the emotional attachment, would get straighter to the point than talking about concepts like societal significance, communal value, or a spirit or identity of a place, which have been proposed to replace the historical aspect as a conservation criterion.
Of course, the relationship between people and places is understood in the heritage field, but making it a useful argument requires that new tones and cooperation patterns are included in the materialistic palette of methods in the conservation of the historic environment.5
According to Mikko Härö, it is hoped that the Finnish Heritage Agency would increasingly provide meaningful information and that the agency would study the information provided by citizens. Härö takes amateur archaeologists as an example, who, with their metal detectors, provide a vast amount of complementary information and artefacts to the picture of history. According to Ulla Salmela, director of development, the Finnish Heritage Agency is developing a service in which those who manage to carry out discoveries will be provided with contextual information from databases as a return service for their finds.
In the same way as with archaeological discoveries, it would also be possible to collect and provide information using some kind of “culture detectors”. It would complement the overall picture of various cultural strengths which, for instance, the new city centre vision of Helsinki is based on. According to Iida Kalakoski, the information provided by museums would improve conservation attempts, and so would the harnessing of various groups of nostalgia and amateur historians increase the cultural heritage awareness. Perhaps the crowdsourced illustration of love for buildings and hidden intangible cultural values would be helpful in the safeguarding of the area that consists of early 20th century industrial buildings and a cultural cluster in Vallila, Helsinki. Osmo Soininvaara, Helsinki city councillor, has underrated the safeguarding of the area, calling it “a cute idea”.6
However, one cannot dig deep into local culture by means of GIS points, polygons or big data, as local culture looks completely different, depending on the seasons, weekdays and times of the day. It is also difficult to put a spatial story into words – it is as if you tried to describe choreography by means of writing. In this case, it is perhaps necessary to make – along with the interviews – time-serial observations that are recorded on a map template, combined with a spatial analysis. I and Fernando Gutiérrez Hernández used these kinds of microgeographic methods when finding out what kind of social opportunities were offered by a small plaza in a Mexican port city, as well as what kind of value these social opportunities had in terms of urban culture and why.  Some of the values were obvious, like dance events, the others more subtle, such as the cosy tranquillity at the city centre plaza at other times.
Let’s return to our play of thought: what if the demolishing of buildings was radical? In this case, heritage management would focus on criteria for giving up a building. One should form a special picture of the future that is targeted with conservation measures: one should understand what kind of a gap the building to be demolished creates, but also how the filling of the gap could strengthen the cultural heritage that is conserved. The attention would be paid – instead of individual buildings – to the compiling of a rich contextual description. At their best, the contextual descriptions could function in two ways: they would not only collect information from communities, but, simultaneously, they would also improve – or even change – the communities’ understanding of the cultural values. This way, the values would be concretised better than by resorting to formal conservation discourse. Mikko Härö crystallises: “Discussion is the most important conservation tool.”
1 Museovirasto: Rakennettu hyvinvointi: tutkittua tietoa rakennetun ympäristön muutoksista 1945–1990. https://rakennettuhyvinvointi.fi.
2 Kalakoski, Iida; Huuhka, Satu & Koponen, Olli-Paavo: ”From obscurity to heritage: Canonisation of the Nordic Wooden Town”. International Journal of Heritage Studies 26(8) 2020, 790–805.
3 Törmä, Ilkka; Griffiths, Sam & Vaughan, Laura: “High Street Changeability. The effect of urban form on demolition, modification and use change in two south London suburbs”. Urban Morphology 21(1) 2017, 5–28.
4 The Legacy Business Program. https://www.legacybusiness.org/.
5 Madgin, Rebecca & Lesh, James: “Exploring emotional attachments to historic places: Bridging concept, practice and method”. Teoksessa Rebecca Madgin & James Lesh (eds.): People-Centred Methodologies for Heritage Conservation. Routledge 2021.
6 Soininvaara, Osmo: “Mitä tehdä Vallilan toimitila-alueelle.” 3.3.2020. https://www.soininvaara.fi/2020/03/03/mita-tehda-vallilan-toimitila-aluelle/.
7 Törmä, Ilkka & Gutiérrez, Fernando: “Observing Attachment. Understanding Everyday Life, Urban Heritage and Public Space in the Port of Veracruz, Mexico”. Teoksessa Rebecca Madgin & James Lesh (eds.): People-Centred Methodologies for Heritage Conservation. Routledge 2021.
8 Gutiérrez H., Fernando & Törmä, Ilkka: “Urban revitalisation with music and dance in the Port of Veracruz, Mexico”. Urban Design International 25(4), 2020, 328–337.9 Harrison, Rodney et al.: Heritage Futures. Comparative Approaches to Natural and Cultural Heritage Practices. UCL Press 2020.