My first views of Finland, arriving on an afternoon flight in early summer, were of the hundreds of lakes and islands that freckle the landscape. Land meets water meets land. Land surrounds water surrounds land. The landscape in itself reflects the many dualities with which Finns are quite comfortable.
Finland is open to the Baltic sea, with the gulfs of Bothnia and Finland to the west and south-east respectively. Helsinki, the tremendously splendid and beautiful Nordic capital city, stands its ground with its various harbours facing Estonia to the south and Russia to the east.
Finland is neighbour to Sweden and Russia and still feels their many influences, in language – all the signs are in Finnish and Swedish, both are taught in schools – and buildings. I recognised much Russian-influenced architecture, reminiscent of a visit to Hungary in 1991 when they’d only just loosened their border controls and bullet holes were still visible in lots of walls, scars of former skirmishes with soviet forces. I digress…but I brought something of that understanding of occupation, and independence, into my encounter with Helsinki.
Helsinki airport sits in the northern district of Vantaa – the city itself has a core and several outlying ‘sub-cities’ now virtually merged into one. It’s the visitor’s first experience of the country as a whole and the Finns certainly use their airport to send messages to the rest of the world.
One of the first facilities to greet the weary traveller is a Chinese restaurant – not a cheap and cheerful bland copy of Chinese food as you’d find anywhere in the world. Real Chinese food, provided by real Chinese people – what better way to welcome visitors with whom newly developing business partnerships are actively being nurtured? The Finns are thoughtful people, a nation of planners and speculators, and the placing of a Chinese facility in a prime airport position is no accident at all. The city, the country, courts Chinese and south-east Asian business. It invites multi-nationals to use conference facilities in the city, in the hope, the expectation – no, the planned-in inducement – that these business people will return with their families to Finland as part of their European holiday explorations. They think things through, the Finns.
The second main ‘showcase’ within the airport is the shop of the Finns’ favourite design group, Marimekko. Vivid, bright, modern, colourful fabrics, accessories and trinkets tempt visitors and are a sign of things to come. Finns are artists and creators – the design district of Helsinki rivals that of any other major city.
A Marimekko design on a Finnair ‘plane
Helsinki is a city of competition and consultation. During my stay, posters and news articles declared the most recent developments in a competition for the design of the new Guggenheim centre. Public votes and comments were harvested daily. Waiters discussed the developments – in six or seven different languages – with visitors in cafes and restaurants. Helsinki residents enjoy this sense of collaboration and the feeling that their voices count because their opinions are based on both good knowledge and good sense. At the university, the Kaisa library was co-designed by the student body, and what a fantastic job they made of it. I could have spent a week in this place, an inspiring space.
With such a sense of collaboration and effort for the common good, mixed with innovation and creativity and a significant chunk of Nordic pragmatism, no wonder I was excited for what was to come…