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'New Standards' relooks at history of Finnish industrial enterprise Puutalo Oy

The exhibition New Standards, at the Pavilion of Finland of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021, underscores the thriving history of the timber house Puutalo Oy.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Aug 27, 2021

When raising an inquiry into the world of the future, the act of anticipation, projection and speculation is put under a spotlight only to pave the way for the promising times, yet to come. The 17th International Architecture Exhibition, with its curatorial theme “How will we live together?”, propounded by the Venice Architecture Biennale curator Hashim Sarkis, a Lebanese educator and architect, has led the participants to gauge the many architectural possibilities available to them only to prepare for a secured future. Invariably, often to envision a future, the collective past acts as a repository of lessons to determine the course of action. Fostering a relationship of continuity between three different temporal realities - past-present-future, is the exhibition New Standards at the Pavilion of Finland.

Helsinki Panel | Venice Architecture Biennale 2021 | STIRworld
Helsinki Panel Image: Courtesy of Central Archives for Finnish Business Records (ELKA)

New Standards presents the Finnish approach to mass-produced housing during the Second World War. To address the exigent question upheld by the current edition of the biennale, New Standards relooks at the difficult history of their nation when Karelian refugees, displaced by the war, found themselves in a precarious situation. To combat the challenge of rehabilitation, Puutalo Oy (Timber Houses Ltd.), an industrial enterprise established in 1940, saw the convergence of architects and industrialists to build a new model of factory-built. To meet the needs of refugees, Finnish industrial enterprise Puutalo Oy, put the nation’s most abundant resource, timber, into good use by developing a modest housing model.

New Standard, Finland Pavilion | Venice Architecture Biennale 2021 | STIRworld
New Standards, Finland Pavilion Image: Ugo Carmeni

Commissioned by Archinfo Finland, the exhibition is conceived by a curatorial team of Laura Berger, Philip Tidwell and Kristo Vesikansa. The new photographs of the Puutalo houses were commissioned from the acclaimed photographer, Juuso Westerlund. His photographs draw a journey of these houses: how they are inhabited in the current times and personally reoriented over the period of time. The new model of factory-built housing soon modernised Finland’s construction industry, within a decade Puutalo Oy was touted as one of the largest manufacturers of prefabricated wooden buildings in the world. By the mid-1950s millions of square meters of housing-building were shipped across the shores to 30 countries as a way of trading goods and capital in the face of a dwindling post-war economy. As a major architectural exporter of flexible housing, Puutalo’s construction was synonymous with structures that could successfully endure both the climate and cultural conditions.

Puutalo Areal Photo, Colombia, 1956| Venice Architecture Biennale 2021 | STIRworld
Puutalo Areal Photo, Colombia,1956 Image: Courtesy of ELKA

The exhibition carefully juxtaposes archival documents such as advertisements, drawings and photographs along with the contemporary photographs to offer a sneak peek into the transition of these homes from what they were and what they are now, and how they have travelled to the different corners of the world. Talking about the curatorial strategies applied to draw a correlation between archival photographs and installation works, Philip Tidwell, on behalf of the curators, mentions, “The exhibition presents two perspectives simultaneously. On one wall, a series of archival drawings, photographs and documents tell the story of the Puutalo company, while on the opposing wall, a series of contemporary photographs depict residents as they live in the buildings today. These narratives are interesting in very different ways and for us, they must be seen together in the same space.”

Australia ELKA | Venice Architecture Biennale 2021 | STIRworld
Australia ELKA Image: Courtesy of Central Archives for Finnish Business Records

Keeping in mind the eternal significance of the theme, “How will we live together?”, Tidwell affirms, “In some sense, every building is a proposition for how we might live together, but the parameters that define our responses are always changing.” Citing a parallel between the dire effects of climate on humans and the inevitable role of architecture, Tidwell mentions, “Today, the effects of climate change are on everyone's mind, and in the coming decades these are likely to be as catastrophic and widespread as war, so it is pertinent to go back to a moment of crisis and ask what role architecture played. How did architecture respond and change to new conditions? What lasting effects (good and bad) did it leave us with?”

Team of Curators: Philip Tidwell, Laura Berger and Kristo Vesikansa | Venice Architecture Biennale 2021 | STIRworld
Team of curators: Philip Tidwell, Laura Berger and Kristo Vesikansa Image: Juuso Westerlund

The homes were assembled on the lines of the easy structural principles, yet their extraordinary distribution of spaces and openness to domestic innovations worked to improve the living standards. Even after 80 years, made with an approach of sustainability, these are still served as home to many. Tidwell states, “The exhibition is historical, but it is also critical in that it reflects on the challenges and assumptions that we hold about housing and building as well as the ways that we document and represent architecture.” Cognizant of the material exchanges and interaction between the triad - politics, labour and economics – when it comes it comes to the making of structured edifices, Tidwell, succinctly says, “The challenging question posed by the Biennale will not be answered only by form, it requires that we see architecture in a larger context.”

06 mins watch New Standard at the Pavilion of Finland: Guided video tour | Venice Architecture Biennale 2021 | STIRworld
New Standards at the Pavilion of Finland: Guided video tour Video: Courtesy of Archinfo Finland

If the climate punctuated by the disparity in architectural spaces, divisive politics, and contentious cultural landscape, called for the immediacy of the question “How will we live together?”, then the global pandemic, which delayed the exhibition by a year, once more heightened the urgency of the exhibition. Implicitly, the COVID-19 crisis brings into Venice Architecture Biennale 2021’s many-folded context – a responsive living environment even in a delicate healthcare situation.

The exhibition New Standards is a walk through a crisis of a time long gone, but it underlines the importance of what Laura Berger states, “A crisis can be a catalyst for innovation and bring different actors together to create something good.” It runs at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021 until November 21, 2021.

Click here to read more about STIRring Together, a series by STIR that introduces readers to the many facets of the Venice Architecture Biennale 2021.  

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