November 1, 2010
Design, Build, Gestalt
Architecture students draw on local folklore and epic poetry to express the unique spirit of a site.
ARCHITECTS: Spirit of Place/Spirit of Design
Three months ago, city officials and international dignitaries assembled on Helsinki’s Seurasaari island to witness a team of ebullient architecture students present their contribution to Finland: a one-room structure striking for its clarity of form, with a base made of solid-wood slabs and a roof of smooth stainless steel. Named Kalevalakehto (“The Shaman’s Haven”), the building, they said, was an ode to Kalevala, a work of epic poetry compiled from oral folklore and mythology, which, when published in 1835, sparked Finland’s transformative period of romantic nationalism and led to the country’s eventual independence from Russia.
Kalevalakehto is the culmination of an intensive design-build program called Spirit of Place/Spirit of Design, headed by Travis Price at the Catholic University of America, in Washington, D.C., which aims to express cultural heritage through architecture—without defaulting to religious iconography or neotraditionalism. “I think one of the greater issues in the twenty-first century is to get away from the pursuit of loneliness and homogenization and go toward the pursuit of authenticity and cultural revival,” Price says. Taking a page from Joseph Campbell, he believes that modern architecture can tap into a society’s shared dreams by exploring its mythology. Over the last 18 years, the program has traveled around the world, constructing a sweat lodge in British Columbia, a shrine in Ireland, and a stargazing temple in Peru. For the Helsinki project, it collaborated with Aalto University and conducted a design charrette over nine days, instead of the usual three months.
The students began the process by each writing a poem in response to Kalevala and translating it into a three-dimensional sculpture. They then performed what Price calls the “kissing-cousins dance”: all the sculptures were placed on a table, compared with one another, and grouped according to congruous forms. “We find common gestures, a common adjective,” Price says. “It’s about how we each do our own work and then begin to see hidden threads that we share.” The dance is repeated with formal architectural models; students with similar ideas present in teams, and the best ideas are distilled into a final concept.
Most student exercises would end there. But with the help of Price and his D.C.-based firm, the young designers spent months producing full sets of drawings and coordinating with Finnish suppliers so that every piece of material, down to the last screw, would be on-site for the first day of construction and ready to be assembled in an extraordinary nine days. The total budget for the project (including donations and student labor costs) came to about $275,000. “That’s expensive if you look at it as a piece of architecture by square foot,” Price says. “But if you look at it as almost a year of education and as a legacy mark for the culture, it’s a small price for a piece of art.”