Future of the Past, A View of Unbuilt Helsinki

On the plinth, a bronze model of STAGES, the contemporary art museum of Helsinki as imagined by architect Kazuo Shinohara in 1993.

An earlier version of this article was published in ICE’s September 2012 issue. 

Once upon a time, in Chris Marker’s seminal science fiction short film La Jetée (1962), post-apocalyptic Parisians attempted to “call past and future to the rescue of the present” by means of time travel. Some fifty years later, around the time of Marker’s recent passing, a group of artists, designers, and architects are giving shape to a fantastic past with the purpose of expanding contemporary imaginations in and for the city of Helsinki.

In the Museum of Finnish Architecture’s villa in Kaivopuisto, Helsinki, resides a research studio and scale model workshop by the London-based graphic design collective Åbäke and local artist Nene Tsuboi. The ongoing Unbuilt Helsinki project draws from the museum’s archives of unrealised architectural proposals—failed competition entries and unfinished plans—in an attempt to conjure an alternative present and future for Helsinki. A team of young architects has been invited to analyse prominent yet previously disqualified or suppressed blueprints over the course of one year, making them come to life, one by one, in the form of different installations and events. Come the end of the year, a diorama of a city that should’ve/would’ve/could’ve existed will be built.

Unbuilt Helsinki explores the future of Helsinki’s past through reconstructing landmarks, such as the museum of contemporary art—currently known as Kiasma by Steven Holl yet recreated as STAGES, a rejected proposal by Kazuo Shinohara in 1993—and enacting forgotten developments, such as the motorway by Smith-Polvinen. Working with layers of time and space, the project uses the refined, wishful recording of near history to comment on the now and the next—not to criticise Helsinki as it is, like it is emphasized, but to offer an alternative to the surrounding city: a parallel reality where ambitious and utopian ideas may come true. Looking at the project, I can’t help but think about whether anticipation of the future and nostalgia for that which never existed are actually one and the same thing.

STAGES in artist Laila Pullinen’s sculpture garden.

For sure, the past is never what it used to be. As Jacques Derrida once put it, ghosts may arrive from the past, but they always appear in the present. A ghost is never the same as that which shares its proper name.* Moreover, what Unbuilt Helsinki does is turn an imaginary past into a vision for the emerging next phase: a haunting future. Aiming to inspire contemporary dreams by presenting previous intrepid plans to the public, the project generates posthumous productivity. For more than an architectural time machine, Unbuilt Helsinki is an architectural time reclaimer, making use of the hours that would have been wasted by the otherwise unrealised, unfortunate work as a resource for more interesting times ahead.
—Jenna Sutela

*French philosopher Jacques Derrida coined the term “hauntology” in his 1993 work Specters of Marx to describe the paradoxical temporality of the ghost. “Haunting is historical, to be sure,” he writes in the beginning of the book, “but it is not dated, it is never docilely given a date in the chain of presents, day after day, according to the instituted order of the calendar.”

Jenna Sutela works with words and structures in the fields of art and design. Based in Helsinki, Finland, she is currently co-curating an event around artistic labour and sound art at the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma as well as preparing a publishing programme on a digital materiality at the Aalto University. Her previous activities include self-published titles and related installations with the OK Do collective as well as co-authoring Solution 239-246 Finland: The Welfare Game book (ed. Martti Kalliala, Sternberg Press, 2011).