I am on the train going back home, finally, after days procrastinating. My procrastination started suddenly and unexpectedly when I returned from Stockholm. There is a voice inside my head, keeping whispering, refusing to accept of being home just yet. So I stayed a couple of more days in Helsinki. Always a charm in deciding to stay in Helsinki. It is not a big capital city, not even a little bit comparing to my home city in Vietnam. But comparing to Jyväskylä, then it might be considered at another level. But that is not the factor growing in me a mysterious adoring feeling for Helsinki. There is something else.
So I am doing my thesis research involving Helsinki city. There are lot of things stressful about doing the thesis as an undergraduate student. But the greatest in researching this topic is that I catch many inspiring adjectives people use to describe Helsinki, based on their readings of their own city. Let me rewind a bit further to few days back when I was in Stockholm, I went to Modern Art Museum. In there, I saw the architecture and urban building exhibition. Took these two pictures about topic of “city”. Instead of putting the pictures here, I will quote, as I am in love with words and expressions.
One thousand questions about a city. Walk down any street and ask:
What does the city feel like? What does it smell of? What does it taste of? What sounds do you hear? Are the sounds the same on every part of the street? Does it smell the same everywhere? Does it taste the same everywhere? Can you measure what you see? Height? Length? Breadth? Weight? Why does it have these dimensions? What shapes do you see? Are they tall and slender? Are they round? Are they flat and wide? Are they square? Are they symmetrical or are they asymmetrical? Who are the buildings for? How are they made? Are they made as a whole or as several parts put together? Are they made by hand? Are they made by machine? Have you seen someone making one? How and when they are used? Is it used at nights? Can you open and close it? What materials is it made of? Are they natural or artificial materials? Could other materials be chosen? Which raw materials are used? How were the materials made? Do the materials influence the form of the building? Is the function of the building influenced by the choice of material? Has the building been you reused in any way? What are the pros and cons of the material? What problem does the building solve? What problems does the building cause? Could you solve the problem in another way? Was it expensive? Would it be a good building to own? Is it only for young people? Is it only for old people? Is it easy to repair? Does it need much care and attention? What will happen to the building when it is old? Is the building designed for a special profession/ function? Is the building designed for specific group? Is it designed for a special nationality? Are there any buttons to push? How do you use it? What colours do you see? What tones do you see? Do others like what you see? Do others like what they see? Can you describe what you see for someone who cannot see what you see? Can you describe the building with words? Can you describe the building using pictures? Can you describe the building in any other way? Is it a modern building or an old-fashioned? Is there any missing or broken? Has it been repaired or changed in any way? Does it work practically – is it functional? Is there any text on the building? Why is/isn’t there text on it? What does the text tell you about age, use group, price, and nationality, for example? Are there any symbols on it? What do the symbols mean to you? Is there a date on it? Is there a name on it? Has there been a previous type of the building? What would this building have looked like 10,000 years ago? What would this building have looked like 100 years ago? What would this building have looked like 10 years ago? How will this building be developed? What will it look like in 10 years? What will it look like in 100 years? What will it look like in 1 000 years? What will it look like in 10,000 years? How many of the building types is there? Can you estimate or measure its quality? Can you measure the object qualities in different ways? How much is it worth in economical terms? IS there any other value placed on it? What does the object say about the people who made it? What does the object say about the people who use it? What does it say to you? What does it say about you? And a couple of thousand more questions.
Reading the city
Imagine flying over a Swedish city and looking down from the aeroplane – or for the more adventurous jumping out and dropping by parachute. As you floated to the ground from several thousand metres you would first see the city’s geographic position in the landscape. Is it near the sea or on a river, on a plain or surrounded by forest? A little closer you would see the overall pattern of the city and get an idea of its proportion and size 10,000 50,000 500,000 or 1 million, how many people live there? Coming in to the land you would be able to see the layout of the city and follow the different street patterns, see parks and gardens, housing, factories, office blocks, harbours, airports and all the other elements that make up the city. Upon landing you could read other clues, the very make up of the city, its materials and technology. The city has a scale and existence from micro to macro.
Cities are complex and fascinating places, which are becoming increasingly important to our way of life. in 50 years, 80% of the world’s population will live in or near a city. Consequently, reading the city and understanding the city is becoming more important, is it a question of lifestyle, enjoying and participating in the life of the city to its fullest. If city living is to be the future way of life for the majority of the world’s population, perhaps the most interesting question that needs to be addressed is about how as many of us as possible can learn to read the city.
Fascinating, aren’t they? I mean, really fascinating. And I would not pay attention to these, if not one random in summer, my brain caught up a topic about city branding and I have not given up ever since. My study field is not directly connected to the theme, and I myself have not even gained well-established background about it, but my own interest. There is that challenge, but as one of my recent interviewee for this thesis, it is a positive challenge. I got sucked into reading about this, more and more; which was rather bad, because I love reading, and I assume I read more than I am required. Anyhow, look at the first 1000 questions, they are not something you never thought of, but I ensure you, never at the same time, especially when you first place foot steps in a city. One question after one, is developed throughout period of time you become a local in the city, after you grow a seed of connection and attachment to the city.
You might usually catch a saying or sentence, “Oh I am falling for the city“, or “so in love with it“, as even from my blog. Only when you start to research and study deeper, the word “city” appears under many complex layers. With those sayings, what do the writers or speakers mean to say, exactly? The people? The building? The design? The vibe? The system? Then, we get the second quote about Reading the City, to reply to our queries. I have interviewed 3-4 people in the last two weeks, and asked them to describe Helsinki in their own words. How amazing to hear people use words to convey their deep connection and attachment with the city, express it out to the outsiders. And that’s how I am in love with words. I believe a description of a city, activities one does in a city can be experienced by a listener, through the power of word’s affection.
So, I am told Helsinki is a hurry-free city, in which you need more than just couple of days to grow love for it. I guess it is true. In my first year, Helsinki is just a capital city of Finland. In my next few years, every time I return to visit Helsinki, I brought back home a new different piece of impression. Then, I am told the city is small but there exists its perk – so closed to the nature. “Within in 10 minutes, you can see the lake and nature, if you want“, quoted from another of my interviewee. She was not the only one telling me so. And I realised it as the most unique feature of this small Nordic capital city. The nature is blended within urban life. I did not pay attention to that until yesterday, in fact; since Jyväskylä gave me enough all of the nature I could ask for. I took a last run in the city yesterday, and in my head, running all the things I am told by my interviewees. I kept my eyes opened this time. And I got these two pictures to show you:
I always make a small satisfied smile, whenever I manage to take these beautiful pictures of nature. It feels as if I might as well have just discovered a new pure touch of nature. It is true i did not have to run anywhere really far to witness these. The city is a combination of two options for you, whether you are an addict of busy business modern life or an adorer of slow urban lifestyle. Back in the time I lived in London, I was not given such option. But London was another story, a story with views being thick of a long lasting urban life, a story of the energy of youth to freely swim into mistakes for experiences. I have figured out myself, why the word “city” is so complex but also simple to use. City is a word you use as a box, with all the memories, affection, sadness, happiness, all kinds of emotions or success, failures inside. City is where you reflect that part of your life onto.
But anyway, as I said, always a charm to be in Helsinki.