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Canberra’s new Finnish Embassy, by Hirvonen-Huttunen and MGT Architects, brings contemporary Finnish architecturalculture to Australia. Review by Stephen Frith.
Photography by John Gollings
One of the extraordinary achievements of Finnish culture since the middle of the 20th century is the continuing respect for thoughtfully considered architecture. This is partly because of the success, over 100 years, of a carefully maintained competition policy, which has supported a thoughtful modern architecture that resists the worst of global material culture. Competitions in Australia, regrettably, have a very different history, and have frequently led to less satisfactory results.
     The new Embassy of Finland is the result of a competition organised by the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and SAFA, the Finnish Association of Architects, in 1997. It was won by a young architect, Vesa Huttunen, of Hirvonen-Huttunen, and was undertaken in association with MGT Architects, with particular input from Robert Thorne. The building replaces the embassy next door, designed by Rommel Moorcroft and Partners in 1978, which will now serve as the Residence of the Ambassador of Finland. In addition to accommodating the embassy functions, the building incorporates a residence for the Counsellor.
     A long layered glass and stainless steel box, the new embassy runs through the centre of the site in a direct orientation to Black Mountain. The design embodies references to the architecture of ships, as the building also serves as a memorial to the sinking during the Second World War of the Ilmarinen. Annual remembrance of this event in Finland is not dissimilar to our celebration of Anzac Day. The ship is named after a mythical blacksmith from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. Analogically, ship and steel imagery inform the design – the wharf-like timber deck at the entrance, the selected use of timber cladding and steel I-beams, and the stainless steel panelling to the north-eastern face. An upper deck separates the residence from the offices, and from here a “gang-plank” leads to the sauna in the garden.
     The internal spaces are characterised by a beautiful exploration of the reflective and transparent qualities of glass. Indeed, despite the necessary provision of secure facilities (and the constraints resulting from this and other aspects of the brief), “transparency” is one of the dominant themes of the building. This theme, one of the hallmarks of modernism in the 20th century, indicates the influence of the Bauhaus in Finnish architectural traditions. Shimmering glass planes reinforce the linear experience of the building, and provide visual links between horizontal layers. The design of the offices means that there is only partial privacy between working areas, extending the experience of transparency within the building to its sociability. However, the use of glass in the floor of the offices against the outer wall, while interesting in its effects, seems an unnecessary “trick” in the context of the small offices. In the midst of these glimmering, open surfaces and spaces is a tall opaque form. Dark jarrah timber wraps the main internal stair, creating a box-within-a-box which articulates the layered spatial sequence as one moves vertically through the building.
     The building forms also play with ideas of reflection – the facade of the residence, facing the upper deck, mirrors the building’s principal short facade. The dark glass wall, on the entrance facade, shifts between transparency and a dark, reflective opacity, depending on lighting conditions and the spectator’s point of view. Facing south-west, this wall is double-glazed and skilfully detailed to withstand summer temperatures and to maintain a planar and panelled expression. While at first this south-west wall would seem problematic with regard to heat load, it succeeds though careful detailing and is assisted by an admirably efficient “geo-thermal” installation. This system uses pipes deep in the ground to maintain stable air temperatures within the building at far less energy usage and cost than usual air-conditioning equipment.
     The building is organised as a series of layers, allowing it to be read as several slender parallel forms. The approach to detailing continues this design intent through to every aspect of the building. Layers of glass, wood, concrete and steel are deployed as appropriate, with each thoughtfully executed in relation to other layers and other materials. The steel and concrete structure reinforces the gridded order, as does the open mesh that provides ceilings and bulkheads, through which services are revealed.
     This rawness plays against the finesse of the timber joinery and gives the interiors a fresh edge. Some of the detailing is a puzzle, however. For example, the glass awning over the entrance is a questionable gesture. Useless against storm and tempest, it seems a little lost high up in the gods, causing problems of legibility with regard to the entrance. There is also the natural impulse to enter by slipping through the gap in the building between offices and residence, a desire reinforced by placing the coat of arms at this point. The interior detailing strategies may also be too rigidly applied in the new residence, where some departure from the office detailing, (and larger bedrooms) might surely be welcomed by anyone who has to live and work in the same environment.
     The embassy design uses the juxtaposition of materials to evoke tensions between industrial artefacts, natural materials, and the nearby bushland setting. This manner of deploying materials tends to generate its own narrative surplus, especially where materials are set in relation to each other, as if in a collage. Finnish architectural discourse, like most western architecture since Vitruvius, generally presents the opposition between nature and culture as a fundamental ground for discussion. This pairing of opposites is seen in Finnish architectural work from Aalto to Pallasmaa, and is exemplified by the MONARK Group, a group of recent graduates from the Helsinki University of Technology. Their description of their design for Finland’s 1992 World Exhibition Pavilion in Seville fits this pattern; the pavilion, like the embassy, consciously alludes to ships and machines. The embassy design also has affinities with other graduates of the university, including Mikko Heikkinen and Markku Komonen, whose work shares the Canberra building’s layered design strategies, the use of grids as a sign of order, and a similar material palette. These elements are apparent in their Finnish Science Centre, Helsinki (1988), which also includes a gestural port cochere, and in the Chancery of Finland in Washington DC (1993), where, as in Canberra, projecting glass boxed windows also look out to a garden.
     The Embassy of Finland in Canberra is testament to the excellence of Finnish architectural traditions. The internal fit-out includes works by prominent Finnish design firms, including spun paper carpets by Ritva Puotila of Woodnotes, and the inflatable “globlow” floor lamp by the creative Scandinavian design team, Snowcrash. During the last century, Finland has reinvented itself as a highly sophisticated, socially urbane culture with the highest aspirations for design and for architecture. Australians could learn from this reinvention.

Stephen Frith is professor of architecture at the University of Canberra


The slim, vertical form of the embassy bisects the site, enabling two different landscape conditions – a formal entry landscape and a relaxed, park-like garden.

The facade of the counsellor’s accommodation, facing the upper deck, mirrors the principal public facade.

The Ambassador’s office at the front of the building with views over the adjacent parklands.

Careful detailing continues the layered theme at every scale. Continuous ceilings of steel mesh panels veil services and lighting.

View from the reception area, over the triple-height function space to the landscape beyond.

A transparent zone of skylights and glass floors runs the length of the eastern steel-clad wall. Continous slot windows provide views over less formal landscaping.

Interior of the separate sauna building.

The sauna’s slot window looks onto native planting on the adjacent bank. Sauna photographs Andrew Novinc.

The south-west entry facade articulates the two main functions of chancery and residence.

Looking across the courtyard to the screened sauna entance, partly buried in a bank.

The ship-like aspect of the steel-clad northeast facade is one of a series of analogical references to the Ilmarinen.

The glazed reflective wall, glass canopy and formal landscaping of the entry.

The “gangway” leading from the sauna to the upper deck separating the residence from the chancery.

Project credits
Finnish Embassy, Canberra
Design Architect Arkkitehtuuritoimisto Hirvonen-
     Huttunen Architects—Vesa Huttunen, Nikolas Davies. Project Architect MGT Architects— Romaldo Giurgola, Tim Halden-Brown, Robert Thorne. Civil and Structural Engineer Ove Arup & Partners. Facade Engineer Arup Facade Engineering. Hydraulic Engineer HTL Reinhold.
     Services Engineer Norman Disney & Young.
     Quantity Surveyor Rider Hunt. Landscape Architect Dorrough Britz and Associates. Client Finland Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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