According to architect Taneli Mansikkamäki, housing for all is not a utopia

The 2024 Fiskars Village Art & Design Biennale welcomes the Architectural Association Architecture School and Finnish architect Taneli Mansikkamäki to the grounds during the month of July. Village Works is a workshop which explores unconventional architectural applications and the creation of experimental structures with an international group of fifteen students and young professionals. It aims to explore new living concepts beyond urban settings by examining what is essential and superfluous in our urban domesticity.

Taneli Mansikkamäki. Photo: Johanna Laitanen

“This is a fun summer project,” says Taneli Mansikkamäki, “but also a chance to be able to work in Finland and learn from the revitalisation of the wonderful historic company town, that is Fiskars.”

Mansikkamäki, the Finnish-born and now Berlin-based architect directs the Diploma 9 unit at the Architectural Association in London, while his agency, TM-A, was founded in Berlin in 2021. Specialising in artist housing and experimental forms of property, Mansikkamäki’s research delves into strategies for providing universal housing solutions, highlighting the importance of addressing issues of inequality, insecurity, and climate through housing.

“I believe that the right to adequate housing is a human right. It is also recognised as such in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations.”

“I believe that the right to adequate housing is a human right. It is also recognised as such in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations.”

Taneli Mansikkamäki

For Mansikkamäki, adequate housing then becomes an umbrella issue for the art and science of designing to tackle, while concurrently connecting to questions involving climate change and the environment. “Problems which largely arise from the current systems and how those translate to how we live and dwell.”

Village Works, the workshop lead by Mansikkamäki, takes place in Fiskars, a post-industrial ironworks village in Finland. While the production of everyday tools was moved out of the village a few decades ago, the village and its vacant industrial spaces have slowly been transformed into housing for hundreds of creatives and new homes for artists’ cooperatives. This according to the architect seems fruitful for all parties involved. The artists benefit from gaining access to pre-existing frameworks and buildings, while the area of Fiskars stays vibrant and creates possibilities for the future. “For me, this type of attitude towards properties really brings all stakeholders to a win-win situation suggesting that there can be other underlying values behind successful strategic decision making than money.”

“I believe we need to recognise other types of values to allow our existing cities to strive. Fiskars has incredible historic architecture and a sense of place that is unique. A setting where quality place making and affordability can co-exist. Fiskars offers affordable spaces for the creative class, and are helping the group of people who suffer possibly the most from rising rental costs in city centres. In my opinion all of this is not a coincidence because the buildings in Fiskars were built with lots of skills and care for the long term. As opposed to rapid trading on the real estate market.  A totally different set of values were governing the decision making and design processes.”

Mansikkamäki refers to the well-known cycle of artists typically forming the first wave of gentrification in city areas. They move to cheap parts of the city, create culture and a sense of place, but while the market recognises this – people move in. This makes rents rise, forcing artists to move out as their salaries are not in line with new, rising rent costs.

In Berlin, Mansikkamäki is currently involved in a “baugruppe” group building project for a cooperative consisting of artists and creative professionals. The co-housing project consists of living and working spaces of which 30% of the residential units are subsidised housing. “This project is not designed solely for one generation, but rather aims to bring together people of different ages. All of whom are in need of affordable housing.”

“We are currently in the final stage of securing a plot right in the centre of Berlin, so that we can start the construction phase. Even this project aims to consist of housing that will be owned collectively. The members of the collective will have access to space, but the building is not being constructed for the purpose of flipping apartments. The units cannot be sold for profit in a couple of years. Instead, upon selling, the members will be able to get their investment back, but not to make a profit.”

“I believe that exploring alternative ways of living and experimental ownership models, is the foundation for ensuring resilient development. It is a long-term model. As a collective we put love and care into building. We invest in renewable structures, green roofs and water management systems. Initially, the building will not be the cheapest to construct, but operational costs will get cheaper over time.  And in time, users of the building will accumulate wealth through lower living costs.”

Looking at the ownership model for housing and the current way of constructing in Finland, this seems like a utopia of sorts?

“In my work I try to approach projects from the perspective that everyone wins. As long as people would have choices concerning housing. Something which they would feel content with. But looking at the situation around the world, housing is in crisis.”

“In London, where I lived for fifteen years, people are still experiencing the repercussions of the Post-Thatcher era, a slow dismantling of the social welfare state model that was built after WWII which had its heyday in the mid-20th century. By the late 1970s, approximately third of the people lived in social housing. But then in 1979 the conservative government under Margaret Thatcher introduced a major legal change that allowed people to buy the social housing units they occupied. It was of course a positive thing when people were able to buy them cheaply, but it was never sustainable because at no point has the number of state-owned apartments been increased since then. So now, the number of apartments has decreased, while people’s income levels have plummeted. Low-income earners put as much as 46 percent of their income on average in rent in London. We can now see how the same pattern has been repeated across Europe.”

“This in addition to the fact that we are dealing with a situation where there is more information available regarding construction than ever before, yet it rarely translates into quality or how things are being built.”

In terms of the magnitude and the international-nature of the issues, should solutions then concurrently be large and scalable?

“I do not personally think there is a fundamental, one-size-fits-all solution that would work everywhere. I do not believe in there being any single answer to the housing crisis – and if you look at the UN article, what I’m referring to is not only buildings being constructed but the right to housing being a human right. We are currently very far from that.”

“Now while my research topic is provocative, like the aim of the summer course in Fiskars, it is still based on the belief that through trials and resulting smaller solutions, we can find a better model for the future.”

“We will, however, not find one model to solve the housing or the climate crisis – and that is why I believe in looking at a specific context, researching it, and experimenting with projects targeted at that specific area, to provide an opportunity to find solutions to these problems.”

“We will, however, not find one model to solve the housing or the climate crisis – and that is why I believe in looking at a specific context, researching it, and experimenting with projects targeted at that specific area, to provide an opportunity to find solutions to these problems.”

Taneli Mansikkamäki

The practical work, according to Mansikkamäki, happens in two parts: an underlying system analysis that studies and takes into account all stakeholders within the context, while examining what obstacles lie ahead the end goal, which is adequate housing for all. 

“We look closely at the issues in the way of reaching this goal. We analyse such issues and create a housing concept within that context. That is our approach.”

“At the same time, buildings should contribute to the well-being of the society and contribute to the positive place making. In Fiskars, the workshop is based on experimentation, experimental craftsmanship and quality. Because even that is something that we see disappearing from the building culture because all processes are so streamlined. Preserving craft traditions should also be considered important.”

“The relationship between crafts and collective construction effort is interesting. We are, for example, experimenting with this in our project in Berlin. As the building is solely built for artists,  there will be details such as atelier sinks in spaces that, in standard apartments, would be used as living rooms. Additionally, we are adding collective workshop and broadcasting spaces – and a canteen.”

“This does not mean the construction will be much cheaper, even though the profit-seeking entity, the middle-man in between is left out but for the users, they get a lot more quality and craftsmanship for their contribution because people believe in the project long-term.”

“As in Germany, similarly in Finland too, there are a few large construction companies that have established connections and relationships; they are able to produce the most affordable building stock, but as their end goal, of course, is to serve the interests of the company’s shareholders and these other types of values easily get lost. Non-conventional construction, on the other hand, requires effort.”

“However, there is nothing utopian about it. This is entirely possible.”

“But it will take time. Very much like the collaborative effort in Fiskars, nothing will be solved in two weeks time. This is a direction which will hopefully gradually take shape in people’s minds.”

Fiskars Village Art & Design Biennale 16 June – 1 September 2024, open daily 11am–6pm. Find tickets (18/9€) and more information here.