28 December 2006

Granite Igloo

On the day I first arrived at the Oulu railway station last August, I espied an unusual structure alongside the tracks, and I made a note in my journal: “rock igloo,” followed by a question mark. Later, it occurred to me to ask one of my students about it.

“Interesting you should ask,” Hannu replied, “because the ‘igloo’ is currently being threatened by demolition. I believe the structure was built during the war or just before it. It was used as an auxiliary station house in war time because the area was often under bombardment by Russian planes for its strategic importance.” What had looked to me like an “igloo” is the fortified roof of an underground bunker.

Hannu went on to report that VR, the state railway, wants to build a “travel center” on that particular parcel of land, which would mean razing the igloo and the brick building next to it. He said the project had been controversial, in part because the city council caved in so readily to VR, and also because preservationists recognize that it “is one of the few buildings that represent the war time here.” Hannu noted that it might be a good place to install some kind of exhibit on Finland’s complicated role in the Second World War, which unfolded in two distinct stages—the Winter War (1940-41), and the Continuation War (1941-44).

This conversation took place mainly by e-mail. I wrote back and asked if the structure has a name. “They call it a kivikukko,” he replied, “which means ‘Stone Cock’ (and before you think much further, that really refers to a male chicken). I have no idea where the name comes from. Maybe because it is shaped a bit like an egg?”

Well, now I was starting to be intrigued.

Upon further reflection, Hannu noted that the shape of the structure “resembles a food that has been eaten in the Oulu region,” which is called kalakukko (fish cock?) In the meantime, I had been wondering, with all due respect to “cock” and “male chicken,” whether kukko might be better translated as “cuckoo.” The cuckoo is a fairly reclusive bird that looms large in Finnish—indeed, Western—culture, mainly because of its perverse practice of depositing its eggs in other birds’ nests so that its offspring might be raised by “foster parents.” Etymologically, cuckoo actually is related to “cuckold,” which seemed to me yet another reason to think that kivikukko might be a reference to surrogate, or even unnatural beds, or nests.

While we were speculating in this way, I was planning a trip to Rovaniemi, where there is a before-and-after exhibit devoted to the destruction of the city by the Germans at the end of the Continuation War. A close inspection confirmed that there was no rock igloo in 1939, and sure enough, the 1944 display shows a circular structure in ruins not far from the railway station.

At this point, I was pretty far along in the process of becoming a rock igloo connoisseur, which reminded me of the time—many moons ago, while living in Ohio—that I developed something of a romantic obsession with Indian mounds. Once enchanted, a landscape can appear littered with plundered Indian mounds or derelict rock igloos.

Meanwhile, the indefatigable Hannu discovered that there is a scholarly literature on the subject, and that the definitive work has been done by Dr. Paavo Talman, a human geographer at the University of Helsinki. Dr. Talman confirms that Oulu’s granite igloo was constructed in 1941-42, that it is a particularly “stately monument,” and that it was subject to heavy bombardment.[1] Dr. Talman has done his homework—even the measurements, apparently:

Steel and concrete walls are 0.75 meters thick and the roof is 0.85 meters thick. Steel rails inside the concrete casting support the roof. Brick into two larger and two smaller rooms, a small toilet and a storeroom divide the interior space. The bunker has two entrance/exit corridors on opposite sides of the building. The corridor pathway is angular, to lessen bomb pressure wave intensity. Entrance/exit corridors are equipped with think steel doors. Doors and ventilation channels sealed tight enough to give protection from gas attacks. The base under the bunker, about 1.5
meters below the ground, is kept dry by drainage pipes. [2]

Among the miscellaneous factoids reported by Dr. Talman are that Oulu’s igloo is somewhat unique in never having had a sodden roof, and that it sometimes is rented out to a rock band that practices in the chamber. Dr. Talman endorses Hannu’s theory about the origin of the name. “Because of its odd shape, townspeople have given it a cosy name, kivikukko, which can be roughly translated as ‘Stony Pie.’” [3] And he makes a strong case for igloo preservation: “Their protection, as special national landmarks, should become part of a comprehensive architectural preservation program.”[4]

Not long after this barrage of disappointments (I so much preferred the cuckoo theory), I found myself boarding a southbound train to Helsinki, where I planned to spend a couple of days before flying home. There, I found another message from Hannu, who now reported that “the rock igloo is doomed. The last appeal for it has been turned down by the regional environment centre. It was felt that all the new buildings and the removal of some earlier ones caused the area to lose its special value and there was no basis for saving the stone cock and the brick building next to it.” He predicted that there would be a protest “that will not be able to change much.”

In the annals of preservation history, the loss of Oulu’s granite igloo probably does not rank as a disaster of epic proportions. Still, one wonders why the good citizens of Oulu are so indifferent to an important chapter of their city’s history. Even more mysterious is the tourist bureau’s willingness to let VR destroy a cultural resource that could, with a little creative marketing, become a major tourist attraction.

I am, as I said, a romantic. In my mind’s eye, I see a television advertisement—produced, perhaps, by the firm that came up with the suggestive “what happens in Las Vegas, stays in Las Vegas” ad campaign. A helicopter flying low over Agra swoops down on the Taj Mahal, then circles the structure as the cameras capture, in slow motion, every gorgeous inch of it. “Been there?” asks the narrator—David McCullough, say. Suddenly, the helicopter is transported to Tuscany, where it hovers over the Leaning Tower of Pisa. “Done that?” the narrator asks again. Cue Peggy Lee. “And when you had been there, and done that, did you think to yourself, ‘Is that all there is?’ Admit it, you thought there must be something wrong with you because visiting these fabulous pilgrimage destintations wasn’t anywhere near as thrilling as you’d imagined it would be.”

Gradually, Peggy Lee yields to Sibelius, and the screen fills with black-and-white images of soldiers in white parkas, skiing through the forests of Lapland, rifles slung across their shoulders. It’s the winter of 1940. Over this footage, the narrator continues, “Isn’t it time you experienced something truly exciting? In northern Ostrobothnia, there is a place—a magical place—that conveys like no other the meaning of heroism, love of country, and manly devotion to duty. Come and behold the Rock Cock of Oulu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This message was sponsored by the Oulu Tourist Bureau, with our partners, VR and Viagra.”

I can dream, can't I?

[1] Paavo Talman, “Finnish Wartime Emergency Railway Stations (air raid shelters),” perhaps available through Dr. Talman at paalvo.talman@helsinki.fi.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.


Anonymous Hugo said...

Thanks for the info!

It's still there (Feb 2009):


1:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bless you, Hugo. Many thanks.

I seem to have forgotten my own password, thus the anonymous post.


3:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Still there in August 2011. Thanks for the story.

8:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's still there in September 2012. Now it surely is about the last moment to get it saved, because the plan is to demolish it next year in January. The contractor for the work is already chosen. Help! Really, help!!

This stone construction has been at this place since the year 1942 - thus reaching this year the age of 70 years. There is a large war historical background for Finnish Granite Igloos at supposedly 25 most important railroad stations in Finland. There are still igloos at 12 stations - mostly left without care. Only this Oulu Igloo is carefully supervised.

2:04 AM  
Blogger Washington Buckeye said...

Thanks for the update, Anon. I agree that the threat to the Rock Cock is a shameful desecration of Ostrobothnian history, but I don't know what can be done.

--fulbrighterinfinland, aka Washington Buckeye

3:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Update on the monument's situation

The structure was destroyed in May of 2013. Here's a video of it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Rx01AN70fU. Prior to its razing, it was fully documented (inside and outside) with a laser scanner by a joint archaeology and architecture team from the University of Oulu. At the moment the stones of the outer walls lie in a forest waiting possible reconstruction, but the concrete casing and the underground rooms were completely destroyed.

Hopefully the 3D model of the structure can be published in the near future, but sadly the actual monument has been lost.

1:44 PM  
Blogger Kenneth Kolson said...

Well, this is a bummer. Thanks to Anon for passing on the news, disheartening as it is.

2:42 PM  

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