04 October 2006

Oulu: The Physical City

The day I arrived in Oulu, I walked around town just letting things soak in, and I was struck by the architecture. Not so much by the stone government buildings and churches that I had expected to see because they are in all the picture books, but rather, by more modest wooden structures that struck me as a rustic expression of the same classicist impulse. I knew that many of the former had been designed by Carl Ludwig Engel, the German architect who was commissioned by Tsar Alexander to turn Helsinki into a proper capital for a Grand Duchy (he built the Lutheran cathedral on Senate Square) and to transform some former Swedish towns, such as Oulu, nee Uleåborg, into Finnish, and by extension Russian, ones. What I didn’t know is that Engel also was responsible for a few of the wooden buildings that one can admire today in Oulu.

To back up, Oulu suffered a great fire in 1822. One place that was spared was Pikisaari Island, which is just offshore, and where pre-1822 wooden buildings are still to be seen. I have been encouraged to travel to other towns—Raahe, for one—if I want to see traditional Finnish wooden architecture. Anyway, because of the fire there was no shortage of work for an architect when Engel showed up a few years later. Rebuilding the Lutheran cathedral here was one of his main projects.

The wooden buildings—Engel’s and many others—are in the center of town, where the fire left plenty of scope for rebuilding. They appear to have been put to many different uses over the years. The university’s architecture school is housed in several of the finest, appropriately enough. I’m told that many others were lost to growth and prosperity in the late twentieth century. Some of the survivors are being restored. Too many seem to be lying fallow. The attached photo is of Kajaanintulli school, built by Engel in 1831. That’s the steeple of the Lutheran cathedral far in the background. Click on the title of this post for a link to an inventory of Oulu's architectural heritage.

The curious thing about the center of Oulu, architecturally speaking, is that there is the city of the Grand Duchy and the tar industry—from 1822 to the Kauppahalli of 1906, perhaps—and then, thoroughly intermixed with it, is the city of the steel, glass, and concrete kerrostalo and the Modernist office building. There is not much representing the period in between. The result in the city center is a dense mix of diverse uses, and that is a good thing, though aesthetically the effect can sometimes be jarring. Click on the link to “Yikes?” over yonder in Previous Posts to see a particularly unfortunate juxtaposition of the two Oulus.

Right away, I also was struck by the streets themselves. There is a good case to be made for cobblestones—not on interstate highways, of course, but on city streets. There is the matter of aesthetics, but I’m overlooking that for the moment, since that’s a slam-dunk for stones. I’m thinking of maintenance issues. They’ve been tearing up one of the main north-south arteries, Torikatu, since I first came to Oulu. It’s made a bit of a mess, and all the buses have had to be re-routed down Aleksanterinkatu. I check the progress of the road crew regularly, and I’ve been impressed by how much paving they are able to do in a day.

As I see it (I haven’t researched this, obviously), there are a couple of considerations here. One is that with asphalt, if you tear up the street, you have all of those heavy asphalt chunks to dispose of somehow. Then you have to lay the new stuff and you have to try to get a very tight seal. With cobblestones, if they’re in good condition, you just put the same ones back when you’re finished doing whatever you were doing underneath. Couldn't you? Or you could just turn them over if they seemed too worn on the side that had been facing up. Why not?

Then there is the whole issue of potholes, or what we used call in Cleveland “chuckholes.” Those are caused by water seeping through even very small cracks, and then freezing and cracking the asphalt, which is brittle. With stones, you don’t have the same kind of seal to begin with, so there is plenty of “give” in the gaps, or the grout, or whatever they call the stuff in between the stones. With some wiggle room, the expansion and contraction wouldn’t do the same kind of damage. And if it did, wouldn’t it be a very simple thing to repair, without the tell-tale patch? Somebody needs to straighten me out if I'm mistaken here.

Finally, it took all day, at a considerable cost to my feet, which were badly blistered by the time I limped back to my flat (those were the lazy, hazy, crazy days of sandals—only yesterday, it seems), but it finally dawned on me that there was something missing down in the city center: churches. The Lutheran cathedral looms large, and there are Lutheran churches in many of the neighborhoods. There’s a sweet little one in my neighborhood, Tuira. I’m told that there is a Russian Orthodox church in town, and I’ve seen evidence of the Salvation Army.

But in any American city of comparable size, there’d be a dozen houses of worship, or more, within a few blocks of the courthouse green or whatever serves as the heart of the heart of the city. And if it were one of the old cities of the industrial northeast, the variety would be range from Roman Catholic to Greek Orthodox to various species of Protestant. There might be high church and low church Episcopal churches, and several varieties of Baptists. There would be Latter-Day Saints and Seventh-Day Adventists and the Kingdom Halls of Jehovah’s Witnesses. There’d be African-American churches of various denominations. There’d probably be a synagogue or two. There might even be a mosque or a Hindu or Buddhist temple. Then there would be the ethnic overlay—Irish and Italian and Polish Roman Catholic churches, and so on and on.

When we talk about diversity in the United States, many of us automatically think race. But through most of our history our diversity has been religious, or even ethnic or liturgical within a particular faith. People often refer to Finland as a “homogeneous” society, and so it is. But I think sometimes those people are thinking gene pool homogeneity, when the cultural homogeneity—expressed architectonically here in the relative absence of churches—is surely far more significant.