03 November 2006

Ouluun Kouluun

A colleague in the history department writes that “There is an old saying in Finnish, ‘Ouluun Kouluun,’ which roughly means, ‘go to a school, go to Oulu’.” My colleague points out that while the jingle plays on the city’s centuries-long reputation as a center for schooling, “the University of Oulu was established as late as 1958, as the most northern university in the world.”

Oulu University also is credited with being the first “campus university” in Finland. That is a reference to the fact that the university built from scratch on reclaimed swamp land, in an area called Linnanmaa, some five kilometers north of the city. No doubt the cost of land was a key consideration in abandoning the city center, where the university retains a foothold with its medical school, architecture school, and some dormitory complexes. (The Museum of Northern Ostrobothnia has a very interesting exhibit, complete with Che Guevara poster, on student housing in Oulu.)

The Linnanmaa campus was designed, with plenty of room for expansion, by Kari Virta, and Virta and his firm have been involved one way or another in most of the work that has been done since. The first buildings (see photo, above) went up in the late 1960s. Dormitories have been built from time to time both in Linnanmaa and in the city center. Over time the Linanmaa plan has unfolded in “phases.” The City of Oulu website has some nice photos here: http://pohjois-suomi.safa.fi/sights/oui.html

New modules have been designed to conform to older ones, so that the pieces fit together a little like Legos. In fact, the Lego image conveys pretty well the overall design aesthetic. Given the weather in this corner of the world, it makes sense for modular units to attach to one another in such a way as to allow traffic to flow through long internal corridors. These passageways are so long, in fact, that the custodians, or "porters," recognizable by their dark blue dress shirts and black ties, travel about on scooters.

The aesthetics, and even the politics, of this kind of university campus have been and will continue to be vigorously debated. As a disciple of Jane Jacobs, who inveighed against universities that turn their backs on the city or build barricades to keep it out (the University of Chicago and Columbia University in particular drew her ire), I think of the ideal university as one that connects seamlessly to the city, and that sprawly suburban “campuses” send an unfortunate message about the role of the university in public life. That said, there is no undoing what has been wrought here, and there is no question but that over the past few decades this university has contributed more than its fair share to making Greater Oulu the vital metropole of the north of Finland, just as was intended. The paper I referred to at the outset of this post is devoted to telling this story, and it does so in a very compelling way.