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Archimedes’ principle: Arctia Headquarters by K2S Architects

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The buoyantly big floating office of Arctia Headquarters by K2S Architects has won well-deserved acclaim, most recently the Popular Choice prize in the Office Building Low Rise (1-4 Floors) category of Architizer A+ Awards 2014. By courtesy of the Finnish Architectural Review, we are happy to re-published architect Juha Ilonen's perceptive essay about the building, which was published in the Finnish Architectural Review, issue 1/2014.

Archimedes’ principle

A floating building is as an idea as fascinating as it is risky as a commercial product, and as unpredictable as the sea. Of the various pontoon village projects planned in Finland in recent years, unfortunately only a few test buildings remain. The numerous self-built saunas and floating summer cabins ploughing the waves of lakes are mobile buildings but they are classified as boats due to their small outboard motors. And who would find grounds for preventing the design of boats looking like houses or equipping them with a sauna?Large floating buildings have started to tie ashore in the Helsinki cityscape. The first one was the Arctia Shipping headquarters on the Katajanokka shoreline. And due to be completed in early 2015 in a highly visible location on Eläintarhanlahti bay is the Meripaviljonki restaurant designed by architect Simo Freese.The Finnish state-owned company Arctia Shipping carries out ice breaking and other heavy-duty off-shore maritime operations. The present lease agreements for the icebreakers and the company’s headquarters on Katajanokka in Helsinki will continue until at least 2020. It is indeed singularly natural and inventive that the company chose to build its headquarters on the sea next to their icebreakers. Arctia’s headquarters does not have its own motor, but interpreting the building location as a plot caused some head scratching among the building inspection lawyers.Icebreakers are national sources of pride and they deservedly dominate the scenery on the northern side of the tip of Katajanokka. The yellow colour of the massive deck constructions of the icebreakers Voima, Urho and Sisu takes after the over 200-metre-long facade of the adjacent neoclassical monument, the former naval barracks (C. L. Engel, 1820). The hulls of the ships are, in turn, black, as those of archetypal modern ships are. The patriotic colour scheme of the newer icebreakers follows international practices: blue and white are the least threatening colours from the point of view of arctic marine fauna.In such demanding and monumental surroundings it would be shameless for a newcomer to start showing off with opulent forms. For once, the architect has had the external justifications and the excuse for being subservient by creating a black box, something that many would gladly do irrespective of the location. Forming a pair with the black headquarters, firmly set on dry land is a silver-grey low storage building. The latter, originally a temporary building built in the 1980s, has now received a new look.The risk when choosing the road of subservience is that it leads to insignificance, which has been assuredly and skilfully bypassed in the case of the Arctia headquarters. The quality of the minimalist architecture is conveyed through the details. The excellently designed aluminium cladding of the facades takes after, in its relief form, the side of a glacier. The rhythmic pleated-skirt profile reflects the light giving a pleasant diversity and overcomes the “cardboard effect” that often plagues sheet-clad facades by blurring the vertical seams between the sheets. The profiling brings to the unequivocal form a ballerina-like delicacy. The perforations in the metal sheets, which become denser towards the bottom, give the monolithic wall a velvety softness.There is also better justification for using wood in the Arctia building than simply it being the prevailing trend or an embarrassing obligation as often seen in architecture competitions. Wood is still perceived as the building material of ships, at least for interiors. Without the warmth of wood, the scarce material palette of the headquarters would indeed have created a feeling of indifference. The festive wood-clad main entrance gives the small building the character of a headquarters. The central corridor, pleasantly lit by wood-framed glass walls, culminates at the end in a convivial space offering a scenic view out, though the prosaic screen subdivision into a “landscape office” is disproportionate with the space.When climbing the internal stairs of this unique office building you can hear the appropriate booming sound of steel and the largest swells make the building roll slightly. We are now inside a floating building that has been assembled in a dockyard using shipbuilding technology.Text by Juha Ilonen. The essay has been previously published in the Finnish Architectural Review, issue 1/2014. By courtesy of the author and the Finnish Architectural Review.