Discussing Archinfo, part 4: Growing into an independent and internationally networked player
The first years of the information centre's operations had laid a solid foundation, and with the new director taking up the post in 2016, it was time to start developing the organisation. Under the leadership of Hanna Harris, the Ministry trusted Archinfo with new significant tasks, both domestically and internationally.
On a grey November morning, the third floor of the Helsinki Central Library Oodi is surprisingly crowded: people reading or working, groups of children visiting, tourists admiring the building. However, the atmosphere is peaceful, even sublime.
Hanna Harris suggested Oodi as our meeting place because it is a meaningful place both for Archinfo's past activities and for her current work.
"Oodi is a pioneer in many ways, encapsulating many of the strengths and characteristics of both Finnish architecture and culture, from the strong involvement of citizens and the library community in creating the spatial programme and the open architectural competition, which attracted a huge number of proposals, to the international recognition of our architectural expertise and our wonderful public library institution," says Hanna Harris.
"Oodi is a good example of why design is worth investing in. It's a landmark that shines a light on the whole library institution. It's always a pleasure to come here."
Hanna Harris joined Archinfo as Director in February 2016 and took her current position as the City of Helsinki’s Chief Design Officer at the beginning of March 2020. During the four years she was at the helm, Archinfo grew and developed into an independent player in the architecture field.
"Tiina Valpola, who had led Archinfo since its launch, had done a great job. Even the survey of actors in the field of architecture carried out by Jaana Räsänen before the information centre was set up was significant; it clearly demonstrated the need for an actor that would promote architecture as a culture sector and increase its international profile. Careful groundwork laid the foundations for the information centre’s operations," praises Harris.
The route to Archinfo was clear
In her previous role as programme director of The Finnish Institute in London, Harris had worked actively with Finnish art information centres and had noted that architecture needed its own. A few years later, when she heard about the recruitment of Tiina Valpola's successor, it was clear for her to apply.
"The director’s position at Archinfo was super exciting! I had studied urban studies at the Faculty of Political Science and design at the then University of Art and Design. I had been involved in the architecture scene since I was a baby through my architect father and later through numerous architect friends, and had worked on various architectural events and communication projects. Hence, the field was close to my heart," says Harris.
"The role of Archinfo’s director combined the internationality and networking in the cultural sector with architecture, which were all important to me. The fact that the information centre was so young and in its early stages made the role even more interesting."
Hanna Harris brought to Archinfo, in particular, her expertise in PR and media relations and the international arena. Tiina Valpola, on the other hand, was strong in social impact and architectural policy. When Harris took up her position in early 2016, plans were underway to organise a major Nordic architectural policy conference that autumn.
"It felt natural to ask Tiina to continue in an expert role and to take the organisation of the More Architecture conference to its conclusion. At the same time, I was able to strengthen my networks and contacts with both Nordic stakeholders and Finnish ministries."
A direct consequence of that conference and the close links Harris established, especially with the Ministry of Education and Culture, was the promotion of a new national architecture policy programme.
"I initiated discussions with the Ministry about launching the work for a new national architectural policy programme and why it was needed. I thought it was important to get all those working in the field of architecture around the same table."
In spring 2017, the Ministry commissioned Archinfo to prepare a preliminary study on the architecture policy guidelines. Two years later, the Ministry of Education and Culture and the Ministry of the Environment set up a working group to draft Finland’s new architecture policy programme. Archinfo acted as secretariat for the working group, and the work continued even after Harris's term as director. The programme proposal was submitted to the Council of State in January 2021, and a year later, it was adopted as Finland's national programme.
"In a way, I continue to work on the same themes in my current job, as one of my tasks is to complete the Helsinki Architecture Programme. It will be completed in 2024 as part of the actions included in the city’s current urban strategy."
A strategy to guide the organisation's activities
When Hanna Harris started at Archinfo, the foundations for the information centre were already well established, and it was time to start developing the organisation. Harris immediately began preparing the organisation’s first strategy with the Finnish Centre for Architecture board, the association which runs the information centre.
"Throughout my time as director, I received a great deal of support from the Board, especially from Asko Takala, the Chair, who I found to be a close colleague. I also received invaluable support from other board members, such as Paula Huotelin, Secretary General of Safa," says Harris.
"The strategy work was a good and necessary process, and the strategy for 2017–2022 provided an excellent basis for further development and growth."
The strategy crystallised architectural communication, international activities and social impact as Archinfo’s priority areas. Architectural education was part of social impact, and Archinfo had strong expertise and agency in this area.
"Jaana Räsänen's architectural education work was significant. Her expertise was internationally remarkable and respected," says Harris.
Archinfo received funding for a multi-year project to increase architecture education activities in Finnish cities. The project led to the creation of new architecture clubs for children and young people in various cities. Archinfo's role shifted from implementing architectural education to facilitating and coordinating it.
Around the same time, preliminary studies for a possible new museum of architecture and design were underway, and the A&DO – Learning Centre for Architecture and Design project was launched, run by the Museum of Finnish Architecture and the Design Museum with Archinfo as a partner. It was natural that the focus of pedagogical work shifted to museums. When Räsänen moved to her new position as the principal of the Arkki School of Architecture for Children and Youth in Spring 2019 and was succeeded by Eeva Astala – who also had a background in architecture education – the job title was changed to Expert of Social Advocacy, as the focus was in the newly launched architectural policy programme work.
The information centre needed a publicist
In 2016, when Hanna Harris started at Archinfo, the permanent staff consisted of three people: a director, an architectural education expert and a producer. The information centre did not have a person in charge of communications, and one of the first things Harris did with the board was to start the recruitment of a communications officer.
"It was an important recruitment, and we wanted to do it carefully. We were hoping to find someone with both factual knowledge of architecture and a communications vision. It was important that Archinfo's communications could interpret architecture in a way that would appeal to a wider audience," says Harris.
A communications officer was engaged in late autumn 2016.
At this point in the article, I should declare my involvement in the story, as I was the lucky one who became Archinfo's first communications officer and the fourth member of the team. I started in January 2017 but familiarised myself with the operations and participated in the strategy work already at the end of the previous year.
One of the actions we started with to develop Archinfo’s communications channels was the streamlining of the many different social media and online platforms. A number of channels had not been actively updated for a while, or even at all, and it seemed sensible to focus communication to match the resources available. In Archinfo’s early years, Anni Vartola had developed and edited an excellent English-language online publication, finnisharchitecture.fi, but it had since withered. On the other hand, the organisation's website, archinfo.fi, had no English-language section at all.
A complete website renewal was not an option right away, so we started by clarifying the roles of the different channels. The life of the old archinfo.fi
site was extended by reorganising the content and creating an English language version, which absorbed the content of the decommissioned finnisharchitecture.fi
site. We were able to do all this in-house, thanks to a non-military serviceman, Akseli Anttonen, who joined our team in the summer of 2018. Similar mergers of English and Finnish accounts were implemented on social media channels.
Since spring 2018, we had also been able to offer internships to students of communication or architecture. As Archinfo’s activities expanded with several projects, we were able to strengthen our communication resources further.
"Communication is at the heart of Archinfo's operations, and it was known early on that we would need two communicators. As soon as it was possible, we recruited a communications assistant for a one-and-a-half-year term. The aim was to make the post permanent at a later stage," says Hanna Harris.
Karolina Toivettula was selected for the post and continued at Archinfo until the end of 2020.
The communications activities also included the online platform Finnish Architecture Navigator. The map-based online service for Finnish architecture had been built together with member organisations during Tiina Valpola's tenure, and the site was finally launched when Harris joined Archinfo. However, the database did not yet have much content, and it proved to be a major undertaking to produce it.
We applied for funding to develop the Navigator and received a significant grant from the Finnish Cultural Foundation, which enabled us to launch the development project in 2019. We identified the projects from throughout history that should be included in the database, and for the year-long project, we hired researcher Hanna Tyvelä to produce content and create different thematic selections. The good and informative web address finnisharchitecture.fi was taken into use for the Navigator.
To Venice, full speed!
In the strategy work, one of the main reasons for Archinfo's existence was identified as the international visibility of Finnish architecture and the need to increase it. In the strategy process, the key international architecture forums were identified, of which the Biennale Architettura in Venice was considered the most significant. The objective to develop the Biennale participation into an impressive and well-established production format was included in the strategy.
Archinfo had already previously played a role in the Finnish Pavilion's exhibitions as a communication and event production partner, but the Museum of Finnish Architecture was responsible for the exhibition productions. The Ministry of Education and Culture appoints the commissioners for Finland’s national participations, and the model used for the Biennale Arte was that the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art was responsible for the Nordic Pavilion, together with the Swedish and Norwegian museums, and the information centre Frame Contemporary Art Finland was responsible for the Pavilion of Finland.
At the turn of October and November 2017, the Ministry decided to move to a similar model for the Architecture Biennale: the commissioner of the Finnish Pavilion was transferred to Archinfo, six months before the opening of the next Biennale.
For Harris, the Biennale was a familiar forum, and she had already somewhat anticipated this change. Various scenarios had been discussed among the staff, and there had been some light-hearted reflection on objectives and approaches to the exhibition and international media work, for example.
"In 2006, I was assisting my father's agency Harris–Kjisik, when their work was exhibited in Venice, and actually, since then, I had been thinking about the Biennale. But we only had six months!" Harris recalls.
"With a tight schedule, it was clear that we would go ahead by choosing the exhibition concept directly, without an open call. Some years ago, I had thought that an exhibition on Finnish library architecture should be made and the time seemed right now, as Oodi was under construction and would be opened to the public just after the end of the Biennale. In addition, the Biennale’s theme was appropriately 'Freespace'. The idea resonated with all our key partners, so we invited Anni Vartola, an architecture researcher, to think about how to bring the architectural stories of libraries to the fore."
For the fast-track exhibition production and practical matters in Venice, Archinfo received invaluable help from its sister organisation Frame, with whom it was agreed to share project manager Maikki Lavikkala between the two information centres. For the first time at the Architecture Biennale, an internship programme was carried out in connection with the exhibition, with Finnish architecture students acting as exhibition supervisors in Venice. The traineeship was also organised to benefit from Frame's experience at the Art Biennale.
At the same time, Archinfo’s producer Mikko Laak changed jobs, and for the last few months before the opening of the Biennale, Sini Parikka was brought in to assist the production. Later that year, her position was made permanent. The exhibition was accompanied by an international media campaign, also for the first time in Finland's participation in the Architecture Biennale, and we commissioned a London PR agency for the task.
"Thanks to curator Anni, exhibition designers Tuomas Siitonen and Johannes Nieminen, the incredible efforts of the Archinfo team, and, of course, the trust placed in us by the Ministry of Education and Culture, the exhibition was realised. It turned out great, and the Finnish library institution received a lot of international media attention along with it."
For the next Biennale edition in 2020, we had more time to prepare, and in 2019, under the leadership of Hanna Harris, we organised an open call for exhibition proposals. But again, the project schedule proved fatal as the global pandemic paralysed the world. We’ll hear more about that in the next part of the article series.
Networking internationally and at home
In the context of the 2018 Biennale, one more measure that has had a lasting impact is worth mentioning. During the opening week of the Biennale, Hanna Harris and Swiss Commissioner Marianne Burki launched an international network of Commissioners to which three other countries were invited. The Platform Architecture network provided mutual support and shared good practices in the Biennale production process. The network is still active, and today, the Global Commissioners Group includes the responsible organisations of more than twenty national pavilions. The network was established thanks to Hanna's good networking skills and courage to take up opportunities.
Cooperation networks were also strengthened domestically and right at home, too. The member organisations, the Museum of Finnish Architecture, the Alvar Aalto Foundation, the Finnish Association of Architects (Safa), the Association of Finnish Architects’ Offices (ATL) and the Building Information Foundation, were Archinfo's closest partners, and with two of them, Archinfo would form a close community.
When Harris started at Archinfo, the information centre was located along Kasarmitori Square in a Jugendstil building designed by architects Gesellius-Lindgren-Saarinen.
"The office spaces in an old apartment were pleasant but cramped and impractical. We couldn’t invite important guests to the office at the back of a shabby courtyard, and the office was too small to host meetings. You couldn't have fitted more workstations in there either," says Harris.
Harris started looking for new, more presentable and accessible premises for Archinfo. At the same time, Safa and ATL were also looking for new premises, and in autumn 2017, a shared space that met everyone's wishes and needs was found. The move to Malminkatu in Kamppi, Helsinki, facilitated communication between the organisations and created synergies of many kinds.
"Sharing the premises brought practical benefits, such as good meeting rooms and other shared facilities, but operating in the same premises with Safa and ATL created new kinds of opportunities on a wider scale. Our collaboration intensified, and we started to organise joint events and lobbying activities in the architecture field through our 3A community," says Harris.
Designed by Einari Teräsvirta, the premises in the office building from 1972 were bright and functional, although Archinfo's own office soon became cramped, with up to seven people working on different projects at the same time. Archinfo grew and developed rapidly. At Hanna's farewell party in early March 2020, I listed the names of all the people who had worked at Archinfo during her four years as director: a staggering 19 names.
Not only a large number of people inside and around Archinfo but actually also the whole Finnish nation can be grateful for Hanna Harris' networking and inspirational skills, as Hanna played an elemental role in ensuring that on Alvar Aalto's birthday on 3 February, Finnish flags will fly across the country. Hanna rallied the troops behind the proposal for the official flag-flying day and persevered with keeping it on the fore, making it easy for us who remained to bring the matter to the finish line. Let's remember this next February when we hoist the Finnish flag in celebration of Alvar and Aino Aalto and Finnish architecture and design again!