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Finnish Architects in the Spotlight: Hollmén Reuter Sandman

Three women are standing in the park.

Hollmén Reuter Sandman

In May, the spotlight will be on a Helsinki-based office, particularly known for its humanitarian architecture. Hollmén Reuter Sandman, a firm that values multi-level sustainability and a place-based approach, also excels in the field of exhibition architecture.

Text: Anna Rusi

The collaboration between Saija Hollmén, Jenni Reuter and Helena Sandman began in 1995, when the trio attended a course and designed a women's centre in Senegal to support women's collective action. The office, which has won numerous awards and prizes, has designed projects not only in Senegal but also in countries such as Tanzania and Egypt.

"We want to create architecture that takes into account the specificities of the local culture, respects and responds to the state of the environment and improves living conditions for all", the architects comment.

In 2007, Hollmén, Reuter and Sandman founded the non-governmental organisation Ukumbi, prioritising initiatives aimed at empowering marginalized communities. "When Ukumbi was founded, we had already planned a Women's House in Senegal. During the process, we realised that neither an architectural firm nor a design team could do the kind of work needed for this type of project", says the office. Ukumbi is also a member of Architects Without Borders.

In rural Tanzania some girls must walk up to 30 km to reach their school. Ukumbi and its founding members Hollmén Reuter Sandman Architects have worked together with the NGO Lyra in Africa, to design and build dormitories for girls in secondary schools in Iringa region in Tanzania. photo: James Kasela

Ukumbi designs and implements buildings in partnership with locals, while sharing information on building techniques that local communities can use in the future. "As an NGO, we can more easily raise funds, share information and network with other similar actors", says the trio. Today, Ukumbi has nearly 200 members around the world. The organisation was awarded the 2009 State Prize for the Arts for promoting architecture that respects people and strengthens local culture in in low- and middle-income countries.

Hollmén Reuter Sandman's work is guided by the principles of ecological, social and aesthetic sustainability. Local and recycled materials that are appropriate to the climate of the site are important starting points for all designs. Aesthetic sustainability is ensured by considering functionality, culture and the surrounding spatial hierarchy.

The local emphasis also has a special role to play in design work. Hollmén, Reuter and Sandman underline the importance of knowing the surrounding culture and expertise – always working together with the users of the building and local specialists.

The birdhouses installed for the Concéntrico festival remained in place after the event. photo: Josema Cutillas

The office has been invited to participate in several international architecture events. At the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, they were invited by the chief curator Alejandro Aravena to present three of their African projects in the main exhibition, and at the 2012 Biennale, for example, their installation was part of a group exhibition in the Nordic Pavilion.

The latest of the trio's installations can be found in the Spanish city of Logroño, where the annual Concéntrico festival took place in April and May. The new birdhouses, which remained in place after the architecture and design festival ended, can be spotted on the edge of the city's central park.

The Bird Houses installation enriches biodiversity in the city. The recycled plywood birdhouses are decorated to match the park's spectacular stone tiling, and local expertise is again playing its part: for example, local ornithologists helped identify bird species that can find nesting sites in the new design birdhouses and the teachers at the neighbouring school use them as teaching material.

The festival guests were intrigued by the design birdhouses. photo: Josema Cutillas

"During the festival, we were invited to a workshop with schoolchildren. The children gave presentations about the birds and told us that they will study their inhabitation throughout the year", the architects explained.

Of their own exhibition projects, the trio particularly remember the contrast of scales and the different target groups. The design of the installations also provides an opportunity to explore new perspectives and relationships that can be used in the future: "The diversity of scales in the different projects also helps us to be more aware of the essentials when working on community-based building design projects in low- and middle-income countries."

Hollmén, Reuter and Sandman say they find inspiration in things that create confidence in the future. They believe that a successful project, whatever the scale, helps us to deepen our relationship with the world around us. "It is both comforting and delightful."

Read more about Hollmén Reuter Sandman’s work through this link.

Finnish Architects in the Spotlight invites architects or architectural practices to share their values and design principles through images and short texts. See Hollmén Reuter Sandman’s photo series on Instagram through this link.

All posts featured in the Finnish Architects in the Spotlight series can be found on Instagram by using the tag #FinArchSpotlight and all articles through this link.