Turku, Raisio, 'stersund, and Nacka Strand

Vesa Honkonen

The fourth time was the charm for a young Vesa Honkonen. Only eight percent of applicants are accepted into Finland’s three university-level architecture schools, Honkonen says, but “I decided I would try for as long as it took, I felt it was my way.” After three rejection notices, the aspiring designer matriculated at the University of Oulu.

Success came swiftly thereafter. Honkonen won the first school-wide competition of his Oulu tenure, exhibited a concept at the Venice Biennale in 1985, and three years after graduation, during a 1993 trip to New York, he was hired by Steven Holl as project architect overseeing Holl’s forthcoming Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma. After the building’s completion in 1998, Honkonen founded his eponymous office back in Helsinki, which today operates from a converted hair salon.

And yet Honkonen’s path wasn’t nearly so straightforward. The architect has practically embraced a jumble of experiences, which, in turn, broadened his scope to include other design disciplines like lighting. While still a student, he began working with local architecture firms like Pekka Salminen. “I did one school, and I just hated that I didn’t know about the light fixtures,” Honkonen says of his time working in Salminen’s office. “I started studying lighting on my own.” In 1995 his first production luminaire was released by the Danish lighting manufacturer Louis Poulsen.

Just as Kiasma was wrapping up, Honkonen was invited by the city of Turku, Finland, to execute a lighting project stretching from the mouth of the Aura River to its Halistenkoski waterfalls. Honkonen expresses bewilderment at how certain jobs find him, but he pulled off the Turku commission deftly. At night, dashes of light run along the river’s retaining walls, trees are uplit, and, on one street that creeps away from the waterfront is dotted with Honkonen’s custom street lamps that project spots as well as diffuse light. These works weave disparate landscape features and buildings ranging from endearing historic structures to mid-century monoliths, and the city sets aside some capital each year to realize Honkonen’s complete master plan. “The structure of light has been created by the need and the process of fulfilling the need in the most economical way,” Honkonen wrote in a 2006 monograph about undoing the disparate luminaires and color temperatures that had been installed in Turku over the previous decades. “There is no one to blame.”

A concurrent phenomenon, on the other hand, has some very clear culprits. Since the 1960s Sweden and Finland have undergone rapid auto-centric suburbanization at the expense of their traditional cores. “There were too many communities that moved too fast to tear down their historic centers. Now, in the last five to 10 years, supermarkets and other shopping on the edge of town are causing the centers to die,” Honkonen explains. “And communities are considering how to keep the center alive so it doesn’t turn into a barren and dangerous place.”

One of these communities is Raisio, located near Turku. “We had family friends in Raisio, and as a small child I saw this new center get built. But I did not know what was happening.” The city did not merely neglect its original center, but sliced through it with a highway, crudely lacing it to a new development zone with Brutalist buildings and pedestrian bridges.

The city had already decided to demolish some of the sorer concrete thumbs that had been constructed during the highway project when it approached Honkonen to restore some identity to this former core. Completed in 2002, Honkonen did so with a few simple, poetic gestures that drew largely from his lighting expertise. A net containing 220 downlights was suspended over the Raisio road, creating a sense of enclosure that has inspired drivers to tap the brakes. A series of dramatically uplit water features line the highway to entertain pedestrians on either side—and to provide an acoustical barrier from the traffic. And Honkonen applied colored lighting and wood slats to a remaining pedestrian bridge that connects the former core with more recent buildings.

If Turku established Honkonen’s ability to deal with public spaces in a literally lighthanded way, the Raisio project sealed his reputation. So while his small studio takes on residences, product commissions (Honkonen just finished a new stacking chair for Kiasma), and institutional and commercial projects, the architect, who turns 50 in October, has become what he calls “an ER for dying marketplaces.

What to do with Östersund’s square, which hosted the occasional festival but was otherwise empty, for example? Currently the northern Swedish city is considering Honkonen’s proposal to create a raised datum in the center of the plaza for hosting events and leave its perimeter at grade. Honkonen believes the move will effectively shrink the plaza’s scale on a day-to-day basis, forcing pedestrians to walk nearest to the storefronts that had been losing business to the suburbs. Light-transmitting concrete installed around this edge will activate the streetscape with their dynamic shadows, and metaphorically double the number of people who occupy the space.

Whereas the Raisio redo largely suspended lighting from above, Honkonen’s vision of Östersund started from the ground up. The architect revisited that tack in Nacka Strand, located not far from Stockholm. For a recently completed seaside plaza nestled among a series of 1980s office buildings, Honkonen turned a small bissecting road over to pedestrian use. Instead of bollards, an LED-studded undulating concrete surface evoking distant waves keeps cars to their slow, appointed route, and invites skateboarders to plug their iPods into the site’s permanent loudspeakers and get rolling. Acrylic benches with embedded fluorescent lamps glow from within, and 50 concrete partitions containing 10,000 programmable LEDs establish vignettes within the plaza and guide pedestrians from one building or view to the next.

Regardless of specific strategy, Honkonen clearly does not resort to historicist recreations in order to improve public space. Rather, the glittering edges of Nacka Strand encapsulate Honkonen’s approach to lighting public space. “I understand darkness as the origin for all lighting,” he says. “You give meaning to emptiness by defining the border.” Darkness allows users to retreat into personal cocoons even if out in the open. And in one important nod to history, Honkonen’s respect for darkness underscores Scandinavians’ tradition of coping with midnight sun—or none at all.