Contemporary Ruins of Kruunuvuori
The Perfect Ghosts of Helsinki
Contemporary Ruins of Kruunuvuori is a proposed archival project located within the triangle of ‘aesthetics of waste and heritage’; ‘materiality of memory’; and ‘significance of Things’.
A brief historical record of the Kruunuvuori Villas, by Ali Akbar Mehta
In in the midst of an old forest, next to a pond that could be anywhere in wilderness is the area of Kruunuvuori, which in the etymology of Suomi means ‘The Crown Mountain’ – which is about three kilometers from Market Square in the very center of Helsinki as the crow flies – has ghostlike old villas hidden amidst ancient forest left at the mercy of nature, with only the slow inevitable passing of time as its companion. Dilapidated and forgotten for decades, these villas still struggle against elements and time.
The Kruunuvuori villas – one of Helsinki’s oddest and simultanously the most treasured and the most publicly well known secrets, may probably not exist for much long longer – (many believe that the year 2015 is the last year of the presumably indefinite building ban that it was placed under, and so the demolition of almost all of the villas could very well take place in the Summer of 2016). Of all the villas surviving their various states of ruins, only a few seem to be structurally sound enough to be conserved as Heritage Sites, although that they will be done so, is doubtful.
It’s hard to experience the Kruunuvuori villas without thinking of Charles Dickinson’s Miss Havisham’s abandoned mansion. After being left at the alter, the estranged character lets time be the sole master of her house and mind:
It was spacious, and I dare say had once been handsome, but every discernible thing in it was covered with dust and mould, and dropping to pieces. The most prominent object was a long table with a table-cloth spread on it, as if the feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together. An epergne or centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite indistinguishable.
– Great Expectations
It used to be a village full of villas built in 19th century, when Laajasalo and all of eastern Helsinki were just fields and forests. The stunning coastline and lush forest made it a paradise. In 1905 Jacob Cygnaeus, (the son of the founder of Finland’s previous grammar school system Uno Cygnaeus), bought the area, and in 1914 it was sold to a German commercial councellor Albert Goldbeck-Löwe. Albert Goldbeck-Löwe acquired the area and developed it into a resort for the upper classes and the wealthy Germans who lived in Helsinki, but over time it became available to the middle class masses as well. The period from 1920 to 1950 are considered the peak golden years of the Kruunuvuori villas, with a steam boat service run for the residents connecting to the main land city of Helsinki.
After Germany lost the Second World War, as part of the armistice between Germany and the Soviet Union, The Governing Body of foreign properties moved the Germany-owned Kruunuvuori to the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of Finland and it became a holiday resort for its members. After that it was used by the Soviet Union and Finnish communists.
In 1955 the founder of Palkki Oy, Aarne J. Aarnio bought the area and in the late 1960’s architectural company Toivo Korhonen envisioned a city plan for 2800 citizens with 78900 floor squares of residential development. The signature of the deed of sale was the proverbial fatal blow to the status of premium and delux villa communities. Aarnio’s interest in construction was the development of a residential area – not the maintenance of a villa area.
Drawn up in 1968, the building plan included up to 12-story tower houses. However, the city did not want to agree to such a thing, because the area was too remote, the planned infrastructure was too massive and the task of construction would have been no small thing. And so, zoning laws hindered the construction plans – Aarnio tried to get the area zonimg and building permits from the governemnt proposing the building plan in 1977 – and again in 1982 with a reduced floor area. And once again 1998 – to no avail, the city government was by now developing the southern part of the Laajasalo Peninsula – the Oil Port area for future use.
Of course, the villas still belonged to their former owners and while the community remained vibrant and active for a while, a feeling of uncertainty began to creep in and maintenance of buildings was soon being neglected. The negative successive building permit made Aarnio loose interest in the project – and the area was ordered to a building ban . Silently, the decadence faded, and decay began to seize the mountain. In an ironical twist of fate resulting from thisstalemate, more than 90% of the region is owned by the CEO, who cannot do anything with it due to non-compliance of the governement, and the City Planning project concerning the Oil port in southern Laajasalo is already underway.
The vast majority of villas are dilapidated, collapsed or burned. Last arson was 04/06/2015, when the red cottage – Lilla Kronberg turned into heaps of coal. In 2011, Helsinki was doing a study of two or three of the villa on the protection, but since then nothing has been heard. One of the possibly to-be-protected villa has been destroyed as a result of arson. The museovirastokin mapping found that two of the Kruunuvuoren villas are still active and urgent measures may still be salvageable, although the refurbishment would probably be too expensive an option.
The Crown Mountain is a mysterious place, ideally seen and experienced in person. Amongst the woods and fog stands this beautifully sad monument, a decaying memory of the old glory days of the aristocracy and high bourgeoisie that still resists the ravages of wind, snow and builders without scruples.
The possibility of alienation in a city that claims cosmopolitanism as a constant, cannot be attributed to the loss of cultural space specifically due to revisits to the city’s history, but bizarrely it has and specifically in particular covering up of history that attempts to erase many diverse histories. The Project aims to shed light and make people aware of the forgotten public and personal histories related to the Kruunuvuori Villas. it fights nostalgia by documenting it, recreating it through videos, conversations, staging ethnographic reconstructions and most importantly through a dissemination of information that is misconstrued and twisted to hide facts in plain sight.
Proposal for Contemporary Ruins of Kruunuvuori
Project Proposal by Ali Akbar Mehta
Contemporary Ruins of Kruunuvuori is a ‘Visual Anthropology Research Project’ that indexes forgotten public and personal histories related to the Kruunuvuori Villas in Helsinki. It aims to interpret layers within history that is hidden from formal narratives, and understand how ‘contemporary ruins’ are conceived and assigned cultural value. By paying attention to the marginalization of derelict materiality, the exhibition will be structured around the themes of ‘aesthetics of waste and heritage’; ‘materiality of memory’; and ‘significance of Things’.
Ruins rarely fit into the imagination of the Contemporary. In our everyday comprehension ruins bring to mind ancient and enchanted monumental structures; an archaeological dream world featuring celebrities such as Machu Picchu, Pompeii and Angkor Wat. Yet never have so many ruins been produced; so many things been victimized and made redundant, so many sites been abandoned. Closed shopping malls, abandoned military sites, industrial wastelands, derelict mining towns, empty apartment houses, withering capitalist and communist monuments. A ghostly world of decaying modern debris mostly left out of academic concerns and conventional histories, ruins still play a marginal role in the political economy of the past and present; instead becoming a play between absence and presence.
The project will be presented as a Transmedia Installation comprising:
a. Large format photgraphy and photobooks
b. Objects and ethnographic reconstructions
c. Short documentary films
d. Audio narratives and conversations
e. Heritage walks.
In the midst of an old forest, next to a pond that could be anywhere in wilderness is the area of Kruunuvuori, which in the etymology of Suomi means ‘The Crown Mountain’. It is about three kilometers from the heart of Helsinki, and plays host to ghost-like old villas hidden amidst its forest – left at the mercy of nature, with only the slow inevitable passing of time as its constant companion.
The Kruunuvuori Villas – one of Helsinki’s most treasured and publicly well-known secrets, may probably not exist for much longer. Of all the villas surviving their various states of ruins, only a few seem to be structurally sound enough to be conserved as Heritage Sites. Despite the presumably indefinite building ban, the demolition of almost all of the villas, through subversive fires and arson, could very well be imminent. The vast majority of villas are dilapidated, collapsed or burned. Last arson was on June 04, 2015; when the red cottage (Lilla Kronberg) turned into heaps of coal. In 2011, Helsinki city Museum was conducting a study of three of the villas for heritage protection, but since then nothing has been heard. One of the potentially to-be-protected villas has been destroyed as a result of arson. The museovirastokin mapping found that two of the Kruunuvuoren villas are still active and urgent measures may still be salvageable, although the refurbishment would probably be too expensive an option.
Spaces are formed by the culture and traditions of the people that inhabit them. Their personal and public histories define the character of the space itself. Spaces are transformative as well as instructive in the manner that spaces are still alive with its own history – equally fixated in its own present and looking towards its own future. A space like Kruunovuori, however, has been stripped of these aspects of its identity – not forcibly, not with violence or rage or through some kind of trauma – but through apathy and indifference. And in this sense, Kruunovuori is a site of ‘Contemporary Ruin’.
Post our introduction to Kruunuvuori as an urban curiosity, we wanted to understand the history and importance of Kruunuvuori as a historical and cultural marker. We began research by asking local residents, enthusiasts and authorities (such as the Helsinki City Museum and The City planning department), and received several citations and information on the internet as well. Unfortunately, most of this data is complete – all contain gaps in information or in their retelling, accounts that sound partly like urban legends. As part of our initial research, we pieced together a cohesive history of Kruunuvuori. This text forms the foundation of the project.
The project maps Kruunuvuori in the contexts of site, stage and structure. This kind of a mapping enables an introspective enquiry into multiple narratives at play while defining the structure of the research. On one hand the process entails a ‘museumification’ of Kruunuvuori – a process of history viewing that becomes romantic and nostalgic; while on the other hand, preserving memory, important ontological beliefs and natural rights.
a. Site: a position in context to its environment. An absolute location in terms of its cultural context, historical memory and national identity;
b. Stage: where site can be looked as transformative spaces of 'performance of the everyday;
c. Structure: where mode of building, construction; arrangement of parts, elements, or constituents can be looked as key ingredients that make up a space.
Another context of enquiry are the juxtaposition of the villas and the recent re-development of Kruunuvuorenranta, which “will be designed as a high-quality seaside neighborhood […] The built environment will be essentially urban with nature and planting brought into it. Down by the shore there will a water bus terminal, a visitors’ marina, and harbors for small boats, jetties for fishing and places for sunbathing […] Construction will start around 2010, and the area will be completed by about 2025. Approximately, a little over 10,000 people will be inhabiting this new developed area, increasing the island’s population to 17,500 people.”
While the current Redevelopement plans are being executed all around the island of Kruununvuorenranta, the villas of Kruununvuori remain abandoned in a temporal limbo. No plans have yet been formalised for them, except that they are to remain more or less a ‘Green Area’. The question of how this ‘Green Area’ will be affected by the sudden influx of development and population in the surrounding areas remains to be explored – How will the delicate ecosystem of insects, reptiles, birds and animals transform due to the occupation of heavy civilisation? How will the people inhabiting the surrounding regions react to this space viz. the usage, their own security concerns and the free entry into these spaces? Will these spaces remain as the celebrated spaces of history or eventually be looked as an eyesore in the midst of upcoming development and deterrent to ‘progress’. These are some of the issues that need to be addressed and to understand the nature of this space to enable the Ruins of Kruunuvuori to remain undisturbed.
In the end, the archival project is primarily visual anthropology, in part because it began with casual photography of a ‘tourist’ site; but also because the main element in tying all this information is photgraphic – culminating into an involving photographs, video documentary, site visits, personal narratives and historic fact based research.