Architect of happiness

Finnish architect Kai Wartiainen is based in Sweden, where he is known not only as an ecological designer, but also as a radical thinker.
Photo: Maija Astikainen.

Kai Wartiainen graduated as an architect from the Helsinki University of Technology in 1981. Since the 1990s, he has made his career in Sweden and internationally. These days, he is a partner in a Finnish-Swedish group of companies and works out of Stockholm.

Wartiainen wants to shake up urban design and environmental thinking. He took an interest in environmental issues in the 1970s, when the Club of Rome, an international debate forum, published its report The Limits to Growth. It was a serious warning urging humanity to take action on environmental problems.

Wartiainen’s entire career is based on strong ecological beliefs. He thinks that being ecological is too often viewed as utopian and boring, event though it should be considered enticing.

Happiness and ecological orientation are primary concerns

Towards the end of the 1990s, Kai Wartiainen was in charge of a study, which defined assessment criteria for Finland’s first ecological residential area Eko-Viikki. His working group developed the PIMWAG criteria, which assess a building’s ecological impact from the perspective of pollutants, natural resources, healthiness, biodiversity and nutrition.

Wartiainen is also behind “the method of three logics”, according to which a city should be developed simultaneously from the ecological, social and technical viewpoints. For him, happiness, security and the self-organising renewal of nature are the central factors of planning.

While serving as Professor of Urban Planning at Stockholm’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology in 1997–2006, Wartiainen and his students studied several locations starting with the goal of identifying an ideal natural state for the area through which ecological benefits could be maximised. They would then smash this ideal by adapting the totality from the perspectives of technical and social goals. They were then assigned example customers like construction companies, which had the goal of maximising the profitability of building. The end result was always ecologically superior to the starting point.  

His student assignments also examined demolishing all of Stockholm’s high-rise suburbs. It turned out that switching the stock of buildings to ground-level housing would save a surprisingly large amount of land.

In addition, Wartiainen has been involved in a substantial project in which the entire town of Gällivare, Sweden, was moved to make way for a mine. The wishes of residents were surveyed during the planning phase of the new town. The politicians were horrified to discover that something radical would have to be done in order to convince future generations to move back to Gällivare – it would not be enough to just build daycare centres. All of a sudden, the left and the right had a common interest: how to prevent a wave of retirees leaving to be closer to their grandchildren.

Kai Wartiainen thinks that, instead of topics like traffic volumes or other technical issues, urban planning debate should start from the perspective of ¬happiness.

A living city

Wartiainen has been criticising Helsinki’s urban planning for almost his entire career. What should be done differently?

“Everything should change. People want a yard of their own or, alternatively, to live in the centre. But what’s cheapest is something that lies between these two, so suburban development is allowed to steamroll over people’s dreams and any ecologically sustainable solutions.”

Wartiainen criticises urban planning for observing the wrong kinds of norms and emphasises the development of environmental uniqueness.

“Norms are a jungle in which it is easy to get lost, and an indication of laziness – of an unwillingness to study society to see what it’s really like. All norms are already hopelessly outdated at birth because they have been created by looking backward,” Wartiainen harrumphs.  

He says urban planning in its current form intentionally produces housing shortages and maximises ugly outcomes. The city’s natural, historical layers and uniqueness have been lost. The totality is not grasped when decisions are made, and joining random ideal components results in an unworthy whole.

“They should start from the centre, which is then expand outward, instead of the other way around. Now, they’re busy making boulevards of the access roads on the outskirts of the city, which is preposterous and leads to an outcome that is the exact opposite of what was intended,” Wartiainen laments.

For him, the core question is how to enliven the city centre so that it attracts people.

“They can’t even lure any EU agencies to Helsinki because there isn’t enough restaurants and other urban fun stuff that people demand of a city centre.”

Uncompromising pioneer

Kai Wartiainen says he at times feels unable to combine his ecological ideas with practical work. Sometimes his uncompromising environmental thoughts have also stemmed the flow of interesting commissions. The way he calculates a building’s ideal energy consumption has often been considered radical, unnecessary or impossible to realise. Without being overly sarcastic, Wartiainen notes that the current energy consumption figures of buildings correspond with the numbers he put forward long ago. Now, the challenges have just moved a few notches further.  

“I won a design contest in Norrköping in 1986–87, but it was 30 years before I got to realise my first work there. Back in the day, they told me that I was a really nice person, but clearly out of my mind,” he chuckles.

Wartiainen took part in another design contest when building plans were once again activated in Norrköping in 2013. The challenge was to conserve an old industrial milieu and to take advantage of the river, which flows through the site, as a building location. 

Wartiainen and his partners won the contest. In 2016, the Katscha apartment building won the biggest real estate accolade in the world, the MIPIM Award, as well as the Housing Prize at the Architectural Awards of Architects Sweden.

Wartiainen thinks a distinct spirit must be created for an area: the kind of environment that people want to come see. He mentions Catholic Europe, where a certain kind of chaos draws people in. As an example, he points to Venice, whose attraction is based on the fact that it is something entirely different from the environment that people have at home.

“Purely rational design produces nothing but rubbish. The central part of a design must always be inspiringly -irrational.”

•    Kai Wartiainen (b. 1953) is a Finnish architect and professor.
•    His works include the High Tech Center in Helsinki’s Ruoholahti district and the Grani shopping centre in Kauniainen.
•    Professor of Urban Planning at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, 1997–2006.
•    In 2000, he and his wife, the architect Ingrid Reppen, founded a design firm in Stockholm, which adopted the name arkitektur + development in 2011.
•    Winner of several international awards.

This article is originally published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 21, January 2018.  (

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