Donor story - Yrjö Sotamaa: ‘Supporting the university is about building our own future’

Professor Emeritus Yrjö Sotamaa has a long history in design – a career that has taken the design student to become a teacher, professor in Finland, the United States, China and England, and long-time rector of former University of Arts and Design Helsinki. Sotamaa is still an active design influencer both at home and internationally. He is now also a monthly donor to his former school and employer.
A man with glasses looks at the camera, with summer nature in the background
Photo: Linda Nguyen / HS

What's going on in your life at the moment?

‘I'm doing well, thank you. I just had a meeting earlier today at Teos publishing house, there's a new book launch coming up soon. The book is about how Aalto University was created, and how such an extraordinary operation was possible at all at that time. For the book, we have interviewed a wide range of decision-makers from the time, including former prime ministers and other ministers, business leaders, professors, alums, students and, of course, fierce opponents.

International cooperation, which is important to me, still continues in many directions. Cooperation with China is not as easy as it used to be, but it is still important, and we need to think about how to take it forward. I am still involved in the development of the Cumulus organisation, and also participate in various competition juries and conferences. There are also interesting collaborative projects such as the very inspiring new national project, Vitality through Culture, which is underway with cultural thinkers and localities. But there is also time for gardening, family, grandchildren and cultural hobbies, I find a good balance between these.’

You have a long career at our university. What kind of memories do you have of your time here?

‘I've had the rare opportunity to do interesting things with so many great and very different people for a long time. Constantly learning new things, developing education and research in many different ways, various international exhibitions and conferences, and big strategic projects – it was a great time! The best part were the people. And, of course, the work that mattered and had an impact.

The idea that I had at the beginning of my studies in the 1960s, that design is important and good for this country, has been a driving force. Although our country is small, it is in this field that we have, through courage and original thinking, reached the top internationally. The idea of the usefulness of design has been important to me, meaning both practical benefits and cultural and aesthetic benefits.

When I began my studies in 1965, there were only a few hundred of us in the rather cosy and shabby Ateneum. Now we sit here in the new, magnificent building of the internationally acclaimed School of Arts, Design and Architecture in the middle of a bustling creative campus. It is an extraordinary story of growth. My memories are full of great people, great ideas, and also results that have touched people.’

What have been the highlights of your career?

‘A particularly significant turning point was certainly the move of the University of Arts and Design Helsinki to shared premises in Arabia district in Helsinki in 1986. Coincidentally, I also became the school's rector at the same time. Until then, we had been having short of almost everything, including confidence. It was the bright new beginning. It was a wonderful and stimulating experience for the whole community. The upward trend was set in motion and the relationship with society was built in such a way that the school was seen as an important actor to support. It created a new atmosphere of enthusiasm and set in motion many good developments.

Another important turning point was when, in September 2005, I presented the idea of merging the three universities into one Aalto University. It was a surprising and quite exceptional idea. However, the proposal was based exactly on the same philosophy as the idea of Carl Gustaf Estlanedr, the founder of the Sculpture School (Veistokoulu) in the end of the 19th century: to create a university that would help Finland to develop and succeed. The time was right for the proposal and the decision-makers of the time understood the importance of my proposal.

Both these highlights were turning points that have created paths for many new and flourishing developments. Central to both has been the idea of actively seeking to contribute to building a better world. Universities have a central role to play in this.’

Aalto University was born almost 15 years ago. How do you look at it now?

‘It seems that the university is developing in a good direction. I've learned that the process of change is often slow, much slower than one would hope, and it builds on community learning – that people learn to work together in the community, it takes time. I think a lot of things have gone in the right direction. New people have taken up new opportunities with determination, brought enriching creative thinking to the community and raised the level of ambition.

A man looks at the camera, a picture of him drawn by a child is framed on the wall behind him
Yrjö Sotamaa and a picture of grandfather drawn by granddaughter Sira. Photo: Sotamaa's family album

It was hard to imagine in autumn 2005 what this would become, but the project came to fruition remarkably quickly, and progress has brought us this far. Now we just need to actively pursue renewal. We can be proud and satisfied that Finland has a university like this. It is an extraordinary idea, even on a global scale, to build a university on diversity and creative cooperation.

The atmosphere in the community is good, and that is absolutely crucial. It seems that people trust each other. Equally important is the diversity of the community and the creativity that comes from a wide range of people working together in an open way.’

What inspired you to donate to the School of Arts, Design and Architecture?

‘I have seen that we need to develop a culture in Finland where those who have made a good life for themselves through education give something back. There’s not enough money in a small state longer enough, we also need a culture where people decide to support the things they consider important, such as education and research. Universities are the future of Finland. I think the school has done a good job and it is definitely worth supporting.’

What is your message to other alums and current students?

‘Supporting the university is about building our own future. Support creates the conditions for the university to build a future for Finland and to secure its development. Finland has gone through a huge evolutionary curve in the last 100 years. Finnish society has made it possible for many people's standard of living and wealth to develop enormously, and one would think that some of that wealth could be given back voluntarily to society and the university. A small stream becomes a mighty river when enough people get involved.

If a university succeeds in attracting the right kind of people, giving them opportunities to realise their ideas and dreams, and supporting them to do so, then the creative community works well.

The key is to get the best and brightest students, and let them do what they want, what they think is important, and think far enough ahead. I'm not talking about the problems of today and tomorrow, but we need a long enough perspective – we need to be able to think 50 years ahead.’

Aalto-yliopisto Taiteiden ja suunnittelun korkeakoulu, Näytös 19

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