People develop strong emotional ties to constructed environments. Many get deeply attached to their home buildings and struggle to fit in built environment they do not like. From the Roman Colosseum to the Notre Dame of Paris buildings act as symbols of human societal features and different time periods.
Consequently, architects are sometimes lifted into the status of heroes thanks to their contributions to national constructed culture. Associate professor in architecture Anu Soikkeli has never been interested in that side of the job. Her interest in human culture and the role of the average individual have been the driving forces of her career.
“Architecture creates wellbeing through built environment. How a normal person experiences that culture has always fascinated me.”
In her work, Soikkeli teaches and guides architecture students at the University of Oulu. She gives lectures, supervises diploma works and designs features with her students, colleagues and external organisations such as the Council of Oulu Region. She does not have time for her own research every day. But when she does, she currently takes great interest in the study of small northern villages.
Soikkeli is excited about her role as the associate professor in Arctic Architecture and Environmental Adaption (part of Arctic Interactions and Global Change profile area). As a part of a multidisciplinary team, she feels that her wide research focuses have come together in a way that can potentially influence the development of Arctic studies into a new direction.
Soikkeli first got interested in architectural history in the 1990s while specialising in building renovation. Historical themes carried on to her further studies. In 2000, she dedicated the topic of her doctoral dissertation to old Finnish parsonages.
“At the time I felt that much of the Finnish architectural heritage wasn’t appreciated or studied enough. It is sad that we are losing so much of our cultural physical landscape in the form of buildings. In Finland today, for example post-World War Two reconstruction era buildings are often getting demolished, some for practical reasons and some for others.”
Soikkeli found her way into her childhood dream job of being a teacher once she became a permanent member of the teaching staff at Oulu School of Architecture. She specialiased in the history of architecture and renovation planning. Simultaneously, she herself felt drawn to study further and this time outside her own field.
In addition to studying Saami culture at the Giellagas Institute, Soikkeli took on a challenge many researchers would shudder to think of: she enrolled to write a second doctoral dissertation, this time in history. She graduated as a Doctor of Philosophy in 2014, writing on a topic that was very personal to her.
“When my father-in-law, an architect himself, passed away, I inherited his whole archive. My initial idea was to use his writings to compose a story for my children about his life. However, the researcher in me woke up in an unexpected fashion once I started to go through all the papers. I got interested in how the changing role of the architect changed through twentieth century during the long career of my father-in-law.”
Soikkeli thinks that the methods she learned in history studies and the new connections she made have been very helpful to her. Above all, she feels that history studies have considerably widened her research perspectives. She has started to see the broader implications of built environment. She now views architectural history as way to help make sense of societal changes. The experiences people go through reflect on both physical and non-physical cultural legacy.
The multidisciplinary Arctic
In recent years, Soikkeli thinks her viewpoint as a researcher has developed greatly. She has started to incorporate societal context as a more concrete part of her research as well as in her architectural teaching. Furthermore, she now feels that her focus has shifted into viewing Finnish architectural heritage in the context of a far wider international and particularly northern perspective.
“University of Oulu is branded as an Arctic University. I feel that in order to properly do that role justice, the projects undertaken at our School of Architecture should not only deal with more northern topics, but to engage with the residents of northern areas, including the Saami people. Architects should listen to suggestions and perspectives of the locals in order for their work to have true practical value.”
As a part of the Arctic Interactions and Global Change profile area, Soikkeli has gotten a chance to take part in some of the most exciting field work of her life. As a recipient of a visit grant, she travelled to Western Alaska to learn how local indigenous group members identify with and experience their environment. A local village of Shishmaref has been the subject of intense media interest as an example of a community forced to relocate due to the effects of climate change.
“While there, I learned that the locals don’t feel like their voices are being heard in the planning process of their new village. People of different cultural backgrounds experience their environments very differently. The only way to really serve their interests as architects is to engage with their way of life.”
Her experiences in Alaska further strengthened Soikkeli’s views in that architecture studies should be more multidisciplinary in order to better enable communal planning of environments. Through her studies in history she feels her own mindset has widened significantly and helped her understand how people use constructed space. Architects build spaces for people and thus the voices of the affected people should be a significant part of the design process. Soikkeli argues that multidisciplinary approaches can be incredibly useful in many fields of Arctic studies, not just in architecture.
“A colleague of mine, Emerita professor Riitta Nikula once called an architect something in between an art historian and an engineer. I see myself very much in this. I hope to be able to bring the perspective of such an architect into the study of the Arctic environment and interactions.”
Text: Raita Niva
Main photo: Anu Soikkeli
Photos: The village of Shishmaref in Alaska.
Last updated: 19.5.2020