01 Feb 2017

Arppeanum building, Helsinki, by Davidsson Tarkela

Words by  Photo by Marko Huttunen

This light-touch refurbishment of a historic Helsinki building creates a modern workspace for government employees without sacrificing any of the splendour of its imperial Russian past

One of the most grandiose historic buildings in Helsinki has now become the workplace of around 175 Finnish civil servants. The staff work for the newly formed Government Administration Department, which brings together translators, lawyers, human resources personnel and the like in the splendid late 19th century Arppeanum building, just off Senate Square.

Aino Jalonen, a director in the prime minister’s office who project managed the move, explains: “The administration was working disparately across a dozen ministries, so the idea was to bring these staff together in one place, to make it more efficient and cost effective.

Finnish 2The 1869 Arppeanum sits at the heart of Helsinki‘s civic centre

Pallid pink and Venetian in style, the building was designed in 1869 by the Swedish architect CA Edelfelt for the Russian Empire, and is immediate neighbours with Senate Palace, where the president and prime minister have their offices. It has changed little in nearly 150 years, and still boasts its original cast iron staircase – so exceptional that architecture students are brought to admire it – along with some dark wood shelving and display cabinets from its recent history as a university museum.

Local firm Arkkitehdit Davidsson Tarkela (ADT) was tasked with converting three of the floors into a modern-day workspace with the lightest touch possible, because of its status as a protected building. The practice has a strong track record in sensitive restoration and recently renovated nearby Helsinki City Museum. The change of use was controversial because Arppeanum is no longer open to the public, though there is access to the main staircase and an old lecture hall with its neo-gothic panels.

Finnish 3Double doors link the rooms, giving a sense of space and grandeur

The building had belonged to what became the University of Helsinki for 145 years, housing the faculty of chemistry, a lecture theatre and exhibition halls for a natural history collection. In 2014 the university sold it to the state-owned company which looks after the state’s buildings.

Juha Lemström, COO of the operating unit of property manager Senaatti, is an architect and art historian who has spent 25 years restoring the buildings around Senate Square. He says: “The principle for this €4.8m renovation and fit out was to use the old building as it is, to leave the whole story of the building and give it a new future.”

Finnish 4Fritz Hansen chairs mix with old bookcases in the reading room

So ADT’s challenge was to improve the building’s functional features – acoustics, safety, technical amenities and such like – without changing its architectural character. This involved much protracted negotiation with the National Board of Antiquities. “The acoustic planning was the most demanding,” says Jaana Tarkela, who runs ADT with husband Aki Davidsson. Hence the heavy velvet curtains at the vast windows which, along with the sound-buffering ceiling panels and thick carpeting, significantly reduce noise levels.

As well as the drapes, Tarkela has introduced Fritz Hansen sofas, uber-contemporary pendant lights, wool carpets and state-owned modern art, all complementing a bold colour scheme on the walls that remains from the former occupants.

The rooms were only repainted ten years ago, when the building went through major restoration work. “We could not paint the walls again as the extra weight might have brought the walls down,” Tarkela says, so any signs of wear in the dark terracotta, salmon pink, slushy greens and dusty greys were touched up by specialists. “We were a bit worried because some colours are quite strong, but they are popular with the staff,” says Tarkela. “I sometimes wonder that if we could have chosen the colours, they might have been similar.”

Finnish 5New desking sits comfortably with the retained wall colours

The new occupants find themselves pioneers in their government’s efforts to radically redraw working practices throughout the public sector. Until now, these staff each had an office to themselves. In Arppeanum’s total workspace of 1,900sq m, they must now choose from unallocated banks of conventional workstations in open-plan rooms and a host of sofas, meeting rooms, pods and booths. Activity-based working (ABW) has arrived in the Finnish public sector.

In fact, Arppeanum lends itself aptly to ABW. Rather than a large floorplate that needs to be broken up with partition walls, tall furniture and felt panels dangling from the ceiling, it is already formed of a succession of 30 well-lit, pleasing rooms, their different shapes, sizes and palettes giving aesthetic and functional variety. And numerous tall double doors give workers views from one end of the building to another.

Finnish 6Open-plan space with desks and booths enables flexible working

The pièce de résistance is on the fourth floor – home of the lucky translators. The reading room was known as the Imperial Hall when it was a museum, and housed large portraits of Russian emperors. Now, ten modern Louis chandeliers from Austrian firm Wever & Ducré hang from the off-white ceiling, and pale grey drapes and a brace of Fritz Hansen chairs – also upholstered in grey – complement the dark terracotta walls, against which lean old wooden bookcases left by the previous occupants.

While the workstations, seating and lighting were bought in, ADT designed other elements itself, including the muddy-colour lockers with their hidden hinges and brass nameplates. Likewise, there are custom-made wardrobes for coats, with generous space for footwear. Arppeanum’s staff is around 70% female, and Finnish women typically keep five pairs of shoes at work.

Finnish 7Heavy velvet curtains and thick carpeting reduce noise levels

With an average age of around 50, the whole place has the atmosphere of a seat of intellect rather than a hip workplace. So, despite the ABW setup, it would be an exaggeration to describe the atmosphere as buzzy. But amid all that serious labour, there are visitors aplenty – mostly from other parts of government eyeing up the changes. Some ministries planning new premises are starting to borrow from this concept.

“Arppeanum is the pioneer in terms of ways of working,” says Lemström. And in his opinion, its influence could spread beyond its modern working practices: “This could pave the way for how other historic buildings could be treated.”

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