Maiju Suomi, architect


April 2024

Photo by:

Maiju Suomi

When I was in high school, I wanted to be a National Geographic reporter who takes photos and writes beautiful stories about distant places. Then I wanted to be a philosopher, a cultural anthropologist, a biologist, a political scientist, a journalist and a writer. I was always interested in art and pretty good at math. So I went to architecture school. In the end, I managed to combine all the previous dreams into this profession.

Alusta Pavilion Architects Elina Koivisto & Maiju Suomi photo: Anni Koponen

One of the formative experiences during my studies was when I went on an interplay of cultures course to Cambodia. I think the realization of the political, ecological and societal significance of the work and the potential of the profession of actually changing things in the world became clearer to me. Together with five other students we formed a work group called Komitu and built a youth center for the local community. We collaborated with two local NGOs. Everything we did was based on participation and empowerment of the participants and that we'll try to gather as much local knowledge as possible from the community.

Architecture has this very practical and pragmatic task of sheltering us and giving us the spaces to live our lives and encounter each other in. Another task is the possibility to communicate different cultural values through architecture and to shape society.

Architecture is never neutral.

An example of how I have been approaching this together with my colleague Elina Koivisto, is the Alusta pavilion.

Alusta is like a test site for how to build according to different values. As its name suggests, Alusta is a platform for environmental discourse and multispecies encounters at the same time. Whether we could question this human exceptionalist mindset and what architecture would then feel and look like if it was built on another kind of set of values. The idea that we are all part of nature, that all of us have an equal right to exist and live well. What could be done to sustain life in its diversity and what could the potential of architecture be? We found that many of the design solutions were beneficial to both humans and the other species.

I've always been really interested in the experience of space, the poetics of space and beauty.

I was very focused on the aesthetics. I've been reading post-humanist, eco-feminist philosophy and about concepts of interconnectedness and multi-species care and the more than human world. What could we do in space that could somehow work with these concepts and ideas and make them tangible for people to experience?

All through the design process, Elina and I tried to invite different people who might have something interesting to bring into the project or who might somehow benefit from learning with us in the project. We wanted it to be an educational process in itself and participatory. We hoped that we could give learning experiences for students. The project was shaped by these interactions with different human makers in the process.

As architects we are educated into the needs of human species. We should be educated into supporting well-being of humans. We needed a lot more information from ecologists about the needs of the plants and other species. We were hoping to bring in as many plants as possible that would be beneficial for the pollinating insects. Environmental questions should be forming the basis for all architectural education today in the world.

I would say in Western context, most buildings are built on this human exceptionalist idea of us existing outside nature, separate from nature, above the rest of nature, so that we can see all other animals and plants and inanimate nature as resources for our well-being.

Conceptually I am thinking about this dividing wall between humans and nature, culture and nature. If you take that into practice and start to think how these two could have more connections together, the idea of porosity comes to your mind. We wanted to really embody that in the aesthetics of Alusta. It is a cultural message and simultaneously a practical choice that different life forms can move through the structures. Plants can go through the structures and insects can make their nests inside the blocks.

Komitu architects: Noora Aaltonen, Sisko Hovila, Tuuli Kassi, Elina Koivisto, Maiju Suomi ja Inari Virkkala.

We chose materials that would erode with time and the natural processes like rain and sunshine because we wanted to embed the idea of change and changeability into the space itself. In Alusta, we wanted to use clay because we were excited about soil and biodiversity in soil. In the end, we built almost everything out of earth.

Most of the materials that are tied to a building have a much longer lifespan than one human life. It is crucial to think what materials are chosen to be used in a building, where do they come from, what kind of an impact they have, socially and environmentally where they are extracted from. What happens in a building when they are tied to the building, how they affect our human bodies and non-human bodies in that place.

When they are released from the building, what happens to them afterwards, how do they affect the world?

After the human construction phase was over, the plants took over. Our role in that process practically was to enable the participation, to guide along the values that we were hoping to implement in the project. When we think of any building and Alusta as an example, was it really made by the designer? No. Did the designer have complete aesthetic autonomy in the project? No.

We wanted to give this creative agency or voice also to the non-human participants, the plants. We don't usually value the plants as the ones who sustain us. If we were to be more aware of these systems, perhaps our values would be different. We do not realize we breathe, we don't really think where the oxygen comes from.

I grew frustrated of the idea that sustainability is just a technoscientific quantifiable aspect of energy and material use. What about the aesthetics and the experience? What about the sense of well-being and the sense of awe, the sense of amazement in places and the possibility to affect people's minds through that? Or making a calm, contemplative atmosphere where we can rethink our position in nature. The Japanese architect Hiroshi Sambuichi has influenced me in his poetic way of communicating through space how natural processes are part of shaping our experience of the world. He talks of working with moving materials: the air, water and light using them almost as equal with the solid materials like rock and wood, which are there to guide the movement of the moving materials. Because space is my language of communication, I want to try to communicate these ideas through space.

Photo: Susanna Alatalo

Nowadays people are interested in what they can do in their own gardens and how to care for pollinators and other non-human creatures. You can gather clay in your garden so that birds and insects can use that as construction material for their nests. You can take a political stand on conserving urban nature. The value of forests in the city is so great that if we don't encounter other nature than ourselves in our everyday life, how do we ever learn to care for it? How do our children learn to care for it if it's not there?

For me, these projects are a form of cultivating hope. Making something that not only minimizes negative impact but aims at having a positive impact in reaching both biodiversity and cultural diversity. I hope through this kind of an attitude that there is little more hope in the world.

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