On the seashore

On the seashore – design of Nokia’s headquarters in Espoo, Finland

Peter Davey

A company headquarters which uses simple energy saving devices to enhance a strong plan and section that generate dramatic and welcoming spaces.

Nokia must be Finland’s most well-known company. Yet only a decade ago, it was still one of those big rather faceless conglomerates of the kind which emerged from farmland and forest during the very late Nordic industrial revolution to produce everything from timber and paper, tyres and contraceptives, to aluminium and cables. Nokia’s decision to focus on data communications greatly increased its turnover and staff numbers, and in 1994, a competition was held to find a design for a new headquarters building. It was won by Helin & Siitonen, who had already been chosen in a 1983 competition – a design abandoned as slump and company reorganization had their effect.

The site remained the same. The tip of a wooded peninsula in the raggle of land and sea to the west of Helsinki at Espoo has been cut off by one of the motorways which conveniently but ruthlessly slice across forested islands and open water. One reason for choosing the place was its proximity to the famous planned settlement of Tapiola. More importantly, it is close to the Technical Research Centre of Finland and the Otaniemi University of Technology (which incidentally includes the fabled Helsinki architectural school).

The parti of the new building is very strong and simple. Two rectangular atria are arranged on an axis which runs roughly northwest to south-east, parallel to the shore. Triangles of office space are set on both sides of the atria, so creating two squares in plan which are linked by the entrance and (on upper floors) glazed bridges. To the west, the main building is partly shielded from the motorway by the elegant grey arc of the mesh-sided three-storey car park; between the two is a calm entrance court. To the east, Nokia House looks over sea and islands towards the city; in front, there is a cycleway and a promenade, required by the Espoo local authority plan to allow all citizens to enjoy the sweep of Keilalahti Bay’s granite shoreline. The building’s height has been carefully arranged to coincide with the tops of the surrounding trees, so that from the sea the main bulk does not protrude too severely against the skyline of the forest beyond the motorway. But there is no attempt at naturalness. The two glass-clad prisms with their transparent link form a very precise artefact shining smooth against the amorphous dark green background.

Closer inspection reveals a building with a life of its own behind the crisply detailed but impassive tightly stretched grey outer skin. Surprisingly, this is the first double facade to be made in the Nordic countries and, even more curiously, the decision to surround the building with a continuous thermal buffer was taken quite late in the design process. Pekka Helin claims that the payback time for the additional investment in terms of energy and fuel saved will be only seven years. The system is one of the simplest imaginable. The glass skin is bracketed off the heavily insulated precast concrete inner wall. In that, windows are openable and do much to reduce the need for artificial cooling. In summer (or at any other hot time), cavities become thermal chimneys by simply automatically opening louvres on the inside of the parapet that surrounds the roof. In winter, the louvres are shut and cavity air becomes an insulating layer. The gridded metal walkways in the cavity provide a measure of shade in summer, and long glancing winter light can be modulated by blinds, which, with the opening windows, show something of the inner life of the building through the grey glass skin. Other devices for controlling internal temperature and reducing use of artificially generated energy include a sophisticated heat exchanger in the air-conditioning system which utilizes much of the waste energy for either heating or cooling, and chilled ceilings which balance temperature in individual offices.

None of all this is very apparent when you go into the building. The glazed link between the two squares transports you from the noise and pollution of the motorway, which (though muted) are still appreciable in the entrance court, to the calm of long views of sea and trees with, vaguely glimpsed on the horizon, the towers of the city. When you go in, the glass entrance hall with its sloping east wall soars upwards with the thin trussed laminated wood bridges delineating space into layers. Colours are predominantly cool and neutral with a black slate floor, grey powder-coated steel glazing structures and white columns. To left and right, the big spaces of the atria beckon with a much warmer palette of colours. This level is the one on which visitors are allowed (as usual in such companies, work in the offices is perceived to be so secret that few outsiders are allowed upstairs). Small ground floor meeting rooms overlook the bay and the right-hand atrium houses two auditoria, with the semi-circular bulk of the larger one dominating the lower part of the space.

The other atrium is the more dramatic. In plan it is identical, but without the auditorium, its organization is much more immediately clear. The short sides are open galleries which act as lift lobbies, bringing you out to dramatic views of the big space. Generous spiral staircases link the galleries for single floor journeys (and longer ones for the more athletically inclined); with glass treads and balustrades, the stairs do not dominate but make an elegant sculptural sketch against the galleries. The long sides of the atrium are fully glazed, with cellular and open-plan offices overlooking an interior volume flooded with light from the sloping glass roof. (Getting light into the middle of deep plans has been one of the preoccupations of Finnish design during this century, for in such northerly latitudes, so dark in winter, daylight is precious and cherished; in this case, it also obviously reduces the need for artificial illumination).

At ground level is the firm’s restaurant, a large calm uncluttered space. Its beautifully chosen cherry-wood floor makes the place warm and welcoming, and indeed the austere elegant greyness and transparency of the whole space is made cheerful with deft touches of ruddy wood: red oak ceilings in the galleries, wooden furniture in the offices, wood strip walls round the dining area, and even wood on the nosings of the spiral stairs – a detail that could have been clumsy, but which serves here to make the cold steel and glass more approachable.

The office triangles each offer about 1000 square metres of usable floor space and can accommodate between 40 and 80 people. Planning can be varied easily, but so far consists of a mixture of Burolandschaft and individual cells that take up most of the perimeters and look over the bay, across the motorway to the forest or down into the atrium. As usual with such deep plan combi-office arrangements, the middle of each floor is the darkest, most introverted and least desirable place to be in. The architects suggest that meeting rooms and similar contained spaces be located here, but such arrangements do not seem to be universal.

With this reservation, the building is a strikingly successful example of its type. Most of us would prefer not to work in an office castle isolated from urban life, approachable only by car or an elaborate bus journey. In the Nordic countries, work patterns perhaps make such a life more bearable, for lunch breaks are brief and time in the office is (for most people) rather shorter than elsewhere. Such places are becoming increasingly common, and if you have to work in one, Nokia House must be one of the best, with its stunning views of the Tapiola landscape and cheerful, luminous internal public spaces.


Helin & Siitonen, Helsinki

Partner in charge

Pekka Helin

Project team

Erkki Karonen, Harri Koski, Mariitta Helineva, Jutta Haarti-Katajainen, Seija Ekholm, Karl Uusi-Heimala, Yrjo Wegelius, Anne Jylha, Pertti Ojamies, Antti Laiho, Totti Helin, Tarja Hilden, Virpi Karonen, Titta Lumio, Kaarina Livola, Kirsi Pajunen, Katariina Takala, Sanna-Maria Takala


Voitto Niemela

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