Jenni Reuter is an architect from Finland and part of Hollmén Reuter Sandman Architects. She has been a strong proponent of working with neglected and marginalized peoples, encouraging these communities to create an architectural expression of their own which is locally rooted, participatory and affordable to the very people it serves. Jenni also teaches at Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture in, Helsinki, Finland. Jenni was in Mumbai for 361 Degrees conference where WAN’s Mumbai correspondent Pallavi Shrivastava had an opportuniy to speak to her. Edited excerpts from the interview:
How and when did you decide to become an architect and growing up as an architectural professional whose work inspired you in forming your own philosophy and creative style in architectural expression?
When I was young and thinking of what to start studying I was interested in many different fields and wasn’t at all sure that architecture was my thing. But when I started studying, having really inspiring teachers such as Juhani Pallasmaa I understood that the field is so broad that you can combine very many interests in the same profession.
Tell us a little bit about your architecture practice (its goals and vision) and any inspiring projects along the journey that led to the formation of Ukumbi NGO?
We, the Finnish architects Saija Hollmén (born 1970), Jenni Reuter (born 1972) and Helena Sandman (born 1972) started our collaboration in 1995 with the Women’s Centre project in Senegal. After the completion of the Women’s Centre in 2001 we understood that the fundraising for these type of projects is possible only through an NGO.
Ukumbi is a Finnish non-governmental organization established in 2007. The word Ukumbi is Swahili and it means a forum, veranda and a meeting place for dialogue and interaction. Our mission is to offer architectural services to communities in need. Our architectural strategy employs the use of local and traditional building techniques and customs during the planning and the construction process. Ukumbi empowers communities by involving them in the design process. Our projects are ecologically sustainable, using locally manufactured, recycled or grown building materials whenever possible. Today Ukumbi is a larger platform for several teams of architects, organizing seminars and sharing information through articles and lectures.
Our office Hollmén Reuter Sandman Architects’ projects span from interiors to urban planning. We work in Finland as well as with several underprivileged communities around the world. Apart from working as visiting critics and lecturers, we also teach at the Aalto University in Helsinki.
You have chosen a road less travelled to pursue architecture and your goals are not commercial but are more rooted in affordable and sustainable/indigenous practice for communities where such services are not easily available or have been neglected. How did this journey happen and what made you take this path?
I’ve always liked traveling and getting to know new cultures and places. My mother worked with an education project in Namibia in southern Africa for several years. At that time I studied architecture in Helsinki and when visiting my mother I started to study the local building traditions in Namibia and write about them. The following year there was a course organized from the department of Architecture in Helsinki University of Technology that went to Senegal on a field trip. I joined the course and started to work together with Saija Hollmén and Helena Sandman on the Women’s Centre project. We got so involved with the people and the place that we started to look for funding for the project. Six years later the building was ready. It was a hard but rewarding journey.
You mentioned a project in Senegal and it was truly inspiring to see you go through the entire life-cycle of project from striving for funding through designing to execution. The video you showed us at 361 Degree Conference was a high point, where end-users partake in celebration with a sense of belonging. Has it been difficult to conceive such projects which serve marginalized communities and what have been your lessons building such projects?
To get projects really rooted in a community and a place the process usually takes a lot of time. The fundraising is often slow as well. Unfortunately we have several projects that are not executed yet because of reasons we have little control over. For example, the revolution in Egypt that is taking place in the country. Our Learning Centre in Cairo is already designed, with the Egyptian fundraising made but we have been waiting for the building permit for several years because of the unstable situation in the country for the moment.
This question was raised in conference as well and I have heard several varied opinions on it. Why do you think we do not see more women in architecture and its allied services? Do women themselves choose to opt-out or it is something systematic that women choose not to aspire to for leadership positions. Do you see changes happening in terms of the industry becoming gender neutral in days to come?
I have been teaching architecture in Finland for over ten years and have seen very talented female and male students throughout the years. For the moment approximately half of our students are women. When I was studying we didn’t have any female professors, today we have several of them. I do see a change happening, but very slowly. There is still a very strong male dominance on leadership positions which I think partly is due to the ‘good brother’ system where men, probably unconsciously, help other men to proceed in their careers. Women very often have to convince even more to get the same position.
What would your advice be for young and emerging architects and what is your one big tip that you give to your students as a teacher while teaching at Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture in Finland?
I do think the most important thing you can do as a teacher is to get your students want to know more and get inspired by this broad and interesting profession.
What has been your experience traveling to India and how have the landscape, people and its built environment affected your broader understanding of architecture?
This was my first trip to India. It was a long time dream coming true. Even though the trip was very short I had the time to see many different environments. I was privileged to give a talk at the beautiful CEPT Architecture School in Ahmedabad with some interesting professors and nice students showing me around in the wonderful city. My friend, Indian architect Bijoy Jain, was kind to invite me to his extraordinary home and workshop outside Mumbai, showing some of his extremely haptic and strong buildings.
I really hope that we will be able to work with some projects in this lovely country in the near future.
Image Courtesy: Hollmén Reuter Sandman Architects