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Wilson meets Wirkkala and Finnish nature

Reija Hirvikoski

I’m standing beside Tapio Wirkkala Park (TWP) in Helsinki in the middle of the first and most furious snowstorm this winter and trying to take photographs of it. The snow whips my face and covers the park bit by bit. I have a feeling that my lonely site-specific performance is being watched through all the windows around me. This is my third time here. I visited the area just after the opening, late one evening and now I wanted to study what happens when the Nordic winter meets with Wilson’s design. It’s pure drama.

It was Tapio Wirkkala’s (1915–1985) daughter, artist Maaria Wirkkala who first suggested inviting Robert Wilson to be the designer of the park for the memory of her father, a Finnish designer and sculptor. Wilson had used in 1981, a photograph of Tapiola Wirkkala’s Ultima Thule sculpture, as a backdrop in a theatre performance at the Piccolo Teatro in Milan. The park is located just behind the old Arabia factory, in the heart of new housing development by the sea. From the very beginning (year 2000) the idea of the whole housing estate was to include a lot of art and artist into it. Design is now everywhere in the area: factories, shops, art schools and the new layer of artworks. The planning phase of Wilson-Wirkkala Park lasted 9 years. It was due to lack of funding, lack of understanding of who would be responsible for paying the development of the actual park, and whose responsibility the art would be. This kind of public place has never before been built in Helsinki or Finland. The art coordinator Tuula Isohanni needed to have a decision for World Design Capital Helsinki 2012 to get the idea finally ongoing. The actual constructions by the city of Helsinki collaborating with the Helsinki Art Museum took place during 2012; Tapio Wirkkala Park was officially opened in the middle of October.

Wilson writes, “Designing a theatre play, a chair, a house, an exhibition or an entire city fundamentally is the same. The architectural space tells us a story”. Since his first visit to the site in 2004, he wanted to create the park as a performative piece of architecture. Wilson wanted to design a place for the Arabianranta area where its inhabitants could meet. In 2007 he invited architect Serge von Arx, who’s been working with him since 1998 to collaborate with the project. The first sketches were already made then. Von Arx’s role was to turn them into reality. He says that their artistic relationship, the way they relate to the world is architectural. Wilson and von Arx share same kind of thinking. Tapio Wirkkala Park has been the most architectural project he’s ever done with Wilson and he calls it a “permanent performance”. The park is very much related to the intrinsic nature of scenography, because of its narrative – verbal, visual or acoustic. This concept is about our bodily perception and memory beyond; it’s not about rational understanding. The ideology behind the design is to give the audience time to relate to a dialogue with their perception and senses towards the work of art — in this park you walk through rooms of different identities. You’re supposed to feel familiar and alienated at the same time. You are free to take your own time and make your own relation with it.

The park itself is defined into 9 different, but equal squares within a large square. All the squares have different floor and ground material. The square park is at the same time turned on an angle within the site’s rectangle. “There are only two lines, a straight line and a curved line. We enter the park over curved wooden paths. The park itself is defined by straight lines, all rooms are symmetrically arranged. We explore the TWP like a theatre performance,” writes Robert Wilson. All sculptural elements that are included into the park play with the scale, dimensions and proportions within the rooms. The choice of materials: wood, metal, glass and stone come from Wirkkala’s art. There is a tall and small horse, all the standing lamps have a different height and the shapes of the stones are carefully thought. Doors fascinate Wilson; they are the entrance of any house or room. His philosophy is that architecture is about doors. In the “house” of the TWP the doors are open, giant and inviting. Mainly all of the elements are made in Finland, only the French style, marble fireplace was ordered abroad. For a long time Wilson had an idea of having an open, real fire in the park for people to use. This was never aloud by the bureaucracy of the city.

The lighting design in Wirkkala Park could not be as controlled as usually in Wilson’s artworks. In all of his productions the light plays a major role in the performance. The precise balance of the light is his trademark. Now, the stage being outdoors, it meant uncontrolled daylight and the changing variations of four Finnish seasons. From the very beginning he wanted to have light coming under the ground. During the dark hours of the day, there’s controlled light appearing under the glass tile floors and the living room lamps are shining very cosily. The whole atmosphere is changing. It is more focused. The creation looks more like a stage or an island that is floating.

Wilson always likes to work with teams, students and volunteers. Planning this park Wilson used as a processing tool a very theatrical method from German theatre: Bauprobe. He included it into the finishing process of his design. It’s a method where the scenographer and the technical crew of the theatre usually get a proper understanding of the size of the original stage design in its final scale. In one of these experiments the construction team gathered with Wilson, Serge von Arx and Helsinki Theatre Academy’s lighting design students to the location where the park would take its presence. They wanted to make sure the design had right ideas with plywood cutouts and strings. They also had a very phenomenological approach to the upcoming design. They sensed and measured the time that a visitor would spend walking from a room to a different room — what would be the time measure of the park. When you experience the whole work of art, walking around TWP, you feel the three-dimensional set of the objects and its entire perspective changing weirdly along your walk.

I’m freezing. I decide to revisit in the summer when the three rowan trees and a solitary oak, which was also Tapio Wirkkala’s favourite tree, planted in the park will be green — when the weather is sunny and hot. The edges of squares, the fences planted with hawthorn bushes will be flowering. Now the snow will unashamedly cover it all. Soon the Well of Sound, which is designed in the middle of TWP with recorded sound, will be muted and unable to tell its story under the nature’s icy deck. Would someone take care of the snow?