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  • Kivi Sotamaa

Kivi Sotamaa Lecture at IA Institute of Architecture in Buenos Aires

In this lecture, I'd like to delve into our creative work and ideas stemming from our design studio. To provide you with a comprehensive view, I'll begin by showcasing some of our architectural projects and culminate with the noteworthy "Meteorite" project, which Santiago mentioned earlier. Along the way, I'll touch upon a few other architectural ventures that set the stage for the grand finale.

First, a bit about our studio: Originally based in Helsinki, but like many others, we've experienced a geographic shift due to the post-Covid era, and now we find ourselves split between Italy and Helsinki. This blend of Finnish and Italian influences fuels our creative engine, and our diverse team, which includes my sister currently stationed in Italy, combines the best of both design cultures.

From the outset, I've always aimed to break free from the confines of traditional labels such as designer, architect, or artist. To avoid being pigeonholed, I've embraced the concept of "designing human experiences," which is at the core of our work.

To illustrate what "designing human experiences" entails, let's start with our project called "Ultima," a restaurant designed for two of Finland's top chefs. Their goal was to establish a circular economy restaurant within a historical building. Our challenge was to craft an experience that not only ensured commercial success but also encouraged diners to rethink their relationship with food, from production to consumption.

Restaurants are meant to provide an escape from everyday life, not to lecture or educate. So, the challenge was to create an environment within this commercial context that subtly enticed people to question their food-related norms. We achieved this by designing a sequence of spaces, each housing a different story, gradually drawing diners deeper into the experience. Central to this seduction were peculiar objects, which we affectionately referred to as "art objects." These objects served everyday functions but, upon closer inspection, revealed something unusual.

For instance, upon entering the restaurant, guests were surrounded by a vertical hydroponic growing system, where vegetables and spices thrived. These ingredients were harvested by the chefs in the open kitchen, prompting discussions about responsible sourcing and circular economies. Above the seating area, levitating spheres with appendages and technical gadgets caught attention—filled with crickets, they challenged diners' expectations and ignited conversations about insect-based proteins.

This surrealist approach extended throughout the restaurant, strategically engaging diners in conversations about relevant and critical issues. Columns doubling as hydroponic potato planters, glass spheres with oyster mushrooms grown from used coffee grounds, and 3D-printed hybrid creations of plants, fungi, and insects all contributed to the narrative.

As you ventured deeper into the restaurant, the architecture itself started to behave unexpectedly, further enhancing the dreamlike atmosphere. We aimed to put diners in a receptive mood, ready to experiment and question their preconceptions.

Even the smallest details, such as chairs and tables, were meticulously designed to contribute to the overall experience. Rather than presenting a monotonous array, they created a humane rhythm and variation.

The design philosophy extended from the scale of architecture to napkin holders, enhancing every aspect of the dining experience. This project beautifully exemplifies the challenge of designing for cultural change within a commercial enterprise like a restaurant. It demonstrates our commitment to combining entertainment with cultural critique, encouraging people to reevaluate their accustomed conventions.

While underlying our work are various digital design and manufacturing techniques, our primary focus today is on the strategic use of forms to achieve a desired effect.

Now, briefly, let's turn our attention to a couple of recent architectural projects—one recently completed and another still in progress. These projects tie into the overarching theme of this discussion, which is the "Meteorite" building.

Let's delve into our fascinating project known as the "UFO." This unique structure is quite distinctive—it's essentially a compact object entirely constructed from cross-laminated timber. The intriguing aspect of this project is that it's digitally prefabricated and assembled in a controlled environment, thanks to its small size. In fact, it's designed to fit neatly onto a truck bed, allowing it to be effortlessly transported to the site and placed on steel foundations. Everything is meticulously integrated, from the appliances to every other detail, ensuring it's ready for occupancy.

What's noteworthy about this project, and indeed a common theme in our recent work, is the seamless integration of digital design and prefabrication. The choice of whether to assemble on-site or in larger sections prior to transportation primarily hinges on logistics, involving factors like shipping and crane capabilities at the construction site.

However, it's essential to underscore the remarkable evolution in digital design and manufacturing technologies, particularly in the context of timber construction. Back in the 1990s, as part of the early wave of creative individuals exploring the potential of digital tools, the focus was primarily on design. At that time, digital manufacturing technologies were relatively costly. But today, we find ourselves at an exciting juncture, where we can harness the power of cross-laminated timber (CLT). CLT consists of solid timber elements, roughly three centimeters thick, laminated in various directions to form robust sheets, often measuring 12 to 16 meters in length and about three and a half meters in width. What's truly remarkable is that this material can be precisely cut by robots. This capability opens up a world of possibilities for creating architecturally unique and customizable buildings from solid timber. CLT offers the traditional benefits of timber construction, such as excellent air quality and longevity, while also inviting formal experimentation and exploration.

The UFO's design intentionally emphasizes its identity as an object. On the exterior, it strives to achieve maximum compactness, with its roof and bottom mirroring each other in a way that suggests it could be flipped upside down. It's designed to exude a sense of object-oriented strength, deliberately avoiding cues from its surroundings. Upon entering, it frames the surrounding nature dramatically. A significant feature is the generously proportioned skylight, perfectly suited for the marriage of CLT and glass. Unlike most timber construction, CLT exhibits minimal movement, allowing for large insulated glass panels without frames. This seamless combination of glass and wood opens up possibilities for creating interconnected spaces with a striking visual impact.

But the UFO project goes beyond architectural experimentation; it also explores new ways of selling and distributing architectural designs. Leveraging digital manufacturing files, we introduced the world's first architectural NFT (Non-Fungible Token). When someone purchases the NFT for the UFO, they receive not just an image but the actual manufacturing files. This means that one could acquire the design in Buenos Aires, "print" the pieces, and, given the building's small size, potentially sidestep many permitting issues. We envision these wooden architectural projects as catalysts for a green transition, rethinking the entire value chain of wood-based architecture, from design and manufacturing to assembly and sales contracts.

Another noteworthy project is "USVA," which means "fog" in Finnish, a name inspired by the frequent evening fog in front of the building. USVA combines age-old European wooden construction techniques with cutting-edge digital design and fabrication. It relies on traditional form-locking wood joints perfected over centuries, which seamlessly complement digital manufacturing. This unique synergy allows for complex joints that are virtually nail-free, presenting an exquisite contemporary take on classic craftsmanship.

USVA stands as a testament to the marriage of massive cross-laminated timber elements and post-and-beam structures. During assembly, the CLT walls for this two-story, 400-square-meter building took only two days to complete. These elements were meticulously manufactured at a central Finnish factory. The result is a building that gracefully straddles the line between contemporary and vernacular architecture. Every detail, though digitally designed and manufactured, echoes centuries-old knowledge and techniques.

If you're intrigued by wood as a construction material, this approach represents the way forward. It's a journey that combines cutting-edge digital technologies with the wisdom of traditional woodworking methods that had faded during the industrial era. Now, we have the opportunity to create elegant, durable structures that embrace the best of both worlds

The "Meteorite" project, despite its modest size, packs a punch by challenging conventional notions of residential living through sensations and experiences. We set out to demonstrate the remarkable possibilities achievable with wood and digital design and fabrication techniques, while also challenging architectural conventions, such as the concept of phenomenal transparency, where a building's exterior reflects its interior.

Situated in Kontiolahti, an area characterized by extreme climate conditions near the Arctic region in eastern Finland, the Meteorite appears as a mystical object within the forest. Surprisingly, this unconventional structure blends seamlessly with its surroundings, where ice age boulders and rock formations are not uncommon.

Every facet of the building design reflects our extensive knowledge of form. Each side of the Meteorite is distinct, employing apertures strategically to conceal its scale and size, revealing its true nature only when a human figure serves as a reference point. From the outside, it harmonizes with the forest environment, shrouded in an air of mystery, keeping its interior a well-guarded secret.

Inside, a complex constellation of interlocked boxes surrounds an open atrium that extends all the way to the sky. At the atrium's pinnacle, a generous 10-square-meter skylight offers a "James Turrell moment." Suspended seven and a half meters above the ground, a catamaran net allows occupants to immerse themselves in the space, gazing at the sky. Remarkably, there are no materials beyond the two layers of cross-laminated timber, even the furniture is integrated from the same material.

This project's organizational concept, which I've termed the "Misfit," draws inspiration from Jean Nouvel and Philippe Starck's proposal for the Tokyo Opera House. It entails the deliberate misalignment of an external wall and an internal wall, creating a space between them, known as the "poche." This area serves multiple purposes, accommodating appliances, technical systems, storage, and unique indentations while also providing insulation and a means for air circulation.

The Misfit concept holds vast potential, not only from a technical perspective but also in terms of experiential possibilities. It allows us to design an outside experience that orchestrates an inside experience. The Meteorite exemplifies this idea, with intricate boxy forms within the polygonal shell connected by "window tunnels." These tunnels are so deep that some even double as sleeping areas.

Our aim is to redefine the lifestyle and aesthetics of wood architecture, especially in Scandinavia, where tradition and convention often dominate perceptions of this material. We aim to provoke thought by presenting a striking and unconventional object, then enticing visitors to explore it. As they immerse themselves in the experience, we hope it transforms their perspective, making them consider themselves and their surroundings in a new light.

Upon entering the building, a kitchen and a set of steps lead to a mezzanine level. Every piece of furniture is crafted from the same material and intentionally left without rigid usage instructions. This approach allows for a flexible interpretation of space and purpose, a quality particularly evident in the Meteorite. During its construction amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it adapted to serve as an office, a school, and a home, showcasing its versatility and the family's ability to find innovative uses for it.

Ultimately, when working with form, we consider the atmosphere created and its impact on social space. We define social space as the way a specific atmosphere subtly influences life, setting the stage for social interactions. In a home, this aspect takes precedence, and in the Meteorite, all spaces are intricately interlocked around an atrium, promoting interconnected family life in unique ways. The design function and form exist in harmony, with form evolving from function. While architectural constraints guide the design, allowing for potential interpretations and open-ended spaces enhances the experience and functionality, ultimately fostering better, more connected living.


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