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  • Kivi Sotamaa

Dreaming the Future

Ultima is a new restaurant in South Harbour, in the center of Helsinki. It is an experiment about changing peoples’ relationship to food through innovative cuisine, design and hyperlocal production of food. The chefs and owners Henri Alén and Tommi Tuominen are exploring the culinary applications of circular economy as well as the most innovative food and farming technologies today. At Ateljé Sotamaa we are exploring how architecture, design and art can be used to help people reimagine their relationship to food. The aim of Ultima is to shape the future by inventing it, through experimentation together with an audience. The challenge for design was to create a milieu, which spontaneously engages people in the process, inspiring critical and creative discussion.

Here’s a bit of theory to help shed light on our thinking on design and how it can be used to enact cultural change one person at a time: ‘It is all about the relationship between the inner and outer worlds’ said the late New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp on numerous occasions. The German philosopher Thomas Metziner has said the same in more elaborate terms: According to him the brain ‘constantly hallucinates at the world, as a system that constantly lets its internal autonomous simulational dynamics collide with the ongoing flow of sensory input, vigorously dreaming at the world’(1). In other words, we perceive the world through top-down models in our minds, which interact with bottom up stimuli from the world around us.

For example, when you think you see a table, you actually see just the prediction of the table in your brain. You know from past experience what it feels like if you touch it, what it sounds like if you bang on it, and what it is meant to be used for. However, if some of the table’s qualities contradict the predictive model in your mind, those contradictions rise up in your consciousness, and cause you to explore the object and if needed, adjust your mind-model of it. Top-down, prior knowledge (convention) is a pervasive feature of our perception. Mismatches between the top down predictions and actual sensory input are sensations, and they can be strategically used to trigger exploration. This process can fundamentally change our embodied knowledge, the way people feel, and think about the world. This is how we used art, design, architecture in Ultima to challenge convention and trigger cultural change.

We deployed sensation in a strategic effort to change convention and encourage exploration of new possibilities. We designed Ultima as an ecology, where the sensations lie, not just in the objects themselves, but in the relationship of the objects to one another and their environment. The designs, which constitute the environment, operate like short stories, which allow people to weave together their own overall narratives. The general plot line is provided by us in the sense that entire milieu is designed to undermine conventions such as man-made versus biological and natural versus artificial. It is calibrated to create an overall experience, which is part animal, part machine and part nature. The restaurant works architecturally as a dramaturgical sequence, step by step transporting people away from the every-day world, deeper and deeper into what we’ve described as a happy, inspiring dream.

The space, which people first enter at the restaurant is where they can see their meal literally growing around them. We introduced innovative food production methods in surprising ways directly into the space, so that the chefs can experiment with them, and the audience experience them. The most striking feature in the first space, in addition to the open kitchen, is a vertical hydroponic wall we designed out of stainless steel so that it reflects the colors of the plants and renders the space into an impressionistic, magical garden. The wall fills the space with nuances of green, making the audience feel they are embraced by the plants around them. The foliage is echoed in the dotted, animated light, created by perforated aluminum panels and programmed lighting overhead. The lighting shifts subtly as if a clouds were moving over the space, causing a subliminal sensation of being under a tree with sun shining through it. The hydroponic walls provide the chefs with greens when their flavor is at its most intense, and the system, which is engineered by Green Automation,circulates the irrigation water, reducing water consumption by 95% compared to conventional farming.

The furniture in this magical garden is informal and relaxed. It creates a comfortable, protective space from where people can safely take in the wonders around. Sitting down their gaze first encounters strange lamps above the dining tables. Suddenly, something unexpectedly moves inside them. Shocked into a state of close attention people notice dozens of crickets happily singing and climbing around on 3D printed scaffolds, basking in the warmth of the lamp, enjoying drinking water and food from glass inserts perturbing the sphere. The crickets in the lamps create both an intriguing audiovisual spectacle, and an opportunity for the chefs to test how the feed influences their flavor. Inevitably, a conversation begins about crickets, food, food safely, culture, the future of food and so on. This is our intent, by design, and gives opportunity for discussion between the audience members and the staff at the restaurant. It is an opportunity for telling stories to people actively asking questions. It is the beginning of the process of seducing people into rethinking their conventions about food.

The same sequence - atmosphere, object of curiosity, exploration, conversation - is repeated everywhere. There are black glass sculptures, nicknamed Muspheres, which grow Oyster mushrooms from Helsieni in used coffee grains. The mushrooms fruit through small holes in the glass creating naturally emerging baroque artworks, which change every day, until they are harvested and cooked in front of the audience in the open kitchen. Other curious elements in the space are translucent columns inside which there are potatoes growing in nothing but air. These are aeroponic columns, which we designed to house potatoes and technology from Tyrnävän Siemenperunakeskus. They have mastered the aeroponic growing technique, which produces a tenfold yield with a fraction of space and water, as compared with conventional growing methods.

On the tallest wall in the space, there’s a large sculpture entitled Dandelion. It is made of the fragments of the broken Finnjävel dishes, kindred morphs of the leaves and dotted shadows surrounding them. The sculpture brings back memories of the previous restaurant we designed in this location for Alén and Tuominen. Finnjävel focused on the history of Finnish cuisine, and we designed every single object for it using innovating combinations of traditional and digital craft. ‘Without understanding the past you cannot invent the future’ Chef Alén has said on numerous occasions.

Having first explored the magical garden and its Biodesign objects, the audience enters a dark corridor, a transitional space nicknamed Rabbit Hole, with interactive Voyager lights by Digital Sputnik. The lights play a sequence of effects, which relates to the movement of bodies through the space. The experience is designed to refresh peoples’ audiovisual palette, before, at the other end of the tunnel, they arrive to the Wunderkammer.

The Wunderkammer is lush space with a deep red wool carpet and round tables. In the ceiling, there is a giant Anima -chandelier made from carbon fiber rods and perforated 3D printed digital flowers, which cast intricate shadows on the walls of the room. The shadows bring back memories of the dotted lights in the garden space before, and simultaneously their spiderweb -like patterns create an atmosphere appropriate for the natural history museum –style exhibit of imaginary 3D printed hybrids of insects, crustaceans, plants and fruit, which are displayed in vitrines on the walls of the space. The Hybrids are an extension of the biodesign -theme and conceived to inspire re-evaluation of existing categories in a manner which is elegant and joyful.

Exiting Wunderkammer, the audience arrives to the main dining room, the climax in the sequence of spatial experiences. Here, the architecture seems to melt away, behaving in a manner which defies gravity and expectation. We laser scanned the existing historical space and designed large CNC (computer numerical controlled) milled sculptures, which were carefully inserted into the old architecture leaving a 30mm brightly lighted gap between the old and the new. The fluid, polymorphic sensibility of the new forms creates a dialogue with the curvilinear heaviness of the old masonry building. The weightlessness of the sculptures is emphasized by the brightly lighted gap, which makes it seem that the forms hover in air. The light from the gap is daylight during the day, but when it is dark outside lights by Digital Sputnik, straight from the world of high end movie sets such as Star Wars Rogue One, create light effects such as sunsets, fires and being under water. These effects are also visible from the street at night, through a milky glass behind clear windows, rendering Ultima into a living breathing creature.

In the center of the main dining hall there will be a large suspended sculpture (still in production as this is written). The sculpture is a six meter long trace of a bunny-rabbit jumping though space. The sculpture seems to exist in a place between cartoon bunnies, the vertebrae of a scary dinosaur, and cinematic movement. The intent is to create an artwork, which is unexpected and open ended in interpretation, just as the future is.

The holistic, ecology of objects -strategy to design is extended to all detail including custom chairs. They are designed to be light and comfortable. Their asymmetrical form encourages moving around for different seating positions (functional, ergonomic motive). It also creates an overall ‘humanistic’ mood by avoiding the effect of monotonous repetition, opting instead for subtle variation in form and color (relationship of object to object). Finally, the geometry of the top edge of the chair is affiliated with the domes of the historical space (relationship of object to environment).

Details such as 3D printed napkin rings, sculptural objects for serving food and Bird in Space -glass sauce boats extend the fluid architectural geometries into the space of the table.The objects are always considered as a part of an environment, an experience and a service. Fiberoptic, battery operated Light Ware lamps manufactured by Saas Instruments illuminate each table like stage, focusing the peoples' attention to the real star of the restaurant, the food by the chefs. Step by step, the audience been been lured into a 'happy dream' and their focus has been directed from the outside world to the Ultima environment, and gradually towards smaller and smaller detail, ultimately arriving at the food on the table.

Unlike Finnjävel, which was opened for two years, Ultima has no deadline. It is an open ended experiment. Our ambition in designing Ultima was to help the chefs Tommi Tuominen and Henri Alén create a project, which reaches cultural ‘escape velocity’ - a restaurant, which has so much cultural potential that it starts having a life of its own in peoples’ collective imagination. We worked to create a project, which invents the future by helping us dream it together.

1. Metzinger, T. (2004[2003]). Being no one: The self-model theory of subjectivity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 


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