By Anthony Shaw for thisisFINLAND
As part of Helsinki’s year as World Design Capital 2012, design students put their heads together and meet with senior citizens in nearby Kauniainen to tackle the issues of an aging population.
Designers go to great lengths to ensure that their work can be applied to products and services that are accessible to as many people as possible, rather than just a narrow elite. At Helsinki’s Aalto University, design students are currently involved in 12 projects under the aegis of 365 Wellbeing, a programme within the World Design Capital Helsinki 2012 initiative.
A project entitled Rethinking Villa Breda aims to combine design students’ insights with those of elderly Finns in order to benefit the lives of senior citizens. Villa Breda is a service centre in the municipality of Kauniainen, a corner of the capital area with a rapidly aging population structure – like many others across Finland and the western world.
In many respects, Kauniainen stands apart from most of the capital region. The town’s major municipal functions are administered by the surrounding city of Espoo, but the voluntary fire-brigade still has a majestic, bright yellow wooden community hall for meetings and practices, and the town is still clustered around the railway, a delicate wooden station building, the local shopping centre and nearby services.
Proximity and Readiness
With the rising average age of its residents, not to mention calls to reduce municipal budgets, Kauniainen offers a good opportunity for the country’s leading design institute to help plan future services. The School of Art and Design forms part of Aalto University.
Kauniainen’s small size (just 8,000 residents), its proximity to Helsinki (25 kilometres from the centre) and its readiness to act as an innovator in many aspects of administration offer an environment conducive to cooperative projects. As 365 Wellbeing programme coordinator Kirsikka Vaajakallio puts it, “Kauniainen has been a very easy partner to set up this extended teaching project with.”
The specific target for innovative thinking is the Villa Breda service centre, located a few hundred metres up the hill from the station, set back off a tree-lined street that includes a variety of residential houses and apartments built over the last 30 to 40 years. Villa Breda itself opened in 1992 as a drop-in centre combined with a residential home for those in need of fulltime care.
Face to face
With a clutch of sheltered condominium-style apartments lying just behind it, the unit receives approximately 80 lunchtime visitors daily. One of them is Marialeena Miettinen. Her home is only 200 metres away, but the prospect of cooking for herself every day doesn’t compare with the variety of cuisine offered daily in the central dining area.
She was intrigued by a brochure produced by the Gran Kitchen design group proposing communal cooking activities for the elderly: “I have never been much of a cook, but the idea of learning this together sounds wonderful. You are never too old to learn”
The students met local residents during an open week sponsored by the mayor and City Hall administrators in early 2012. The first stage of the project involves 25 students from all corners of the globe, focusing on themes related to aging, such as the definition of retirement, and taboos in institutions. Their ideas were presented in short videos and stylish brochures.
The next phases see new students getting into regular face-to-face contact with the clients and wrangling with more detailed issues of organising services. As Villa Breda’s manager Marianne Ehnström says, “Some of the ideas are very easy to follow and implement. This building and the services have hardly changed since we first started. But now the building application has been submitted. Let’s see how fast we can start the new developments.”