14 December 2006

Vanha Rauma

I was adopted for a day by a family in Tampere—which rhymes, by the way.

Attentive readers of this blog know that immediately upon my arrival in Finland I fell in love with the old wooden buildings in the center of Oulu. Ever since, the self-deprecating locals have done everything they could think of to cool my ardor. They’re nothing special, ‘twas said, more than once. Remember the devastating fire of 1822, people reminded me; they’re not that old. And there aren’t that many of them, what with the Russian bombing during the Continuation War, not to mention the urbanist enthusiasms of the 1960s, which might have been worse. Oulu has been unlucky on the wooden building front, was the verdict of those who live here. You should go to Raahe, they would add.

Raahe is only a little over an hour away by express bus. Twice I consulted the timetables, but then, both times, I had to scub the mission at the last minute. And so it was that Raahe, like many a hometown attraction, was a victim of convenience. Now it ranks close to the top of my list of things to do—right up there with Porvoo and Savonlinna, just a notch below St. Petersburg—when I return to this part of the world, which I surely will do, with my better half in tow, one fine Kesäkuu or Heinäkuu day.

One reason I never made it to Raahe is that I arranged a trip—on non-refundable terms—to Rauma, which is much farther away and harder to get to, instead. Rauma has a medieval church with rare paintings on the ceiling, a city hall built in 1776, and several masonry houses. Everything else is wood. Vanha Rauma hasn’t had a fire since 1682, and it suffered no twentieth-century war damage, which explains why in 1991 its 28 hectares were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site—Finland’s first, along with the fortress of Suomenlinna. It consists of some 600 wooden buildings—that’s right, six hundred—on an essentially medieval street plan at the heart of a modern city of 37,000 souls. Vanha Rauma claims to be “the most complete and widely preserved wooden town in the Nordic countries.”[1]

According to my knowledgeable and thoroughly charming tour guide, an expert on the history of UNESCO World Heritage policies, one of the keys to understanding this site is that Old Rauma is adamant about being a living city, not an outdoor museum. It is no Williamsburg, with its citizen-interpreters. There are four little museums here, and while their collections are of some interest, they are probably more useful as a means of penetrating the architecture, of seeing the facades from the other side, as it were.

The architecture fairly leaps off the street here. The buildings are drop-dead gorgeous, but by that I don’t mean that they are anything like a Palladian villa, or the Taj Mahal. Rauma’s wooden buildings are gorgeous in the way that the Greek Revival farmhouses of Ohio’s Western Reserve are gorgeous. A few of Rauma’s houses were owned by wealthy nineteenth-century merchants, but most of them were intended as, and have been, the homes of ordinary people. One of the chief virtues of Vanha Rauma is that people were not thrown out of their homes to make way for gentrification. Nor does the UNESCO designation signify that Old Rauma aspires to be an elitist ghetto. It probably could be called a “gated community,” however.

I mean that in two senses. Once, there was a palisade around the whole town, with tollgates at several points on the perimeter. As my tour guide explained, the individual homeowners bore responsibility for maintenance of the wall, and so they had an interest in limiting its length, and that made for a city that was compact and densely populated. Growth was managed by “in-fill” on the existing streets and blocks, rather than by sprawl. Vanha Rauma is the special place that it is today largely because of that circumferential enclosure, which was put up in the 1620s and not removed until 1809.

Vanha Rauma was and is gated in another sense. Private homes consisted of a “narrow double cabinhouse,”[2] plus porches, kitchens, and various outbuildings used for storage, animals, privies—and saunas, of course. New rooms and outbuildings were added incrementally, as needed. There would be several such residential complexes on a block, and the building walls themselves, plus interstitial fences, were used to enclose the whole block. What was contained within, in both form and function, would have resembled the medieval settlements that John Stilgoe has described as landschafts.[3] Access to the introspective blocks and private residences was and is gained through wooden gates. Today, Rauma’s gates—along with its windows—are among its most attractive physical features. I was even able to get a few photos, despite bleak mid-winter skies and a landscape that cried out for a blanket of reflective snow.

At one point, strange as it may seem, I was reminded of New Mexico—specifically, Chimayó, a very early Spanish settlement in which the walls of individual residences were conscripted to serve as part of the town’s fortifications, and which used free-standing walls for its interstitial connections. The sense of enclosure at Chimayó is palpable, and very much the same as at Rauma.

The integrity of architectural style at Vanha Rauma is the result of a period of prosperity beginning in the 1890s. A brochure published by the Rauma Museum explains:

The late flourishing of sailing ships in Rauma brought in its wake building construction. However it was not possible to construct new buildings because they would not follow the square area plans, as this would have required buildings on several plots to be acquired and then knocked down, so the people in Rauma referred to rebuild the old. Over a period of ten years, two thirds of the buildings in Old Rauma got a new appearance, when their cladding was changed to the decorative Neo Renaissance style. Due to the short period of change the appearance of the area was preserved as a whole and has remained nearly the same for the last one hundred years.[4]

A few of the details here are distinctive—or were new to me, at any rate. Some buildings, for example, have “breathing bases,” squarish openings in the foundation to allow for better ventilation. I couldn’t figure out what they were at first. My guide explained that they sometimes lead to crawl spaces that could be used by homeowners to check for moisture and dry rot. A brochure published by Tammela, the Old Rauma Renovation Centre, has a drawing that shows how the ventilation system works, complete with a cat underneath the floorboards.

Then there is the story of renovation, which begins in the late 1960s, and of the subsequent preparation of what is called locally the “preservative” townplan, which went into effect in 1982. This was a period of intense consciousness raising that culminated in the World Heritage designation in 1991. In the beginning, many people in Old Rauma were unaware of the architectural glory that lay under their peeling paint and sagging cornices.

How could they have known? In those days, the Old Town was a decidedly unfashionable section of an unglamorous city in a country that had embraced Modernism in the way that it does everything else—that is, by consensus. The buildings of Old Rauma had been carved up and jerry-rigged to accommodate people who would have preferred not to live so modestly, and in such close quarters. There was no central heating here. There was little in the way of electrical wiring, let alone plumbing. There was talk about demolition and rebuilding. But homeowners renovated, one house at a time, instead, and the people who did so have profited from the improvement in their standard of living as well as from the increase in property values.

They were educated by the aforementioned Tammela, which also, it must be said, is an architectural review board with the authority to grant or deny building permits. That in turn means that it must balance the public interest in preservation against private property rights, and that is never easy. Tammela occupies quarters in one of the larger buildings in the old city, which it uses to demonstrate restoration techniques. It’s the building on the left in the photo up top. You can, for example, learn about different kinds of insulation techniques at Tammela, and the staff will help you choose the one most appropriate to your needs. You can learn how to do the work yourself. Tammela also maintains a “bank of spare parts”—things like doors—that were obtained when buildings have had to be sacrificed. I picked up a flyer containing “a recipe for traditional red ochre paint.” The education campaign required to get local residents to buy into the World Heritage Site campaign is a story in itself, one that my guide has looked into in some detail.

I was very surprised to learn that only 800 people live in Old Rauma’s 600 wooden buildings. The explanation begins with the fact that people want more elbow room nowadays, so makeshift partitions and other innovations have been removed, making spaces more commodious. And modern plumbing has been installed, meaning that privies could be removed or converted to other uses. In fact, many of Old Rauma’s 600 wooden buildings are the outbuildings referred to above, along with a number of shops.

One of the appealing things about the place is that it does not seek to be a pristine, decontaminated cultural district. In general, of course, the neo-Renaissance religion in architecture holds sway here. But the preservationists seem to have a very enlightened attitude about non-conforming structures and uses. The occasional incongruous building is tolerated. I saw one, a cheap 1970s structure that tries hard to fit in, but really can’t. Yes, it is an eyesore, and yet it seems to be generally understood that its continued presence helps to tell the story of how preservation was regarded at one time, and how neo-Renaissance forms were apprehended at the level of the individual resident.

There is also a poignant dimension to Rauma, and that has to do with its UNESCO-ratified status as the poster child for wooden towns. Rauma’s success pleases me very much, and I’m impressed with the way people here have handled their leadership responsibilities. At the same time, I sympathize with the Raahes of the world, which have been relegated to the status of permanent also-rans. Raahe, as my guide put it, “is Rauma twenty years ago,” but it will never, ever, catch up, mainly because Rauma got there first. It reminds me of the hierarchy of American higher education. For every Princeton and Amherst, there are probably fifty thoroughly admirable but entirely anonymous and under-endowed liberal arts colleges in Ohio that deserved a better fate. There is something utterly unfair about that.

Finally—to return to the script—there were within living memory as many as eleven grocery stores, most of them mom-and-pops, in Old Rauma. Now there is none. But soon, there will be a Prisma in the buffer zone just outside the historic district. Prisma is a supermarket, and it typically is a Very Big Box indeed. It will come with a vast parking lagoon, and we can expect it to be an incongruous excrescence on the face of a well-preserved dowager queen.

Here is where I began to worry, not so much about the aesthetics as about the threat posed by the Prisma to Rauma’s continued existence as a living city. This worry actually gave rise to a second New Mexico memory, which occurred to me in the bus on the way out of town. A few years ago, a friend introduced my wife and me to a young woman who had grown up in Taos Pueblo, and who spent the better part of a day showing us around, introducing us to her relatives, all of whom seemed to be artists and/or artists’ models. Taos Pueblo is an artists’ colony, it seems, where the residents take in each other’s laundry—in a picturesque way, of course, to attract the tourists. That is not so very far—minus the Rockefeller money—from Williamsburg. Nor is it all that far—minus the saunas—from Rauma. And it’s precisely what Old Rauma has sought, quite rightly, to avoid. My point is that the old town could use some grocery stores, and that will be impossible once the Prisma opens.

So, you might well wonder, if this post is all about Rauma (and New Mexico!), why did I open with the little jingle about Tampere? It’s because Tampere served as my base camp for this expedition. That’s where I met up with both of the learned and generous scholars who did their best—while a third minded a baby at home—to introduce me to Tampere, a city that actually has a much better claim than Rauma to uniqueness among Finnish cities.

I was escorted past the carnival of brick—the power stations, factories, textile mills, chimneys, and tanneries—lying alongside the Tammerkoski, in the industrial heart of a city that was Finland’s Manchester (or Pittsburgh, I fancy to think). In recent years, most of the brick buildings of the Finlayson and Tampella factories have been successfully converted to recreational use. They have done their heavy lifting and their sweating. Now they have been ordered to have fun. It seems they’ve learned how.

One of my Tampere informants extolled the virtues of the Amuri Museum of Workers’ Housing, a block of tenement apartments and shops that is open only in the summer. I also learned about the flat, once occupied by V. I. Lenin in exile (1905-1906), and now, I take it, a rather campy museum. Next time. After Raahe.

[1] Old Rauma: World Heritage Town, brochure published by the Rauma Museum.

[2] Old Rauma: World Heritage Town, brochure published by the Rauma Museum.
[3] John R. Stilgoe, Common Landscape of America, 1580-1845 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982).
[4] Old Rauma: World Heritage Town, brochure published by the Rauma Museum.


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