Photography & video — Aleksi Poutanen
Text — Annina Huhtala

Opening doors and doing together: A new model for community centres



Children in the same sandbox start out playing side by side before gradually learning to play together. Life in the community centres that house the city of Helsinki’s various departments from libraries to youth services is much the same. The next thing to be figured out is how to graduate from sharing a space to sharing actions and visitors.


”This is very remarkable: we sit down with the department heads every week in regular meetings, but this is the first time that we’re talking about why the departments exist,” ponders Taina Saarinen, headmaster at Helsinki’s Adult Education Centre.

Saarinen, along with four other department heads, has been invited to hear what has been accomplished during a two-month trial at Stoa, on the corner of Itäkeskus.

The City of Helsinki’s Cultural Office, Youth Department, Arbis, and the City Library are all housed in Stoa. For the duration of spring, they had the dream team of design at their disposal from three design offices: Diagonal, Palmu and Pentagon Design. The task was an ambitious one: to break down the barriers between departments, learn to recognize the customers’ needs and create a model from which to get a better user experience for future community centres.


The observation made by the headmaster sounds somewhat existential, but it is of extreme importance. It is impossible to inspire cooperation unless the purpose behind doing is clear.

Money and working hours for quick trials

A lot of time in the decision making of the city and its departments is often spent on getting from an idea to a decision. Because all the departments in the community centre have their own treasuries and leaderships, even simple sounding initiatives often come to a halt over questions of money and working hours. Who picks up the tab, and who bears the responsibility?

People are sipping coffee in the sun in front of Stoa. Someone is lying on a couch in the foyer, eyes fixed on their phone. Muslim women are holding a book club in the loft, while a teenage couple makes out next to them. The struggles between departments couldn’t be of less concern to visitors.


The peaceful and homely Stoa also has another, slightly more muddled side. Strangers are always hanging out by one entrance and another is always locked. It’s hard to get the whole picture of what the house has to offer. There’s a display in the foyer, but it only showcases the Cultural Office’s programme. The toilets are hard to find too – the janitor gets asked where they are tens of times a day.

Trials uncover the real problems

Every Tuesday afternoon, Virva Haltsonen from Pentagon design and designer Iikka Lovio from Palmu travelled to Stoa and asked endless questions. Could we do this? Shall we do it? Every Tuesday was a day of action. When it was discovered that people didn’t know which of the several entrances was the main one, it was decided that friendly signs would go on the front door. Just two hours later “Welcome to Stoa” signs had appeared on the glass doors.

“Someone gave us feedback saying they look like they’ve been made in haste. Well, indeed they have,” Virva Haltsonen laughs.

Quick actions like these gain nothing but praise from Stoa’s personnel. By experimenting instead of creating a task force for everything, precious working hours and resources aren’t wasted. Those at Stoa who couldn’t make the meetings could follow the experimentation on a Tumblr blog made for the project.

The goal at Stoa was to create an operating model for new community centres.

Instead of flow diagrams, better signposts were made for Stoa, unused space turned into a reading room, and a chess tournament organized by listening to the youth’s wishes.

“I wouldn’t belittle doing some crafts or organizing a small chess tournament for youngsters at all. Through experimentation, we can discover the problems that need to be solved in order to achieve larger scale cooperation,” says Lovio.


The most important lesson: Working hours need to be freed up in order for employees to engage in shared development; otherwise cooperation begins to sour relations. Asking for help has to be allowed. The common goal should to be measurable, not a lofty phrase such as “increasing regional communality.” Is the aim to create contacts between visitors, increase cooperation between the elderly and children, or make the place into a centre for learning?

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