Helsinki Card
Helsinki Card

Untamed Helsinki

5.6.2018 Text: Violetta Teetor, journalist and blogger Photos: Header: Marianne Saviaho / Helsinki City Image Bank
Harakka (c) Marianne Saviaho / Helsinki City

The island of Harakka is right on the doorstep of the city.

Teeming with life is Harakka island, but not the kind you would expect. Stepping off the ferry which takes mere minutes to get you there from the jetty at Café Ursula, you’re the intruder. At least in the eyes of the many birds that nest there in the spring.

Barnacle geese spit out their red tongues and raise their feathers menacingly while seagulls swoop overhead. And by the way, the name of the island means ‘magpie’ which could suggest that these creatures too, have found a habitat. It’s all quite an adventure.

Art in a bunker

But this isn’t why we’re here. Perched in the middle of the island is a building you cannot miss. It’s in clear view of the promenade on the shoreline. It holds special significance for our fellow guests many of whom are, strangely enough, chemists. This same structure designed by architect Oiva Kallio, and completed in 1929, housed the Finnish Defence Force’s chemistry laboratory. We’re getting warmer to the solving the riddle. Now, this summer there’s an exhibition in one of the bunkers celebrating these scientists. Scientists from that era with photographs from the time that they worked there. They seem like one big family and there’s a lot of hugging, laughing and greeting going on. Appropriately enough, the exhibition is entitled Harakka – onnellisten saari, roughly translated, ‘the happy island’. Strangely enough, the spot for the lab was chosen because of its seclusion. Far away from the city centre, which has expanded somewhat in the mean time. Access to work in those days was on foot over the ice in winter and by boat in the summer.

Photo: Marianne Saviaho / Helsinki City Image Bank

From chem lab to artist colony

Nothing much has changed, or has it? The journey to the island could still be over ice except when a boat tears through it. And in the summer, that small stretch of water is taken over by small boats and big boats, on a mission to work or enjoy. The army lab closed in 1988, and in 1989 artists moved in.

Today, there are 30 artists renting space in the same building and involved in all kinds of media such as painting, photography, performance, installation, sculpture… you name it. Two of these ‘invaders’ are Aino Favén and Virpi Vesanen-Laukkanen. Friends who have been renting studios from the City of Helsinki since the early 90s. Aino is a textile artist working with recycled materials, as does Virpi, whose spectacular ball gowns are made from candy wrappers. They have witnessed the changes here for the past 25+ years when no tourists and no ‘killer’ geese existed! But they both concur, the atmosphere and light is inspirational and they’re still here. Exhibitions of artists take place throughout the summer from the beginning of June through August in a quaint little building called the Telegraph House.

Photo: Teemu Saloriutta / Helsinki City Image Bank

Passion and research

Asta Ekman is, first and foremost, a nature enthusiast, then a chemist and researcher. She has established a lab of her own where she studies the bird life, changing seasons, the state of the Baltic Sea and anything else that catches her scientific sensibilities. It is her enthusiasm that makes this place a haven for hikers and environmentalists and it was her idea to put on the photography exhibition in the bunker. She’s one of the driving forces behind the Nature House or Luontotalo where you can find out more about the goings-on on this island.

Photo: Asta Ekman / Helsinki City Image Bank

Green, green, green

In keeping with the natural, environmentalist approach is the wind turbine, which keeps the island carbon neutral. Energy from the sun is utilised in different ways to make sure the artists have lights and coffee machines to keep them working. In the winter, this might be a bit of a challenge since sunlight is not all that plentiful, but Aino, our artist friend, says that the heating works and she’s able to survive when the chill factor hits.

Photo: Marianne Saviaho / Helsinki City Image Bank

No café is to be found; only a pop-up on special occasions, and there’s no grand hype to this little outcrop. But for an escape from over-thinking, chasing your own tail and listening to the rumble of motorbikes, you would be hard-pressed to find a space more peaceful and closer to the city, than Harakka.

Harakka Nature Centre is open from Sundays to Fridays (closed on Saturdays) from 10 am – 5 pm from the beginning of May until the end of September. You can borrow binoculars, nets and wind meters from the Nature House. The ferry costs €5 return from the Ullanlinna Pier next to Café Ursula.

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