Looking Back and Looking Around
When I first started blogging about Helsinki, I showed someone the few posts I had managed to crank out so far. In one post, I talked about street art on electrical network boxes. In another, I talked about public art installations in metro stations. The person I was talking to was a very intelligent person, but she was taken aback by my posts. She said she hadn’t ever noticed the art I was talking about. This was especially surprising because she walked through one of the metro stations in question every day.
I’d thought about the way I see the world before, but this interaction made me think even harder. I’ve been through 11 years of art school, counting high school. Considering that, I guess it’s understandable for me to have built an artistic lens to view the world through. As early as high school, I did occasionally notice myself admiring insignificant things like puddles or sidewalk cracks. There was something about them, like a pattern or satisfying line, that was pleasant.
Amongst Art Nouveau Facades
While still an undergraduate, I didn’t give much thought to architecture. I ended up taking a class on the history of architecture because I needed the ECTS, but I never truly enjoyed it. Even when I moved back to Helsinki, where there are gorgeous Jugend/Art Nouveau buildings on every corner, I was blasé. This is particularly weird because Art Nouveau has always been one of my favourite historical styles in visual art. I’m a complete sucker for Alphonse Mucha paintings. Why I never extended that interest to architecture from the same period is beyond me.
After I started writing for Helsinki Side Quest though, I noticed something changing. I was suddenly seeing swirls and floral motifs crowning doorways everywhere. Many of those doorways were encircled by stone arches appropriate for a medieval castle. I saw glints of gold covering house numbers. There were spires on rooftops, and windows shaped like perfect circles. Had these details really always been here, going completely unnoticed by me? I was now seeing the intricacies and quirks of Helsinki’s buildings as I walked by. They were as individual as the humans who had built them.
Spray Paint and Hidden Courtyards
I mentioned writing about street art earlier. I’ve always had a soft spot for it, but blogging has skyrocketed that fascination. Maybe I would have noticed painted electrical network boxes before I started blogging. But a two-colour stencil applied to plywood around scaffolding? I might not have. Yet here I was, stopping to photograph a piece of graffiti exactly like that. I’ve noticed small drawings on rubbish bins and stickers stuck to lampposts. I sometimes stop to study the masses of posters that clubs plaster onto any smooth surface. Sometimes I’m curious about the actual events, but sometimes I look just because I find the posters visually intriguing.
I’ve also started to catch glimpses of inner courtyards and alleys as I walk by them. A lot of Helsinki’s architecture is built to accommodate an inner courtyard, both for residential buildings and businesses. Helsinki is apparently even home to the world’s prettiest inner courtyard! I can’t visit that one since it’s only for the residents of the building, but I’ve noticed several public courtyards too. Or, more specifically, I’ve noticed what’s in them. Sometimes it’s just a carpark, but there are also restaurants, puppet theatres, and (appropriately) escape rooms. Once I walked by a vintage motorcycle behind a wrought iron gate, and I stopped to photograph it. There’s a whole other world behind the facades.
Deeper Than Just Marketing
We all notice billboards and large advertisements plastered around a city. We especially notice those commissioned by large and wealthy companies, since they have the means to saturate cities with their marketing material. It’s another story when it comes to small independent shops which might only display something in their own windows and on an A-frame outside their door. Since I’ve started blogging about Helsinki, I’ve noticed more and more how creative independent shops are with their advertising.
For example, the bookstore Nide on Fredrikinkatu (my favourite street in the entire city) is lovely inside and out. The merchandise on display is enough to draw you in, but they’ve also made great use of a piece of art that repeats in their marketing materials. It’s a head in profile with the brain outlined, and the brain is split into tens of sections. Each section has the name of a famous author in it. Nide has put this art over their door, under the stone archway that surrounds the entrance. Not only is the art beautiful, but displaying it here makes for an awesome contrast between the graphical quality of the art and the old stone building.
I couldn’t have told you when I first started blogging that it would change the way I see my surroundings. But it has in a profound way. Whenever I walk through Helsinki now, I see more of it than I did before, both literally and figuratively. I see details that I had previously missed, and I connect with visual aspects of the city on a deeper level than before.
I suggest taking a walk around your hometown – or if you don’t like your hometown, take a trip to a city that you do like – and write about it. Take some photos, then sit down and write about why the things you photographed called out to you. You don’t have to share what you’ve written, of course. But taking the time to write about your surroundings can change how you see them for the better.