In English | 9.5.2023

Breaking Barriers: 11 Profiles to Celebrate 80 Years of Women in Finnish Architecture

Breaking Barriers: 11 Profiles to Celebrate 80 Years of Women in Finnish Architecture
Löyly, Avanto Architects, Anu Puustinen. Image:


As early as the 20th century, women in Finland were already involved in the field of architecture. In fact, Signe Hornborg (1862-1916), a Finnish architect, was the first woman in Europe to graduate as an architect in 1890. Pirkko-Liisa Schulman, in her essay on The Changing Careers of Women Architects, notes that Hornborg was granted special permission to study at the Polytechnic Institute of Helsinki. After her, several other women such as Inez Holming, Signe Lagerborg, Bertha Enwald, Wivi Lönn, and Albertina Östman also pursued careers in architecture, with eighteen women having already trained as architects by the time the Polytechnic Institute became a university in 1908.

Wivi Lönn (1872-1966) established and ran her own architectural office in Finland, becoming the first woman to do so. Lönn designed a number of significant public facilities and received widespread professional recognition, serving as a role model for aspiring female architects. And in May 1942, while a group of female architects gathered to commemorate Wivi Lönn’s 70th birthday, they founded Architecta, the Finnish Association of Women Architects. At that point, up to a hundred women architects had already graduated in Finland. To celebrate the 150th birthday of architect Lönn and the 80th anniversary of the organization, Architecta commissioned interviews that highlight the different types of careers pursued by women in the field. Discover the profiles of 11 female Finnish architects with texts by Paula Holmila, journalist and architecture critic at Helsingin Sanomat, translated by Pirkko-Liisa Schulman.

Explore more names of pioneering women in Architecture on the tags Women in Architecture and Women Architects, and in the 2022 article On Rebalancing Forces and Adjusting the Narratives.

1. Pirkko-Liisa Schulman

Active Member in Architecta for more than 30 years

Pirkko-Liisa Schulman. Image: Anni Koponen, MFA

The career and education of Pirkko-Liisa Schulman (born in 1946) differ from an average architect’s path. She has moved between art, architecture, writing, research, teaching, and architectural, interior design, and restoration. Schulman developed an interest in building protection when, as a student in the 1970s, she studied the history and preservation plans of the Chicago School of Architecture and wrote a report about it. After graduating from Helsinki University of Technology (now Aalto University), she received a Master’s degree in architectural history and theory at Yale University (1981). Schulman worked for five years in the U.S. on renovation projects and was active in a neighborhood preservation movement. Her most recent major design works include the restorations and renovations of the Helsinki Synagogue and St. Henry’s Cathedral. She has been active in professional organizations, including The Finnish Association of Architects, SAFA, and served as the Chairperson of Architecta.

2. Saija Hollmén

Saija Hollmén. Image: Anni Koponen, MFA

Saija Hollmén (born 1970) has carved out a career path for herself that differs from the traditional role of an architect. She is currently a vice dean and professor of practice at Aalto University. As a student, Hollmén established an office with Jenni Reuter and Helena Sandman, and they designed the Women’s Centre in Senegal and KWIECO Shelter Home in Tanzania, supported by their non-profit association ”Ukumbi,” which was founded in 2007. The Hostel for Girls in Tanzania is their most recently completed project. In 2016, Hollmén and her partners were invited by Alejandro Aravena on behalf of the Venice Biennale to present their activities as the only Finnish participant. The invitation was a great honor for the office, and their exhibition at the Arsenale received positive feedback and showcased the office’s central role in the gglobal interest in equal help.

3. Kaarin Taipale

An urban researcher and politician warns of real estate speculators.

Kaarin Taipale. Image: Anni Koponen, MFA

Kaarin Taipale (born 1948) graduated from ETH Zurich and continued her studies at Columbia University in New York in the early 1980s. She defended her dissertation at Helsinki University of Technology (now Aalto University) in 2009. However, Taipale emphasizes that she no longer identifies herself as an architect but rather as an urban researcher and politician. Taipale has been an active Social Democrat in politics for 20 years, stating that ”the critical decisions about the urban environment are made in political bodies.” Her architectural training guarantees her expert status in politics, particularly in matters involving city development. In her mini pamphlet, ”Cities for Sale,” based on her dissertation, Taipale warned about the desire of international investment companies to take over water and energy companies as well as housing production in major cities. Developments, even in Finland and Helsinki, have followed the path she predicted.

Taipale worked as the head of the City of Helsinki Building Inspection Office for 10 years and served as Chairperson for ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability for three years. She was the Editor-in-Chief of Arkkitehti-Finnish Architectural Review and is still an active writer. Taipale is a popular media commentator, and journalists often contact her to ask for her opinions on current urban projects. She knows how to explain even difficult matters and expresses herself without using architectural jargon.

4. Anu Puustinen

Sauna and Sacred Spaces

Anu Puustinen. Image: Anni Koponen, MFA

Anu Puustinen (born 1974) was completing her Master’s degree in Architecture when she and Ville Hara won an open architectural competition for St. Lawrence Chapel in Vantaa (2003). Among 194 proposals, their winning entry received significant attention. Puustinen was in a hurry to graduate, as it would have been challenging to carry out the upcoming construction work. In fact, the chapel design became the subject of her thesis. After securing the commission, Hara and Puustinen established a joint office called Avanto, which means a hole in the ice, referring to winter swimming.

Anu Puustinen is particularly interested in designing sacred spaces. The sauna can be a sacred space, a place where you can calm down and empower yourself with spiritual and physical cleansing. It is no surprise that Avanto’s most well-known design is Löyly, a public sauna located on the open seafront in Helsinki (löyly means the steam rising from the hot stones in a sauna). The building includes a restaurant and several saunas from which you can dip into a hole in the ice in the winter. It is a flagship building for the new wave of wooden architecture and showcases what can be done with wood. Some may regard it as just ”wow” architecture, but it is rational, carefully designed for its location, and does not attract attention at the cost of its surroundings. Puustinen emphasizes that she is primarily a designer, whose work can include not only building design but also urban planning or production design, such as garden furniture.

5. Iida Kalakoski

”Architecture students are interested in preserving cultural heritage”

Iida Kalakoski. Image: Anni Koponen, MFA

In Finland, 80 percent of the building stock dates back to after World War II. However, old buildings are not valued the same way as they are in Italy, where Iida Kalakoski (born in 1983) is writing her dissertation. She is concerned about the new wave of demolitions of buildings in Finland, with even some only decades-old housing areas being demolished.

Kalakoski has dedicated herself to building protection. Her doctoral dissertation is on this subject, and she now teaches at Tampere University. ”Protection does not prevent development,” she emphasizes. ”For a long time, I thought my ideas were marginal. During the past few years, I have come to understand that students want to hear about it. Now I realize that building protection, renovation, and questions of sustainability are the most important points of view, even though they will not be solved only by the work of architects. We have to accept that our contribution might be to do as little as possible, as small a change as possible,” Kalakoski estimates. ”Even though I study historic connections, I see them as being attached to the present and future. Architecture is a future-oriented and solution-centered field. Could understanding history give us elements for future solutions?” Kalakoski ponders.

6. Pia Ilonen

Lofty Ideas for Loft Dwellings

Pia Ilonen in front of the Dance House Helsinki. Image: Anni Koponen, MFA

Architect Pia Ilonen (born 1957) was the only architect at the turn of the 1990s to participate in the popular movement to convert the large Cable Factory complex in Helsinki, vacated by the Nokia Company, into a cultural center. She says that activism for the Cable Factory was her second university. At present, the Cable Factory has about 1,000 studios and workrooms for artists, as well as three museums, Dance House Helsinki, a popular restaurant, and the ”Merikaapelihalli,” Marine Cable Plant, used for concerts, seminars, and exhibitions. Ilonen got the chance to design the renovation of the Cable Factory and a part of the additions for Dance House Helsinki, which were completed in 2022. After the Cable Factory activism, Pia Ilonen was chosen to restore Lasipalatsi (”Glass Palace”), originally a temporary Functionalist-style building of shops, restaurants, and a movie theater, completed in 1936 and located right in the center of Helsinki. She designed the restoration together with her architectural partner Minna Lukander.

Ilonen became interested in alternative housing production, which led her to design loft apartments. The first experimental house, where she herself settled, was completed in 2011. The concrete surfaces were left untreated, and the space was open. The design attracted international attention. After all, loft dwellings are common in converted old buildings in the United States and elsewhere, but hers were newly built. Pia Ilonen has since frequently welcomed foreign architects into the house and her apartment. One day, the curator of the Venice Biennale 2018, the Irish architect Shelley MacNamara, and her students stopped by. The invitation to the Venice Biennale followed, as did lots of attention to her work.

7. Sari Nieminen

Artist Professor that studies elderly housing

Sari Nieminen. Image: Anni Koponen, MFA

Sari Nieminen (born 1955) is one of the few architects to have received the Artist Professor title, along with a grant for 10 years, which the Finnish Government awards to ”exceptionally commendable” artists.

Finland, like many other countries, has a growing elderly population whose care is a continuous source of public debate. Private care homes have become lucrative businesses, and their care practices have revealed many flaws. Some politicians believe that elderly people should be supported to live at home as long as possible. Nieminen has studied choices and alternatives to develop ideas for elderly people’s housing. Nieminen thinks that presently, care facilities are not very high-quality or successful. ”The elderly should not be concentrated in big institutions; instead, they should be able to live among everybody else,” she ponders. This would require changes to the urban structure. Her idea of a successful urban structure is one that is friendly to the elderly. Wisely designed buildings could reduce the need for care homes.

8. Pia Kuusiniemi

Landscape Architect hoping for new visions in urban planning

Pia Kuusiniemi. Image: Anni Koponen, MFA

Pia Kuusiniemi (born 1974) is the Chairperson of MARK, the Finnish Association of Landscape Architects, which has more than 300 members educated at Aalto University. According to Kuusiniemi, ”the landscape is always connected to location; a space that has its specific character or ’spirit’ forms itself continuously as a result of physical conditions and human activity, taking shape in many ways relating to the observer.”

Together with her partner Milla Hakari, Pia Kuusiniemi leads Loci Landscape Architects, one of the biggest landscape architecture firms in Finland. The firm has planned green areas for big cities such as Helsinki, Vantaa, and Turku. Kuusiniemi believes that Helsinki should implement Green Capital plans like other Nordic countries. Trees, for example, can prevent storm and flood damage, as demonstrated in New York City. She suggests that a landscape architecture competition be held for developing Helsinki’s shores because parks belong to the shores, and landscape architects can contribute significantly to the prevention of storm damage.

Kuusiniemi wishes that enough space would be given to nature in Finnish cities, pointing out that trees cannot be planted on small concrete decks in densely built urban blocks. Smaller plants would also struggle to thrive on decks, which are also extremely expensive and require rebuilding every 40 years. As she puts it, ”Nature does not negotiate.” She also highlights the crucial role landscape architects can play in preventing climate change.

9. Arja Lukin

Finland needs more architects

Arja Lukin photographed in front of the new terminal at Helsinki International Airport. Image: Anni Koponen, MFA

Since 1892, the Finnish Association of Architects (SAFA) has worked as an advocacy organization for Finnish architects, with Alvar Aalto serving as its chairperson for a long time. SAFA is an influential organization in Finland that has created a unique system of public architectural competitions and participates in the national conversation about architecture and buildings in Finland. SAFA has published Arkkitehti − Finnish Architectural Review for 120 years.

Arja Lukin (born 1966), who recently started as the Secretary General for SAFA, previously worked as the City Architect for Espoo and Vantaa. Her last job was to develop the Aviapolis area next to the Helsinki-Vantaa Airport. ”Aviapolis is the fastest growing area for jobs in Finland,” Lukin says. While aircraft noise emanates from the three runways, on one side of the airport, there is a quiet ”noise pocket” where the new town center could be built. ”Uniquely in the whole world, it was possible to build not just housing but a real town alive around the clock so close to an airport,” Lukin says. ”I traveled around Asia, Europe, and the Near East to present the Aviapolis plans,” Lukin reminisces. At the moment, there is full employment and even a lack of architects in Finland. Architectural offices are employing architects from abroad. Lukin remarks that there are not enough architects trained in Finland, and SAFA is planning to propose that more students should be admitted to architecture schools.

10. Helmi Kajaste

Architect working on a dissertation about architecture in film

Helmi Kajaste. Image: Anni Koponen, MFA

Helmi Kajaste (born 1986) has been working on her dissertation full-time for a couple of years. ”The dissertation is written in English partly because researchers of the subject are around the world, and I wish to exchange ideas in international circles,” Kajaste said. The subject of the dissertation approached through films, is the concept of ”border” in architecture and architectural theory. She has explored architecture and film in her articles, videos, and book. Kajaste is also a rap and spoken word artist, known as Draama-Helmi, who just published her third album on vinyl.

Helmi Kajaste illustrated her book, ”Rakenna, kärsi ja unhoita” (”Build, Suffer, and Forget”), published in 2020, which is a play on the Finnish tango from 1967, ”Rakasta, kärsi ja unhoita” (”Love, Suffer, and Forget”). The book reflects on the relationship between architecture and film in an unusual way through the concepts of demolition, disappearance, and rebuilding. Kajaste analyzed the spaces in Pasolini’s, Fellini’s, Welles’s, Ozu’s, Tarkovsky’s, Bergman’s, and Keaton’s films.

11. Marina Basdekis

”Half of the Finnish architects are women. There is still work to be done for equality.”

Marina Basdekis (born in 1982) switched to public service for the City of Helsinki last September from a private architectural office. She is excited about her new job. ”The strength of the public organization is a certain kind of slowness, democracy. Matters are worked through many sieves. When they finally commence, it is well thought out, more democratic, and on a durable foundation. This takes endurance and tolerance for uncertainty,” she describes. Basdekis went to school in Finland but studied architecture in Athens. Her father is Greek-Finnish, and Marina Basdekis speaks fluent Finnish and Greek.

According to Basdekis, even in Finland, there is no real equality, and she would like Architecta as an organization to do more to improve equality. Half of Finland’s architects are women, already more than half of the field’s students. Even so, women are less visible than their numbers. Many end up working in architectural offices, public jobs, or teaching; establishing an office and designing under their own name is still beyond the threshold. ”How to combine a career and family is still a woman’s burden,” Basdekis states.

Architecta commissioned the series from Paula Holmila, journalist and architecture critic at Helsingin Sanomat, the biggest daily in Finland.