Stories on Creativity: Pirjo Sanaksenaho

Professor Pirjo Sanaksenaho used to draw pictures of houses already as a child. During her student years, she collaborated in designing the President’s official residence. She now teaches future architects the importance of designing buildings with people in mind.


“AS A CHILD, I USED TO draw street scenes together with my sisters. We would join papers together and spread them over the floor, creating imaginary cities that were made up of residential buildings, schools, shops and people, who we could move around along the streets. I was the only one who ended up becoming an architect.

At upper secondary school, my art teacher was aware of my plans to study architecture in the future, so she coached me by getting me to complete previous university entrance exams. I was accepted the first time round, and at nineteen moved to Otaniemi to study. When I now look at my own 19-year-old, I realize what a young and tender age that still is.

Usually students of architecture begin working for a firm in the industry during their third year, and I was no exception. I first worked for architects Raili and Reima Pietilä, which was incredibly interesting and gave me the opportunity to be involved in designing the President’s official residence Mäntyniemi in Helsinki.

Recession struck in 1991, bringing the entire construction sector to a halt – every second architect ended up unemployed. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom; I graduated, married my boyfriend Matti, and together we established our own firm, Sanaksenaho Architects, in the midst of the deepest slump.

Our first major commission was to design student housing in Vaasa, western Finland, which got the ball in motion. In the end, our firm came through the recession almost unscathed. At the time, many fellow architects headed for central Europe; there was particular demand for architects in Berlin, where reconstruction had begun. Some decided to follow another career path altogether.”


Pirjo and Matti Sanaksenaho designed their own home in Espoo, Finland, and it was completed in 2001.


The large south- and west-facing windows and arched wall mean that rooms bathe in light from dawn till dusk.

“ARCHITECTURE WASN’T MY only career option. Writing has always felt like a natural way of expressing myself, and now I write a great deal about architecture.  I am currently finalizing my doctoral dissertation on the breakthrough of the modern home during the 1950s and 60s.

At home, we talk about architecture constantly, which being married to an architect is pretty hard to avoid. As we were designing the Students’ Health Care Center YTHS in Helsinki that was completed in 2010, we would eagerly discuss the new building at home. Even today we tread the same path: Matti is a professor in Oulu, while I’m a professor at Otaniemi – meaning that mutual support is always close at hand.

I enjoy teaching at the university, but sometimes do miss drawing and my own design work, so I make sure to keep designing something at least on a smaller scale. As a professor, I’m responsible for planning and developing teaching. It’s wonderful to see how a flame is kindled during a course, as students get inspired. I want students to find their own voice and unique way of working.

Teaching gives me the opportunity to spread the message of good architecture to students. In the real world, the work of an architect is of course marked by financial pressures, tight schedules and compromise. Despite all the restrictions at play, architects need to design a spatially and aesthetically pleasing whole, which makes succeeding in this task even more rewarding. I instill in my students that people must always be at the heart of design. Architects respecting the building’s users is something one should be able to take for granted, yet there is a great deal of poor architecture around that does not serve users.

Sometimes it is hard to accept that buildings take on a life of their own when users take over. They may get cluttered simply because people happen to own all sorts things. Yet architecture mustn’t be so minimalistic that it cannot tolerate life.

Competitions and losing are part of life for an architect. Everyone fails at some point, so it’s something one needs to learn to handle. You must never give up or stop believing in what you do, regardless of how many competitions go by without a prize or commission.

Sometimes project timetables stretch considerably. The competition for St Henry’s Ecumenical Art Chapel in Turku was already held in 1995. Matti and I thought the work through over the summer, choosing to go with the form of a traditional church, with ribs and a fish-shaped interior.

The building demonstrates the use of single materials and materials that become patinated over time, which are characteristic features of our designs. Completed as late as 2005, the copper surface has now darkened and will soon turn green. Only now it is evident that our decision not to use pre-patinated materials was the right one.”


"You must never give up or stop believing in what you do."



“ARCHITECTURE WILL BE going through a major tumult during the next few decades. History has shown how technical inventions, such as reinforced concrete, have always changed architecture and created new possibilities. Now 3D concrete printing is undergoing testing! A myriad of forms will be easier to create, as industrial mass production is no longer necessary. It will be intriguing to see whether the human eye will veer towards classical horizontal lines, as free-form, organic shapes become a reality in construction.

Architects have already adopted algorithm design as part of their work, which involves entering parameters in computer software for generating alternative solutions. However, this is just a tool for speeding up the work. The thinking and vision of an architect will remain paramount also in the future in evaluating form and solution models and making the final decisions.” •

Design Cornerstones

1 “Space. It’s the key design element. Our work has often involved shaping a space partially using organic forms.”
2 “Material. I value genuine construction materials that become patinated over time.”
3 “Light. The direction of natural light dictates the way a building should be placed.”
4 “Time. Sufficient time enables peaceful contemplation and insight during the process.”
5 “Team work. Group discussions spark the best ideas and refine projects – both in the work of an architect and in teaching.”

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1) Ecumenical Art Chapel (2005) in Turku, Finland, has a wooden interior and copper exterior.
2) Boathouse Villa was constructed in Nanjing, China, as part of an architecture exhibition.
Photos by Jussi Tiainen and Tuomas Uusheimo



Profile photos by Maija Astikainen

Page content by: | Last updated: 04.11.2015.