The Finnish architects Mikko Heikkinen and Markku Komonen of Heikkinen-Komonen Architects, a practice which was founded in 1974, were among the first to work through the influence of Aalto, absorbing the principles, but comfortable in their autonomy.
Their characteristic elegance, simplicity and transparency are well-known from the Finnish Embassy in Washington and more recently in Australia with their short-listed design for Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art's cinamateque project.
“We could hardly suppress our enthusiasm,” recalls Komonen when they were asked to design a building in Washington D.C starting with a feasibility study. Needless to say, vacation plans were halted and the architects embarked on their journey to the United States capital.
It had been three long years since Finland had begun its quest to secure a new chancery location. So when the right piece of real estate became available, no time was wasted. “The Finns snapped up the Thompson place 24 hours after I started offering it,” real estate broker Cathie Gill told the Washington Post in 1991.
The finding was a mansion built in the 1950s, the large brick home of the late Texas Democratic Congressman Clark W. Thompson and his socialite wife, Libbie. The house was often dubbed the “Texas legation,” due in large part no doubt to Thompson’s close relations with his neighbor, the then vice president and another prestigious Texan, Lyndon B. Johnson. The mansion was on a perch overlooking Rock Creek Park, across the street from the Vice President’s Residence (inhabited by Dan Quayle at the time of purchase) and next to the Vatican and Norwegian embassies.
“We immediately realized it’s a fascinating site, part of an expansive green belt,” Heikkinen says. “The lot is very tight though and we couldn’t promise at once it would be possible to realize our initial visions on it. After some weeks of hard work we were able to devise a feasible plan. Our recommendation: buy it.”
Soon the old mansion was demolished and construction of the embassy building was launched. And although the architects were provided specifics regarding design functionality, they remember being granted a great deal of creative freedom. “The client, who also is the user, was very precise in describing the functionality of the building. On the other hand, the client did not limit our architectural space. We were offered no specific style or detailing,” says Komonen.
Heikkinen and Komonen have been asked many times to describe their favorite feature in the house. The answer comes to them easily: “It is the process of entering the building. From the entrance level, down the ramp stairs and into Finlandia Hall, you arrive on an edge,” says Heikkinen.
Would they do anything differently were they given the assignment now? “You can’t step into the same river twice. You have changed and the river has changed. The house would definitely be different,” Heikkinen concludes. “But I don’t know how.”
"The architecture of Mikko Heikkinen and Markku Komonen is firmly rooted in the traditions of Finnish and international modernism. It is an architecture of assimilation and amalgamation rather than exclusion, of essence rather than visual image. It draws equally on contemporary minimalist sculpture and humanity's archaic symbolic construction, on pragmatic vernacular architecture and the mysteries of cosmic geometry and time." (Juhani Pallasmaa, Professor and Dean, Finland's most renowned architectural critic.)
"The Helsinki architectural studio Heikkinen-Komonen is foremost among a generation of Finnish designers who are heirs to their country's great modern architects: Alvar Aalto, Eliel Saarinen, Reima and Raili Pietilä, Aulis Blomstedt, and Aarno Ruusuvuori. The architects' characteristic compositions and materials - collages of geometric forms, metal screening, industrial materials, suspended sails, clear and colored glass - are related to the philosophy and aesthetics of minimalist, conceptual, and earth art.
Komonen and Heikkinen simply have the wisdom of knowing when not to say something in order to make a point - through mystical denial substance is nourished." (William Morgan, Professor of Architecture
at Roger Williams University.)