Europe's Capital of Culture

Turku 2011Finnish accordion player Kimmo Pohjonen will play with dancing wrestlers, the Helsinki Nelsons, in the city stadium.

From Saunas to wrestlers, the city of Turku has big plans for 2011

With dancing wrestlers and designer saunas, Turku is putting on a quirky, very Finnish show for its stint as European Capital of Culture in 2011.

The title — shared with the Estonian capital Tallinn — sees millions of euros of funding for the arts flooding into the small city. The idea is to change perceptions of Turku, promoting it as a cultural haven, and to encourage its visitors, particularly from Sweden and Russia, to linger.

While Tallinn has an unfair reputation as a boozy stag night destination, Turku probably starts with a blank slate in most travelers' minds. Many would encounter it only as a gateway to Finland on the many ferries from Stockholm.

"Unfortunately, many go through this city, and we want people to stay," said the CEO of the Turku 2011 Foundation, Cay Sevon. A tiny, dynamic woman with a firm handshake and a throaty chuckle, she was described as an "iron lady" by another organizer.

"This can't be done with a bureaucratic attitude. It more or less occupies my whole life," she said of the job, which she took on after working at the interior and finance ministries.

A total budget of 50 million euros ($69.4 million) are being spent on about 150 projects, which the city hopes will pay back multifold in tourism and new businesses.

"The city will become more vibrant, more open, more open-minded," Sevon said. "We think that we can support the whole local economy."

In the city's biggest project for the year of culture, a former train-repair works is being converted into an arts center called Logomo.

The year of culture comes as Turku faces huge job losses in its shipbuilding industry. The world's biggest cruise liner, the Allure of the Seas, will be completed in late October. After that there are no more orders, and 8,000 workers will be laid off along with as many subcontractors, Sevon said.

"I think the capital of culture comes at a good point. If we didn't have that, there might be rather a lot of pessimism," she said.

In the city's biggest project for the year of culture, a former train-repair works is being converted into an arts center called Logomo. Two of its huge spaces will be used for concerts and exhibitions.

The longer-term plan for the center is that artists, designers, ad agencies and architects will rent offices and studios in a big artistic community. The whole project will cost more than 50 million euros, with the city financing about 40 percent.

"It's a big risk for our company but we believe the risks have been quite well studied," said Jukka Mäkinen, from the building's owner, Hartela construction group.

The red brick building, dating back to the 1860s, was teeming with hard-hatted workers on a visit in mid-October. The spaces for the capital of culture events will keep original features such as the huge windows and an industrial feel, project manager Mäkinen said. "The idea is that it will look rough."

Inside, a worker from the Turku 2011 foundation was laying the first stone wall for a multimedia exhibition that will recreate the buildings from the old city and its "great fire" of 1827.

"This is quite an ambitious project. This is supposed to be ready by next January," Mäkinen said dryly.

But Sevon brushed off any question that the center piece could be delayed.

"In Finland, usually everything is ready on time," she said, laughing.

The city's stadium will host one of the largest events, a show called "Battle 2011," starring Finnish accordion player Kimmo Pohjonen, "the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion," as organizers call him. Bizarrely, he will be accompanied by a group of wrestlers called the Helsinki Nelsons, who will perform contemporary dance moves.

The city will also see hundreds of smaller projects, including a scattering of saunas — something so important to Finnish culture that even modern apartment blocks have them. These will be no ordinary saunas, though.

It's hard to miss the giant yellow fiberglass onion in Jan-Erik Andersson's garden. Inside the bulbous structure is an electric heater filled with stones and a circle of wooden chairs. While the avant-garde sauna is still a work in progress, the artist said his family has been trying it out.

It will be equipped with speakers to broadcast a sound collage by Chicago artist Shawn Decker, dominated by the hiss of water being thrown onto the heated stones.

The sauna, which Andersson describes as a cross between a bulb of garlic and a pumpkin, will go to a city park. A compromise, since the artist wanted to place it on the roof of one of city's "ugly, gray" postwar apartment buildings.

Andersson's designer house on an island across from Turku Castle is as far from gray as possible. Bright yellow with curved windows and roof, it is filled with art, including a video installation showing New York's Grand Central station set into the floor. One of the toilets is inspired by Konstantin Melnikov's round house in Moscow.

The house will host events during the year of culture, Andersson said. "Very experimental — people singing in the bathtub, that kind of thing."

You can organize a group visit via the artist's web site,

In another quirky project designed to warm up the winter days, designer huts will be placed around the city parks with heaters inside, accompanied by mugs of warm juice. It's part of a program called 876 Shades of Darkness.

"There will be small tents here and there in the city," Sevon said. "You can sit there and tell stories like they do in Lapland."

The Russian element could include performances by St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater. It will also see a photography exhibition with pictures taken by Russian school children, as well as puppet shows and contemporary dance performances.

The event will expand into the archipelago of some 20,000 islands that stretches off Turku. Already a favorite with Finns, who have summer cottages there, organizers believe that it has vast potential to attract tourists.

Artists are already taking up residencies on the islands — some of which only have a couple of inhabitants — and there will be jazz and classical concerts on a lighthouse island and in remote chapels.   

Russia - Finland 2010
Russia - Finland 2010
<p>This business bilingual colour publication is devoted to Russia and Finland with a special focus on the city of Turku.</p> <p>The supplement opens with an interview with the ambassador of Finland, Matti Anttonen which addresses the most important political and economic issues in Russian and Finnish relations.</p>
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