Pirjo Sanaksenaho

Sanaksenaho Architects: CIPEA Villa in Nanjing, China. Designed 2003-04 , built 2012. Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo

Sanaksenaho Architects: Turku Ecumenical Art Chapel designed 1996-99, built 2005. Photo: Jussi Tiainen

Some building materials just get better with time. Think of copper, and its subtle transformation from one appearance to another. Copper’s most famous trait is its conversion from a bright reddish metallic color to iridescent brown to near black and finally to a greenish verdigris patina. Besides being aesthetically pleasing, copper is also durable and completely recyclable.

Amongst the appreciators and utilizers of this attractive material is Sanaksenaho Architects, a Helsinki-based architectural office that has a keen eye on designing buildings that form a close relationship with their surroundings. A beautiful example of their design philosophy is the St. Henry’s Ecumenical Art Chapel located on the island of Hirvensalo in Southern Finland. The copper surface of the chapel will become green in the process of time and will therefore camouflage itself as part of the surrounding nature. The subtle form of the chapel resembles fish, the symbol of the first Christians. This early symbol fits the chapel well, as it is ecumenical and therefore meant for all Christians despite of their congregation.

The chapel’s interior is made of pinewood. The contrasting play of daylight and shadow powerfully articulates the interior of the space. Strong indirect light enters the space from both ends of the chapel. The exhibition of art and religious ceremonies coexist within the same space. The symbiosis of art and ceremony stems from the tradition of Renaissance churches. Visitors view the art at the rear of the space, while religious ceremonies are occurring in the front of the chapel.

Sanaksenaho Architects have continued utilizing copper also in their more recent projects, like the Boathouse Villa, which was realized as part of CIPEA (China International Practical Exhibition of Architecture) in Nanjing, China. The villa is a vacation residence that can also serve artists in their creative work, meetings, seminars and short-term projects. The villa is boarded with green patinated copper. The interior includes a combination of different local woods and natural stone with a wall of windows on the west side of the villa highlighting breathtaking views of the water and surrounding trees. The Villa features a roof top terrace with fireplace, delivering a panoramic view of the bay area along with the peaceful sounds of nearby streams and birds. 

Pirjo Sanaksenaho, a partner of Sanaksenaho Architects’ office in Helsinki, was FCINY’s artist-in-residence in August 2014. Sanaksenaho has been teaching housing design at the Aalto University Department of Architecture since 2000. During her residency, Sanaksenaho intends to finalize her doctoral thesis dealing with living in small-house areas in the 1950s and 1960s.