Finland is not the most urbanized of countries, as you might well suspect. Where it is urban, however, it is very much so, and often in a brutalist fashion. Especially the centers of small and medium sized towns all over Finland often appear as if forcefully pulled into the 20th century at some point during the 60s or 70s, and pretty much left that way. That is how I thought Jyväskylä would be, too.
Generally, that incongruous, heavy handed approach to urban planning was what I remembered from coming to Finland as a child. There was something about that urbanism, however, something I did not feel when I walked among concrete-heavy architecture or loveless living tanks in the US, Germany, or elsewhere in Europe. The dreariness here was clean. Not necessarily less grey, or less unfriendly. But More Bauhaus, less Plattenbau. Maybe, just maybe the architects who had devised Finland’s monstrosities of concrete and steel and glass and occasionally wood did this just to pay the bills, but in their heart were thinking about becoming the next IM Pei, or closer to home, Eero Saarinen, or even Alvar Aalto, who is honored in Jyväskylä with a museum worth visiting. Still, most of their creations were nothing to write home about. Not places where you would love to stick around.
But something was changing. I had noticed it in years before in Helsinki, where an old train yard had been converted into an urban space. I noticed it now as we walked around town. Jyväskylä, at just about 135.000 people is non-urbanized Finland’s seventh largest city. Even a year earlier, I hadn’t found it especially charming, or even especially interesting. Not a metropolis by any account, now, however, Jyväskylä had become what seemed like a pleasant place to live. With a busy (if still somewhat drab) shopping street at its center, and a small harbor for yachts, passenger boats and ferries poised to scatter across Lake Päijänne at any moment. Past the harbor a number of new apartment houses had been built, and the whole area appeared spruced up. If you built something by the water, it seemed, people would flock to it. We meandered along grassy stretches of public park and found ourselves back at the train station about an hour later. I wasn’t ready to pack my bags and move to Jyväskylä just yet. But I would put something in parentheses behind its entry in my mental list of places I had visited: (Come again).