Interview: Marienberg’s Architect Antti Nousjoki “Helsinki Could Use More Estonian-style Dynamics”

Marienberg will develop in the future into a community hub with cozy cafes and restaurants, a local grocery store, a kindergarten, a green promenade, and numerous leisure and sports opportunities. The architectural concept for Marienberg was created by the highly acclaimed Finnish architectural firm ALA Architects, led by Antti Nousjoki.

Let’s ask Antti more specifically about the story behind the creation of Marienberg.

Please introduce yourself briefly. How did you become an architect, and what values guide your work as an architect?  

My grandfather from my mothers side was a ”rakennusmestari”, a site manager for many large buildings in southern Finland. I visited many building sites with him, climbing cranes and wondering at machinery and various tools. My father’s father was a bricklayer, and we lived in a house he had built, a really beautiful bungalow-style 1950’s modern brick house. I did not know any architects before I started studying, but I knew I was becoming one.

I am a firm believer in a society where we work together to improve our lives, not just settling with what we have, but pushing forward together, each with their own skill set and role. Our firm ALA has a strong ethos of doing meaningful, useful and very functional buildings, of being active and productive in building better communities. Instead of shouting from the sidelines, we want to be in the middle of the pitch, making plays and occassionally also scoring goals.

To start, take us on an imaginary walk into the future, where the Marienberg district has been established. What would a visitor see, hear, and feel while being there?


Marienburg is visible as a gentle skyline of dark angular roofs rising from between the large trees. Entering the area, the visitor is greeted with generous green spaces and functional outdoor areas. The low buildings define public and semi-public city spaces, which feel both urban through high quality materials and diverse functionality, but also have a village-scale feel with low buildings and large trees defining the atmosphere.

ALA Architects won the architectural competition for the Marienberg district. Why did you decide to participate and what inspired your design for this project? 

The site is a really excellent area for the city of Tallinn to grow, within easy cycling distance of downtown, and currently occupied by obsolete warehouse-type buildings. So it is a great place to build a sustainable residential area, and we felt that this would be the right challenge for us. Also, we knew the client and were confident that they want to do something ambitious and beautiful with the site.

Could you describe the creative process a bit? Did you visit the area to get a feel for it? 

We did walk around the site a lot to understand the relationship the new buildings will have with the surroundings and the landscape, to imagine the busier and calmer spots, and to appreciate the existing trees and landcape features. But most of the creative work is a systematic analysis and synthesis cycle of producing drawings, diagrams and 3d models, attemoting to overlay and contrast various ideas and contrasting notions, to dig out a core concept that is hiding inside all the materials. This requires patience, teamwork and great communication.

How would you describe the architectural concept for Marienberg, and how does it integrate with the surrounding area? 


The concept for the area is based on defining the best locations for the distinctive urban villas, the ”houses” that stand out from between the trees. These 4-6 floor buildings are similar in their design language, but also each one of them has a distinctive shape, and the materials vary. They are place so that each apartment has views past and between the other villas, and finally connected with lower building volumes that define the urban spaces and complete the layout.

The result is a dense, urban residential area which has the visual and emotional identity of a dense suburb, where one can gaze at a sheltering slanted roof and experience the sense of belonging and identity that it gives.

How does thoughtful architectual concept foster community building and prevent neighborhoods from becoming anonymous dormitory suburbs?

If we think of successful and beloved residential areas in greater Helsinki region, for example, the best ones are the ones with a distinctive style and identity, generated both by the design of the buildings and also by their relationship with the landscape and the nature around them. Residents of places like Käpylä or Suvikumpu are very proud of their areas, and eagerly maintain and enhance their communities and show them to visitors and new residents. Marienberg is of perfect size to create a distinctive community like that.

Sustainable solutions are becoming increasingly important in all fields. What are the main trends in sustainable residential development today? 

We must take all possible measures to immediately reduce the carbon emssions created by new projects, while also ensuring that the natural resources used and the carbon emitted generates a very long lasting, high quality set of buildings that are hopefully permanent in terms of their load bearing frame and maintainable and adjustable enough for teh future generations to cherish them. Reducing energy usage is also very important, as is rainwater management and microclimate awareness.

More broadly, you visit Tallinn often; how do you evaluate the development of Tallinn’s cityscape from an architect’s perspective, particularly regarding sustainability and creating a people-friendly environment? What do you like about it, and where is there room for improvement? What can Estonians learn from Finns? 

First of all, i have to say that Estonians are much better at looking forward and being courageous and ambitious with their new buildings. Finns are much more conservative as architects, developers and home buyers. This allows Tallinn to take bigger and bolder steps in terms of sustainability and building a more livable, more functional city. This also allows for some questionable projects to be implemented, which puts the emphasis on being even more careful about the architect selection and maybe also fostering an even stronger local discourse about what is the right level of ambition for the new Tallinn building projects. But i wish we had more of the Estonian style dynamics in Helsinki.