Senate Square, Helsinki

by Panu Minkkinen

*** Crossposted from ***

This project began already some time ago. Of the participants here, Matilda Arvidsson will have heard the first ideas quite a few years ago in Gothenburg. Since then, I’ve had to shelve the project, but now I’m working on it again and finalising it into a (hopefully) publishable text. It’s still very much work in progress. It’ a case study of Helsinki’s main square, Senate Square. I am assuming that arguments inferred from this case study are at least somewhat generalisable.

The original idea was to take a key idea from French political theorist Jacques Rancière and investigate its spatial dimensions. Rancière doesn’t himself have that much to say about space or place, so whatever I claimed would have to be an applied interpretation. In other words, what would Rancière have to say about public squares?

My contribution today involves two main points.

First, this is an analysis of the democratic pedigree of the public square or the town square that you’ll find in most government centres. Usually, the public square is surrounded by institutional architecture housing government buildings, courthouses, town halls, and the like. In Europe, this architecture is often predominantly neoclassical in style with its pastiche-like nods towards the Greek polis and Roman law. The public power invested in the institutional architecture is then counterbalanced by the agora represented by the empty space in the middle (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Planning document for Senate Square by unknown, circa 1850.

That empty space seemingly represents the ‘free’ space that is left for democratic deliberation. Anthropologists like Setha Low (e.g. Low 2000) who study civic squares lament over the loss of open public space in globalised neoliberal megalopolises because this development allegedly endangers civic participation in public affairs. I’d like to suggest that this is a romanticised notion of the democratic potential of public squares. The empty space in the centre of the square is not an agora, but a pen for the herding of the multitude. It is not meant to facilitate free and autonomous democratic expression, but to govern it, to keep it within manageable limits. In Rancière’s terms (see Rancière 2010: 27-44), civic action that takes place on the public square can never be politics but remains ‘police’. And it is specifically the spatial and architectural characteristics of the square, its Vitruvian symmetry and neoclassical pomp, that prevent anything genuinely political from taking place. So, for example, recent trade union-facilitated demonstrations against the poor working conditions of health care workers could only be organised with conditional permits issued by the police authorities that specify the maximum amount of participants, the hours, and spatial limitations.

it is specifically the spatial and architectural characteristics of the square, its Vitruvian symmetry and neoclassical pomp, that prevent anything genuinely political from taking place

There are, of course, exceptions like Paris in ’68, the radical feminist protests on the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, the Occupy movement and Zuccotti Park in New York, and maybe even some so-called street parliaments on Senate Square itself during the Finnish Civil War.

My second point is more methodological. Intuitively I wanted to use a qualitative method that involved walking in these ‘constituted spaces’ and capture my ‘sensing’ of the environment in photographs. I knew something about walking and urban research through Walter Benjamin‘s writings about the flaneur (Benjamin 2003: 3-92) and the urban psychogeography of the Situationists (e.g. Sadler 1998).

Now, a full professor on the threshold of retirement can pretty much indulge in anything. But such indulgence is anathema to academic leadership. I want to to be part of developing a reproducible method that would, for its part, enable similar work by younger colleagues, a method that our academic gatekeepers would be able to acknowledge. In addition to qualitative archival analyses (official documents, correspondence, ordinance maps, etc.), the case study is presented mainly with the help of visual ethnography involving photographs taken during multiple walks on and around the square.

I found two early signposts for this type of method from our disciplines. The first was Olivia Barr’s work (e.g. Barr 2016) where she describes her walks in Aboriginal land and how she observes and ‘senses’ the complex and pluralistic idea of Aboriginal law, of ‘Country’. The second was Renske Vos’s article about her walk along Brussel’s rue de la Loi and how she reflects on the nature of the European Union during that walk (Vos 2019). My modest contribution is this twist involving visual ethnography (see Figures 2-6) that would, so I hope, make this kind of visually rich research plausible in the eyes of the funders and other gatekeepers of academia.

Figures 2-6: Senate Square, Helsinki. Walks 1-2 (2-3 October 2021)
and 3 (9 October 2021). Photos: PM.

Panu Minkkinen is Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Helsinki, Finland. Currently his chair also covers socio-legal studies and law and gender studies both of which have previously had designated academic leaders at Faculty level. He coordinates socio-legal scholarship in the Faculty (and beyond) through the Helsinki Socio-Legal Initiative (HSLI).

This piece is part of the legal sightseeing
mini-blog series on institutional architecture:
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