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COLUMN: Detached from reality

COLUMN:  Detached from reality
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By Jaakko Lyytinen
      According to a string of opinion polls, the Finnish people want Matti Vanhanen to be their next Prime Minister - four more years.
      Vanhanen's spirit-level stability, a certain mousy greyness, and his laconic, facts-driven CEO style of management seem to strike a chord with the public at large.
But there is one additional significant reason for Vanhanen's sustained popularity, which has not been mentioned in the prime ministerial stock analyses.
      Matti is a detached man. And that means detached house, by the way, not marital status.
After news of his divorce broke in April 2005, Vanhanen has clung to his privacy with the tenacity of a she-wolverine protecting her new-born kittens.
      Nevertheless, in one respect he has relaxed his grip: Vanhanen has been surprisingly ready and willing to open up his home to journalists. Most recently the warmth of the Vanhanen hearth was enjoyed by Finland's leading PR product-placement advisor, Rita Tainola, from the late-edition tabloid Ilta-Sanomat.
      The article was classic Tainola: "When the Prime Minister leans back comfortably on the sofa, he is precisely the Matti Vanhanen that people should know: good-humoured, warm, and even sensitive with it."
      The PM, clad in a brown pullover, smiles back somewhat bashfully from the photos and radiates centrally-heated charisma.
Even more than by the syrupy gushing of the society columnist, the Finnish readers' hearts are won over by the other leading character in the piece: the house that Matti built.
      It would be a major assignment even for the real estate agents, those keepers of the flame of Finnish hyperbole. A realtor's armpits would rapidly grow moist under his terylene suit just drafting the ad: "unique Jugendstil gem, a beauty rearing up like a castle keep on a rugged rock outcrop, an individual masterpiece..."
      This much we know of Vanhanen's house: the 390 m² building in the village of Lepsämä in Nurmijärvi stands on a rocky 1.5-hectare plot of land.
      The green-painted residence is mostly of stone, and there are Jugendstil or "National Romantic meets Art Nouveau" influences to the design of the windows. The property has a number of special features. There is a helicopter landing pad, an outdoor swimming pool, and a large terrace.
Vanhanen's detached house ideology appeals to the Finns for two reasons. In the first place, the concept of a desirable detached residence resting in the bosom of nature represents an escapist yearning for isolation and security from a hostile world.
      The second reason is, if anything, even more pertinent.
      Matti is a builder who knows his own mind. A man who has erected just the sort of edifice that he felt like putting up. A bloke's bloke who has gone and lived the Finnish dream.
Matti Vanhanen knows that four out of five Finns dream of owning a detached home of their own.
      At the opening of a recent housing fair, the Prime Minister demanded that in the fifteen communities that make up the Helsinki metropolitan area we need a credible prospect of thousands of plots of new residential building land for private homes in the next few years. "It is not fair to annoy and restrict people in this way."
      In Kari Hotakainen's novel (and subsequent film) Juoksuhaudantie ("Trench Street"), the protagonist Matti Virtanen - whose obsessive attempts to acquire a desirable home of his own are the main thread of the book - comes out with much the same credo: "...[getting] the house became a religion, one that the fatherland does not recognise."
      What drives the self-styled "home front veteran" Virtanen is a perfectly ordinary, squat two-storey house on Juoksuhaudantie, one of the 70,000 detached homes built after the war under the Land Acquisition Act and offered to veterans and evacuees.
      For Matti Vanhanen, however, such a dwelling is unfortunately not enough.
And this brings with it some gut-wrenching consequences.
      What sort of built environment are we going to end up with, when cheap borrowed money gets together with a fanatical search for individualism and self-expression running riot?
      Those rather cramped plots of land will give birth to row upon row of tuned and tweaked house-in-a-box packages - miniature columned colonial mansions, crenellated and turreted Pippi Longstocking villas, rugged log-built castles, Moominhomes, 21st century attempts at the two-storey Ostrobothnian farmhouses of yore...
      Vanhanen's Finland.
Even if Vanhanen the man is regarded as a somewhat grey figure, his housing aesthetic is anything but.
      It encapsulates exactly what the Finns so desperately seem to want: old and new rather pitifully scrambled together - Jugendstil on the outside, but Ikea on the inside.
      And in politics, the same fate has befallen the old Finnish "red earth" agrarian & workers' coalition. The Centrists and Social Democrats who make up this traditional government pairing have adopted the ideology of the packaged-house companies.
      One of them claims to be leftist and the other liberal. Yes, the facade still has a few flakes of the old familiar ochre paint - made with boiled rye flour and linseed oil - but when you look closer and through the windows, the residents are edging more to the right than even the conservatives of the National Coalition Party.
      The red earth gang look on with ringside seats and a resigned air as the free-market rodeo plays out in front of them, and an abandoned Finnish working stiff does his best to stay aboard a violently bucking steer.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 11.3.2007

Helsingin Sanomat

  13.3.2007 - THIS WEEK
 COLUMN: Detached from reality

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