World class along the river

[2012-08-06] Design, art, architecture and digital experiments. Umeå Arts Campus is a melting-pot for new ideas and a creative inspiration for the entire region. The schools along the Ume river attract researchers and students from around the world. So what's the secret behind their success?

A piece of plastic the size of a shoe box is lying next to the milling machine in the Umeå Institute of Design's workshop. In a few years' time, the milled prototype may change the everyday situation of miners all over the world.
“I created a new type of helmet that adjusts to the shape of the wearer's head and with a balanced weight. If the current helmets are worn too long, there is a risk of injury because they are so heavy at the front,” says Maxime Dubreucq from France, who is studying in the Master's programme in Advanced Product Design.

The project is being run in collaboration with Atlas Copco and Boliden, and Maxime Dubreucq has performed field studies in Boliden's mine at a depth of 1,300 metres in order to understand the working conditions faced by miners. His helmet has now made it to the finals in the International Design Excellence Award (iDEA) competition.

“We received 13 nominations for iDEA this year, which is more than we normally receive,” says Tapio Alakörkkö, who is Head of department at the Umeå Institute of Design as he passes through the school's laboratory-like rooms.

This example says a great deal about Umeå's study environment:
• It has an international environment.

• Its results are on world-class level.

• There is a down-to-earth attitude.

A melting pot by the river

The educational and research environment at the Umeå Institute of Design provides the Umeå Arts Campus with a stable foundation on which to build – a melting pot of design, art and architecture that is going to put Umeå and its university on the world map. The campus with its golden yellow wood facades lights up the promenade next to the Ume River and opens up towards the city with a gesture of welcome.

The Umeå Institute of Design, the Umeå Academy of Fine Arts, the Umeå School of Architecture and Bildmuseet a public institution for for contemporary art and visual culture (the Museum of Contemporary Art and Visual Culture) are lined up side by side here. The Humlab-X experimental workshop is housed inside the premises, and the Sliperiet incubator will also be launched in 2013 as an important bridge between academia and the business world. Together the units will form a new and creative power centre.

“The idea has existed for a long time and is based on the Umeå Institute of Design's success. People all over the world have come to understand that soft values are important, and that technology isn't all that matters,” says Göran Sandberg, former Vice-Chancellor of Umeå University and one of the venture's initiators.

That Umeå Arts Campus was finally realised was in some ways sheer luck of events: the combination of strong departments, a university interested in creating excellence, a municipality that wanted to improve collaboration and a property owner that made a large donation at just the right time.

The Umeå School of Architecture, which was founded in 2009, was the final piece of the puzzle needed for the concept. With specialist recruitment of Nokia's Head of design research Anna Valtonen and Danish architect Peter Kjaer, everything fell into place.

The Umeå Arts Campus has cost a total of 350 SEK million. Balticgruppen, a real estate company, has played an important financial role in terms of realizing the plans. In addition to a large donation, Balticgruppen has offered a lease discount of 90 SEK million up until 2016. The university and municipality will provide the remaining funds.

Creativity may form the basis for Västerbotten's new businesses, but the business aspect is not the most important one for this initiative.
“From the very start, the aim has been to create a world-class educational setting that attracts the best talents in the world. However, I am convinced that a positive side effect will be many new businesses being launched close to the campus,” says Göran Sandberg.

The campus is an important future investment for Umeå University.
“We are very hopeful that synergy effects will arise from the campus. It will be a power centre where the whole is greater than its constituent parts,” says Kjell Jonsson, who is Pro-Vice-Chancellor and chairman of the steering group for Umeå Arts Campus.
“At the same time, it is important that Umeå Arts Campus does not take on a life of its own – it is part of Umeå University and we want to increase the level of collaboration with the other parts
of the university as well. All of the different parts should benefit from the initiative.”

We will improve the world

About ten people have gathered in the Umeå School of Architecture's lecture hall. Kulturverket, an organisation that works with children and creative processes, has called a press conference to discuss the upcoming European Capital of Culture year 2014.

“We are going to build a pavilion in every neighbourhood with a special theme together with the students. What would Umeå look like if 8 year olds were allowed to call the shots – we are hoping for lots of crazy ideas,” says Beatrice Hammar, Administrative Manager at Kulturverket.

The meeting develops into a discussion where the journalists themselves forward ideas. One of the people sitting at the table wonders if a dinosaur could be built, for example “yes, why not”, someone says.
The idea is for students to share their ideas with the architect students who then develop and implement them in cooperation with the schools.

“This is in line with our focus on intervention – how we talk about architecture and how we behave in the city. We want to develop architecture together with other stakeholders and discuss the role of architecture in society,” says Katrin Sten, who is Head of department at the Umeå School of Architecture, when we speak after the press conference.
When the Umeå School of Architecture was inaugurated, it was the first new school of architecture to be initiated in 43 years. There was a desire to create a new focus compared to other architecture programmes. The concept of intervention is a type of innovation. There is also a clear focus on sustainability issues in Umeå, and it is the only school of architecture that has an artistic foundation – the others are taught at technical universities.

The open, airy and light premises – designed by the Dan
ish architectural firm Henning Larsen in collaboration with White – are full of wooden structures and drawings. There is a model of the Garbage City neighbourhood in one of the hallways; it is the result of the “Cairo Project” in which 50 third year students traveled to the poor neighbourhood in Cairo, Egypt, to study the situation and develop simple improvement proposals.

The project is characteristic of the school:
“Architecture is not a national or European matter. We want to have a much broader perspective,” says Rector Peter Kjaer who was responsible for designing the course.Peter Kjaer, who was previously the Rector at Aarhus School of Architecture, says that the greatest architectural challenges are found in growth countries such as China and Brazil.
“It is incumbent upon architects to improve the world. We want to get out of the European comfort zone. Our architects should be able to work anywhere,” says Peter Kjaer. He believes that Umeå Arts Campus is a fantastic environment in which to work and that it reinforces research.

The Umeå School of Architecture has also introduced its own research programme. Sepideh Karami from Iran, one of the school's three doctoral students, is sitting in a separate research room.
“I am investigating the space between the formal and informal city, for example the slum areas, as well as the role of architecture in the interplay. Perhaps architecture can make a difference. My point of departure is Teheran,” says Sepideh Karami, who will travel there in a few months' time to map out the city: that is, chart out and investigate different parts of the city that will subsequently be compared to the analyses she is now performing.

Importance of unexpected encounters

It is the unexpected meetings that can result in brilliance. Just imagine what would have happened if Steve Wozniak had not invited Steve Jobs to his garage at the beginning of the 1970s – two odd, completely different people who went on to create world history (at least one of them). One of Umeå Art Campus' important and basic ideas is to encourage people to meet across disciplines. An architecture is needed that facilitates the meetings.

It is only possible to see that the buildings are physically connected when you enter one of them. The four freestanding buildings are connected on the bottom floor.

A long, wide, glassed-in corridor connects all of the departments, with Humlab-X in the middle. There is a university library branch a short distance away, and the newly opened Hansson
& Hammar café is the obvious meeting place for students. Café guests can see right into the Umeå Institute of Design's workshop and observe the work being performed there. The sensation is transparent and vibrant.
“The campus idea is a very good one, and I believe the spontaneous meetings actually constitute the most important aspect of the entire campus. These meetings are oftentimes more rewarding than formal meetings,” says Anna Valtonen, who is the Rector of the Umeå Institute of Design.

The café is full of students and teachers flocking around the generous vegetarian buffet. Discussions are lively at the tables. Everyone I interview comes back to the same idea: the meetings that take place in the common areas are important.

It is not just a matter of students and teachers meeting – the surrounding community is also invited to take part: companies, organisations and all of Umeå's residents. Bildmuseet's grow-
ing public service initiative plays an important role here – the museum will offer even more lectures and exhibitions, as well
as an image workshop for people of all ages. Sliperiet will also invite stakeholders from the entire community to contribute to a dynamic knowledge transfer at the campus.

Education without boundaries

What do philosophy and contemporary dance have in common? They can encounter each other at the Umeå Academy of Fine Arts.
“Crossing boundaries is nothing new for us,” says Professor and Head of Department Roland Spolander in response to the question of what the Umeå Arts Campus means for his unit.
“We have always crossed boundaries – that is the nature of art, but I believe this is going to be very good. It provides opportunities for cooperation and joint seminars.”

The Umeå Academy of Fine Arts was the first department to relocate to the current campus when it moved into the Scharinska wood grinding mill in 1987. And now, 25 years later, the school has just moved into its new premises next to Bildmuseet.

It is still a little disorganised when Per Nilsson, deputy Head of department, shows us around the building. Each student is given an individual studio. There are metal and woodworking workshops on the bottom floor. Art and sculpture rooms are located up one flight of stairs.
“Students can work here around the clock; it becomes a way of living,” says Per Nilsson.

Of the 300 people who apply each year, 15–20 are accepted. There are no specific areas of specialisation. As is the case with other universities, the school offers a three-year Bachelor's programme and a two-year Master's programme. The school used the old classical division when it first opened: art, sculpture and graphics. However, like most other institutions, the division was dissolved at the beginning of the 1990s.

“There are approximately 70 students here – and just as many specialisations,” says Per Nilsson.
As we continue, we encounter Joakim Hansson, a master's student who is building clay figures and a van.
“I'm making an animated film about a robbery in which I was a victim while working in the armored car industry. This is a way to deal with the trauma. Around 3,000 still images are needed to produce a five-minute film. I produce about ten seconds a day,” he says.

The animation example highlights an important difference between the Umeå Academy of Fine Arts and the other two schools on the campus: while design and architecture are often instrumental and useful in relation to different users, art is free and its only point of departure is the artist.
“The nature of art is to be entirely independent and not useful. It is important to keep it free of useful aspects, even though these aspects may arise as added value or spinoffs,” says Roland Spolander.

Research is also performed at the Umeå Academy of Fine Arts. It is here that contemporary dance comes in. Per Nilsson, who is a Ph.D, is studying the relationship between philosophy and dance together with choreographer Björn Säfsten and two dancers.
“We are examining how theoretical philosophy can be inspired by dance and vice versa. I believe our thoughts originate in our physical body, not in our head,” says Per Nilsson, who says his report will be presented both as a performance and in writing.
“At the end of the day, all art is research in that a new attitude to the world is developed.”

The attraction of Umeå

How can a relatively small town on the Norrland coast attract so many international talents?
In a survey on Swedish universities performed by Fokus magazine, Umeå University tops the list for international relations, and when strolling through the various units at Umeå Arts Campus, the language heard is often English. Just over 80 percent of the Umeå Institute of Design's master's students originate from outside Sweden.

The international element among teachers is considerable:
“Our 20 teachers come from 13 nations. The environment is a very invigorating and gratifying place to work,” says Peter Kjaer who is now in the process of recruiting another teacher for the Umeå School of Architecture. “I have received a large number of applications from all over the world”.
And the students like Umeå: in a very recent survey conducted by the International Student Barometer, Umeå was ranked as the fifth best university in the world in the category for student satisfaction. (Umeå ranked number one in the world in the categories for housing and access to Internet.)

Long-term and purposeful efforts to produce superior education seem to have had results, and the rapid spreading of Umeå's magnitude should not be underestimated.
“As regards design, everyone is familiar with Umeå – the study environment here is exceptional,” says Shelag McLellan who is studying one of the master's programmes at the Umeå Institute of Design.
Rector Anna Valtonen continues:
“It is the very motivated students who come here. Students in London are faced with the dilemma of the city competing with their education. In Umeå, the university is in focus – it's like a small family around the clock here.”

Why are companies lining up?

BMW, Audi and Philips. Companies are lining up to recruit the best talents produced by the Umeå Institute of Design as quickly as possible. The education provided by the university has been ranked as among the best in the world in many contexts – for example by Business Week magazine.
What is the secret?
“I think it is our close cooperation with the business world”.
All of the projects are based on something real, and we have an ongoing dialogue with companies and organisations,” says Tapio Alakörkkö, who is Head of department at the Umeå Institute of Design.

Demian Horst is responsible for Transportation Design – one of the master's programmes:
“We work with exactly the same tools as the industry does, so companies know that our students can start working from day one. At the same time, the car industry is fairly rigid. We try to think outside normal boundaries,” he says and shows us a new control system. The model is made of foam plastic and is built on the basis of how computer games are steered. The idea is that it might be suitable for disabled persons, for example.
“However, it takes time to make changes in the industry. We send out 'change agents' to the companies who can take a stand for change.”
Design is not just a matter of products. The fastest growing area is, perhaps, service design.

“Design has become a much broader concept the past few years. It is a strategic process where the human or user is in focus – it's a way of thinking. For example, one of our doctoral students is looking into how a radiology ward could be modified from a user perspective,” says Anna Valtonen who wants to develop the institute's research.
Her background is as Head of design research and foresight at Nokia, and she is very enthusiastic about her field.
“Sometimes it seems like all national action plans have been written by an industrial designer – that is, the notion that new and innovative ideas are needed as the industrial economy continues its downward trend. The need for our students' services is not likely to decrease in the future; rather, just the opposite is true.”

Nothing is impossible

Our world is changing faster than ever. Old structures and business models disappear and new ones arise. Development places greater demands on innovative solutions being developed to help regions and nations cope with the competition. According to the American economist Richard Florida, it is the ability to be creative that constitutes the most important key to economic success.

In all likelihood, the Umeå Arts Campus has the prerequisites needed to cope with the challenges of the future. The challenges will vary in character – just like the larch wood found on the front of the campus buildings – but the creativity that resides within the walls will remain unchanged: boundless.
“Creative notions are entirely decisive at the Umeå Arts Campus. It is a matter of gathering well-educated and creative young people who believe anything is possible. They have no limitations – anything is possible. And every once in a while, a brilliant idea is born,” says Göran Sandberg.

An example of this is an innovative helmet for the mining industry all over the world.

Text: Johan Wickström
Photo: Johan Gunséus and Andreas Nilsson

Editor: Karin Wikman

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