Parks Beyond Borders: High-Tech Visitor Center Will Earn Finland’s National Parks International Exposure

Artist's renderings show the granduer and promise of the Finnish Nature Center Haltia. The site as it appears right now during the Finnish winter. Top illustrations by Lahdelma and Mahlamäki Architects. Bottom photo by Randy Johnson.

European eco-travelers know Finland for the purity of its “wild nature,” as they say on the Continent, but the country’s national parks have never had a national gateway. Twenty-five visitor centers interpret a system of 37 parks that ranges from island archipelagos in the Baltic Sea to windswept alpine peaks above the Arctic Circle—but those centers are focused on individual parks and even Finns see them as regional attractions.

That’s about to change. Under construction right now not far from Helsinki, on the doorstep of Nuuksio National Park, the Finnish Nature Centre Haltia will be an entry point to Finland’s entire park system—and the full spectrum of the nation’s natural treasures. It’ll also showcase Finland’s high-tech take on environmental education and environmentally sustainable design.

A Long Dream

Before the Nature Centre Haltia, the only interpretation at Nuuksio National Park were some exhibits in a glorified guide hut, much less anything of national significance. The park’s dreamers started toying with the idea of a groundbreaking interpretive concept in the late 1990’s but the real planning started in 2008.

Last week, in mid-December, the new visitor center was decidedly nearing completion and looking a lot like artist’s renderings. The structure is expected to be completed in mid-winter, with the “key being handed to us in February,” says Tuomas Uola, customer service officer at the new visitor center. After that, the center’s exhibits will be installed, with a soft opening planned for May and a grand opening tentatively scheduled for June 6th.

A New Way to Nature

Uola gets energized running down the many ways Haltia will embody “a new way to present information and insight.”

One place that will happen is in a large oval exhibition hall with a big map of Finland on the floor surrounded by ten high-definition plasma screens covering encircling wall space measuring eighteen meters around and three and a half meters high. Visitors are tracked by cameras as they move around the room and as they approach park locations on the map below, seasonal images of those locations will sprawl across the image areas closest to them.

As you walk through the center, the information unfolds before you. The feeling and mood of the seasons changes with dramatic lighting. Uola says this will be the first time such radically high-tech, hyper-engaging technology has been used. The structure was designed by Lahdelma and Mahlamäki Architects.

Images will be supplied by the nation’s best-known nature photographers, among them Finland’s master Hannu Hautala. The goal is to alter those images two to three times a year to keep the exhibition fresh and engaging—and that aim includes younger visitors. “They’re a tough group to get engaged in nature,” Uola says. “And even Finnish city kids are getting less familiar with their environment.”

Innovative ways to achieve that are intended to get beyond “presenting images and blocks of text.” One exhibit will feature a bear’s den with a motorized bruin where “local school kids can hangout with a bear.” There will also be other animal dwellings, a “night room” to emulate the environment inhabited by nocturnal wildlife, and even a mountain hut to intrigue the adventurous into imagining a backcountry outing. They’re all designed to provide a “nature school” experience that will play a key role in the environmental education curricula of the urban schools in surrounding areas. The schools have helped fund the visitor center, just as city-owned land helped create Nuuksio National Park in 1994.

Architectural Imagery and Aspirations

The 3,500 square-meter building’s name Haltia comes from a plethora of precedents. Haltia is a Finnish word for bewitchment, “representing the way the natural wonders featured in its exhibits will enchant visitors,” says Metsähallitus Natural Heritage Services, the Finnish agency responsible for managing the country’s protected areas. Haltia can also mean “a mythological figure which cherishes nature.” Beyond that, Halti is also the name of a high alpine summit in a remote corner of Finnish Lapland—the highest point in Finland—so it reflects the center’s goal of orienting visitors to the entire country.

Except for some metal and concrete, Haltia will be entirely made of wood—the first large building in Finland to be made of wood using cross-laminated timber boards. That absorbs noise and gives great acoustics to the center’s educational amphitheater and meeting rooms.

The north side of the building retains warmth by turning a windowless wall to the wind. The building has a glass-festooned southern side (with signature Finnish views of forests around Lake Pitkäjärvi) and a grass-covered roof with massive solar panels. Between that solar strategy and geothermal energy production (eleven kilometers of pipes lead underground), Haltia will be “75% self-sufficient in terms of heating, and its cooling system will be 100% self-sufficient,” says Metsähallitus.

“It’s a lot of little things that add up to something big,” says Uola, and that includes restroom lights that turn on and off with traffic, elevator brakes that generate electricity, and air conditioning that regulates itself according to the number of people in the building.

Don't expect all this to be spartan. The mission of the structure is to inspire and educate—and that means appealing to everyone from school kids to tourists and international convention conference attendees using Helsinki as a base. The restaurant will feature foods sourced locally and authentic Finnish cuisine. Some groups may even find themselves lounging in the onsite VIP sauna.

Preserving—and Promoting—Nature

Uola is justifiably proud of the new structure rising out of the snowy hillside above a scenic lake, but, he says, “this will be the second best way to experience nature. When people leave Haltia, we hope they’ll be motivated to experience nature the best way—by heading outside themselves. It’s about getting people excited to go out and do it.”

That’ll be more than an idle option with the center’s customer-focused services. The visitor center will not only orient visitors to nearby adventures in Nuuksio National Park, it’ll actually offer outdoor gear for rent. “Even if it’s pouring rain, if you want to get out into the park, we’ll have the gear to help you.” The center will also refer people to a variety of local outfitters.

Haltia’s mission is bigger than even that. In the often more commercially-connected style of national parks outside the United States, Haltia will expand local economic impact all over Finland by providing information about outfiitters and other nature-based partners in parks elsewhere. With the entire national park system under one roof, the center’s counselors and interpreters will be able to match visitors interests with parks anywhere in the country.

I asked Uola if that would make the center’s staff travel agents. “More like ‘hike agents,’” he said with a smile. And if you don’t want to go very far to take that hike, the center has a new nature trail and handicapped accessible trail just across the street.

National park fee structures vary all over the world. In Finland, the parks are free, as will be access to many parts of Haltia (including exhibits on local recreational opportunities). But the center’s most intensive exhibition area will carry an entrance fee. Among representative charges will be a 15 € (Euro) family pass, and individual fees of 7 € per adult, and 2.5 € for kids 7-17 years. There are a range of group fees and rental rates for facilities.

Metsähallitus predicts the Finnish Nature Centre Haltia will attract between 150,000 to 200,000 people a year.

A Perfectly Finnish Finish

The new visitor center is coming to fruition during Helsinki’s 2012 designation as the World Design Capital, an initiative of the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design that intends to celebrate and encourage “use of design as an effective tool for social, cultural, environmental and economic development.”

One stroll through Helsinki, with its iconic architecture, and museums and shops full of elegant design, reveals why Finland is justifiably famous for its Scandinavian sensibility. By 2013, the Finnish Nature Centre Haltia will be aiming that technical artistry at popularizing and interpreting the international significance of Finland’s national parks—right on the doorstep of Helsinki.

As for Tuomas Uola, he says, “I can’t wait to work there. I’ll be one of the first smiling people visitors see when they walk through that door.”