Long reads


All of the world’s wonderful colours – or how language changed opinions about the Lapinlahti psychiatric hospital

The Pro Lapinlahti movement had the power to change the way people talked about the Lapinlahti psychiatric hospital, which operated in Helsinki in 1841–2008, researcher Maija Kerko discovered when writing a nonfiction book on the language employed by the well-known movement. In this story, Kerko discusses her epiphanies from the research project.

“The Pro Lapinlahti movement was born in the 80s when patients started to defend their hospital through poetic expression in letters to the editor. For almost thirty years at the heart of the movement, which in its heyday attracted thousands of active followers, has been the Pro Lapinlahti association, founded in 1988.

In my nonfiction book, I try to bring out the colourful language that developed as the Pro Lapinlahti movement tried to describe the importance of the area and to protect it. The language had a symbolic power to unite people, but it collided with the sectoral decision-making system, which often employed joyless newspeak.

With my book, I want to offer a glimpse to a previously unseen piece of the cultural history of the Lapinlahti hospital. The wide material I have used also provides the opportunity to evaluate the events connected to closing down the hospital.”


The dynamic of the movement

Key to my book is a special concept of the place. In my book, I look at the views of different players on Lapinlahti as a place, which is interesting as the views are very varied.

The historical isolation of the place and the hushed up nature of mental health problems sharply divide interpretations of the place to those formed from the inside and those formed from the outside, and make the interpretations more extreme and varied.

Definitions of Lapinlahti as a place have changed quite dramatically during its 30-year history. In the 80s, outsiders labelled the place a ‘black spot on the map of Helsinki’, a scary place where ‘they took care of chronics’, whereas in the 2000s the place was described as ‘a paradise on the last shore’ where the exhausted of our society could go to rest.

This insight has made me understand the incredible dynamic of the Pro Lapinlahti movement, which has influenced the way the history of the hospital has been written later on and people’s views, and even memories, of Lapinlahti as a psychiatric hospital and a part of the changing landscape of Helsinki.

Through this process, I have also realised the myriad different lights in which the history of Lapinlahti can be shown, what kind of history-writing the language used by the movement emphasises or ignores.”


The symbolism of hope

“Common to the place-bound language used by the Pro Lapinlahti movement is the way it observes the surroundings of the Lapinlahti hospital through the senses and the symbolism of hope and healing connected to these observations.

Often, the observations are assigned a concrete power to change emotions, experiences and actions, or they are experienced as part of identity, even consciousness, like in the following metaphor, which I discovered in the raw version of a letter to the editor written by the patients and published in abbreviated form in ‘86:

We are privileged people, patients of the Lapinlahti hospital. The arched vaults of our minds stem from here.’

Said a member of the board in a press conference of the new association in 1988:

‘When I arrived here at the hospital, I didn’t have the energy to do much at all, to concentrate on anything. – – As my ears could rest in the silence – – my eyes opened to look around me. Over and over again, I found myself staring at a beautiful arched vault of some window or the patina of some old stone staircase. – – to my great delight, I realised I was in the safety of a beautiful, harmonious building. – – The glorious autumn and summer colours of this park spurred me to rediscover colours. – – I wanted to transport the glowing nature surrounding me onto canvas. I printed on canvas and wove cloths. These activities eased my mind and brought out a creativity in me of which I had not been aware.’

In the same vein, a member’s letter from 1990 cites the writer Mirjam Tuominen, who was a patient at the hospital in the 1930s. The letter describes how she became aware of a whole world of images through drawings made at Lapinlahti, which helped her heal:

‘Gold is the colour of pure rapture. Yesterday, as I went to the hospital, all the leaves in the trees seemed to merge together, uniting in some invisible space where I was, too.’

The letter ends in this statement: ‘The Pro Lapinlahti cherry tree glows in a fiery red in the inner garden. In front of Venice, pepperworts bloom. Colours help.’

The symbolism of hope linked to the sensory impressions experienced at Lapinlahti became available to the public in a brand new way thanks to the great popularity of the movement in the 2000s. At the same time when ‘The death of the welfare society’, a documentary made within the movement which dealt with the threat of closing down the hospital, played on the radio, newspapers wrote about the movement’s Kylvö (‘Sowing’) event, and the 10,000 flower bulbs to be planted in the hospital’s park were referred to as ‘the bulbs of hope’ and ‘symbols of faith in the future’. To quote Arvo Juutilainen, the long-time gardener of Lapinlahti who came up with the idea for the event, ‘all the beautiful colours of the world’ were planted in the park.”



“I have realised that the place-bound language used by the movement had a strong influence on later views and even on new history-writing pertaining to the Lapinlahti hospital and its cultural history. The movement laid the foundations for new history-writing by making syntheses and interpretations and by writing and talking about information that, in the past, had existed as quiet experiences and been taken for granted, which applied to the healing power of nature on patients. By the 80s, the bearers of this silent information were nurses and other employees who had in many cases worked at the hospital for decades; but for the doctors, who in the 19th century and the start of the 20th century had still been caretakers of the environment of Lapinlahti, it was already disappearing.

The histories of the hospital written in the 2000s took it for granted that in the 19th century a common belief in the healing powers of nature prevailed and that the Lapinlahti hospital was built on the basis of this belief. It is interesting, though, that prior to 1986, when patients started to talk about it, there were very few references to the therapeutic importance of the Lapinlahti environment.

Another recent insight of mine applies to the somewhat selective way the language used by the movement refers to the previously written cultural history of the hospital. Primarily, the movement relies on history written from the aspect of architecture and urban history, which supports the movement’s own language emphasising aesthetic observations, and less so on the history of the hospital written from the point of view of the development of psychiatry. This is probably explained by the movement’s attempt to lessen the prejudices regarding psychiatric hospitals.”


What did the movement achieve?

“The patients’ message of the healing power of the hospital made a great impression on the media in the 80s: the movement juxtaposed greed and humanity and managed to unanimously tip the scale for the latter. The threat of closing down Lapinlahti and the following events provided the media with a way to mirror and criticise the Finnish society of the late 1980s.

In the 80s, the Lapinlahti hospital had no legal protection, and the Pro Lapinlahti movement and the media strongly supporting its agenda most likely stopped the hospital area from being converted into an attractive residential area.

Thanks to the activities of the Pro Lapinlahti movement, the hospital buildings were afforded protection by the Act on the Protection of Buildings in 1994, after which plans to reuse the area for new purposes became more complicated due to the protective regulations. What was tragic for the movement was that even though it achieved great popularity in the 2000s, it did not reach its ultimate goal: to keep the hospital as a psychiatric hospital. Lapinlahti ceased to operate as a hospital in 2008.

Nevertheless, the Pro Lapinlahti movement has been successful in preserving the hospital and the surrounding park by commenting on and making public the various plans to reuse the area and by organising activities and monitoring for the area, which has been threatened by all sort of vandalism. The association kept faith in the future of Lapinlahti while the place was abandoned for years, and now, the hospital is once again full of life. The Pro Lapinlahti association is a key player in the area’s rich cultural activities and in work to prevent displacement.

I can say that the language I studied has succeeded in giving the area and its cultural heritage a strong positive value. It has played a part in changing Helsinki’s attitude toward the area and its cultural legacy, which for the longest time was very negative or indifferent, to much more positive, and made the city consider protecting the cultural and historical value of the area as part of the human-oriented and diverse urban structure as a whole.”

Maija Kerko

Photograph: Risto Ruuth