Helsinki Highlights

I can’t leave the topic of Midsummer in Finland without briefly describing our breakneck tour of Helsinki.  So here’s a head’s up for my readers; this post is all about architecture and design, baby!  As the photo above suggests, Finland’s capital feels like a big city masquerading as a small town.  The immense sky dwarfs both the urban landscape and the industrial harbor, making the whole place seem deceptively Lilliputian.

And something about Helskinki’s scale and layout reminds me of a super-sized Monopoly board.  Stately buildings line up with military precision along expansive boulevards and plazas like game pieces brokered during the ultimate real estate battle between heavenly beings.

After the Russians burned the small village of Helsinki to the ground in 1808, the Czar eventually hired German architect Carl Ludvig Engel to rebuild the place and give it a more cosmopolitan flair. The results include Senaatintori (Senate Square), considered the finest Neoclassical plaza in Europe. See what I mean about the Monopoly board feel? (Click for a bigger panoramic view.)

To some degree, the above analogy is pretty apt.  For several centuries, Russian czars and Swedish kings played tug-o-war with Finland like two dogs with a coveted bone.  Russia finally won out in 1809, and after the dust settled, Czar Alexander I brought in his favorite architect to give Helsinki a neoclassical makeover so it would better resemble St. Petersburg.  Which explains why Helsinki feels almost supernaturally regulated, as if some deity (or an urban master planner with a god complex) sculpted the whole city center from a celestial viewpoint.  Check out the photos below to learn a bit more about the Swedish-Russian history of Helsinki through its Neoclassical architecture.

“We are not Swedes, we do not want to become Russians, let us therefore be Finns,” Finnish Journalist Adolf Ivar Arwidsson (1791–1858).

Although Engel designed much of Helsinki’s core, that’s not to say that all the buildings look cookie cutter, like they were stamped from the same mold in one production run.  Contributions by other later architects ensure that Neoclassical nestles next to Neo Gothic, turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau rubs shoulders with mid-century modern, and Nordic minimalism stands stalwart against Soviet Bloc brutalism.  Since much was closed during the holiday weekend of our visit, Matthew and I spent a lot of our time cataloging architecture with our cameras.  Check out a random sampling of vintage beauties that we snapped during our wanderings.

If you want to feel like a celestial being hovering over Helsinki, check out by clicking here. Many cities in Europe offer the experience, which comes with a gourmet meal prepared by a famous chef.

What helps keep these architectural opposites in linear tandem is that the city spreads out rather than up, with only a handful of steeples and few true skyscrapers to break the flatland vista — unless you count the “Dinner in the Sky” experience, where you and 21 of your best friends (or worst enemies) can dine on an open platform suspended 15 stories in the air via a crane.  And no, Matthew and I did not participate. I have both a considerable fear of heights and intense anxiety over paying $300+ for a meal.

Speaking of steeples, touring Helsinki’s churches is like taking a trip through time to see the political evolution of Finland…

Pardon my bad panoramic, but it’s tough getting a good photo that really shows how Helsinki’s Lutheran Cathedral overlooks Senate Square. In this pic, the resemblance of the cathedral’s façade to the pagan Parthenon (Temple of Athena) perched atop Athen’s Acropolis can’t be denied.

The Helsinki Lutheran Cathedral finished in 1852, looks like a white dove of peace hovering over the city.  Architect Carl Ludvig Engel designed it to be pure and simple, like the ideals of the Protestant Reformation followed by the predominantly Swedish Lutheran Finns. (I guess he chose to ignore the fact that the building’s Neoclassical design was taken straight from pagan Greco-Roman temples.)  But after Engel’s death, his successor gave it an eastern exoticism facelift with four small domes that mimicked Saint Isaac’s Cathedral and Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg.  A more rigorous “Russification” of Helsinki wasn’t far away ….

The Uspenski’s tallest onion dome represents the heart of Christ, while the 12 smaller ones represent the hearts of the Apostles. Designed by Aleksei Gornostajev, the cathedral is based on a 16th-century church near Moscow.

The Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral, built a little later than the Lutheran Cathedral (1868), provides a counterpoint to Protestant simplicity with ornate Slavic details and gilded onion domes.  Standing on a hillside directly opposite the white dove, it definitely seems to make a political statement about east meeting — and holding back — the west.

Today around 1% of the population (mostly in eastern Finland) is Finnish Orthodox and reports to the patriarchy in Istanbul, but the church was originally intended as a place of worship for the Russian military.  And though the Finns might not be too happy about the message its design conveys, Uspenski does gives Helsinki an Imperial Czarist flair.  In fact, the city acted as the stand-in for Russia (off limits due to the Cold War) when Hollywood made the films Dr. Zhivago and Gorky Park.

Finnish brothers and architects Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen designed the “Church of the Rock,” as it’s appropriately nicknamed. I think you can see what I mean about the “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” vibe — the unusual roof definitely gives it that “mothership” feel.

The Temple Square Church began the design and planning process in the 1930s, but World War II interrupted.  Finland had broken free of its Imperial overlord after the 1917 Russian Revolution, but because it joined forces briefly with Germany to kick out Russia once again, it was harshly punished by the Allies.

The Cold War saw Finland stuck between a rock and a hard place as the buffer between east and west, and I like to think that the Temple Square Church, finally constructed in 1969, reflects this.  It’s subterranean, carved into a sunken hunk of granite, almost like a bomb shelter.  Rather appropriate for the nuclear-scare era.  And yet the interior has this ascendant, almost extraterrestrial feel, as if waiting for some heavenly aliens to airlift congregants to a more enlightened place.

The chapel’s 38-foot-tall walls are clad in spruce, making the place look a bit like a giant hatbox. (Some say they think it resembles Noah’s Ark.)

The Kamppi Chapel embodies (in my mind) the concept of modern spirituality.  Built in 2012 as part of the World Design Capital program, it’s stripped down to a simple, prenatal form — the egg.  Inside, the womb-like experience increases as smooth wooden walls wrap around the congregants, enveloping them in peace, quietude, and serenity.

In fact, it’s nickname is the “Chapel of Silence.”  It has no services and is ecumenical — free from religions and politics that often feed strife, divisiveness, and war.  The goal is simply to provide a place of respite for hurried and harassed crowds to take refuge from the stress of urban life.  (Finland’s most hectic square sits right outside the chapel door.)

I can’t leave the topic of architecture without touching on two of Finland’s greatest starchitects:  Eliel Saarinen and Alvar Aalto.  I’m guessing that right now, many of you are thinking, “They’re Finnish?  I thought they were Danish and Italian.”  (I hear this a lot.)  Nope, they’re two of Finland’s favored sons, so let’s take a look at their masterpieces in Helsinki.

While most of Europe was still stuck on Victorian designs for train stations, Eliel Saarinen ushered in a much more modernist feel. The huge arched window became a standard fixture in all future Art Deco train stations.

Eliel Saarinen & Helsinki’s Central Station
We’ll start with a primer about the Saarinen family.  Eliel got his start designing buildings that blended Finnish folklore and regional wooden architecture with Neo Gothic, but he soon became known for his unique twist on Art Nouveau (often called Jugendstil or Vienna Secessionist in Europe.)  Many consider his pièce de résistance to be Helsinki’s main train station, still in use and servicing more than 200,000 travelers a day.  Check out the photos, and you’ll see that, although it was designed in 1904 and completed in 1919, it foreshadows the later design trend that we now call Art Deco.

Eliel’s son Eero Saarinen also designed New York’s iconic TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy Airport. Built in 1962, the funky beetle-winged style verges on Neo-Futurist.

But Eliel’s work didn’t stop there.  He and his family immigrated to the United States in 1923 after his concept came in second in the  competition to design the Chicago Tribune tower.  He eventually became president of Cranbrook Academy, where Mid-century Modernists Ray and Charles Eames were two of his student collaborators.  You might also know the work of Eliel’s son Eero Saarinen, who designed the St. Louis Arch and became one of the leaders of the International Style alongside Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Matthew thoroughly geeked out on the opportunity to see Aalto’s Finnish masterpiece. You can see how its form expresses its function. Just by looking at it you know where the stairs are, where the auditorium is, and where the foyer / lobby space is located.

Alvar Aalto & Finlandia Hall
To give you a reference point, Alvar Aalto is the Finnish version of Frank Lloyd Wright.  Like Wright, Aalto didn’t just design a building like an empty husk, waiting to be filled.  He drafted everything inside it from the furniture to the wallpaper to the dishes, glassware, and silverware, and even the paintings and sculpture.  And this is certainly true of Aalto’s most famous building, Finlandia Hall, a concert venue that sits almost like an iceberg along the shoreline of Töölönlahti Bay.

Take a close look at Iittala’s interior and I’m sure you’ll recognize several items that, although dating back as far as the 1930 – 1960s, still have a huge following today — especially as all the hipsters are rediscovering Mid-century Modernism.

You might be most familiar with Aalto’s bentwood furniture and his glassware, including one of his most famous pieces — the sinuous Savoy vase inspired by the meaning of Aalto’s last name (“waves”).  Matthew and I just had to get one, since we were in its birthplace.  And in the Nordic countries, owning a Savoy is a rite of passage; your first house isn’t considered a home until you have one.  So we took a stroll along the Esplanade and visited Iittala, which still produces Aalto’s designs today.  Believe me, it was tempting to walk away with half the store.

Alvar Aalto’s series of Savoy glass vases won first prize in the 1936 Karhula-Iittala Glass Design Competition, and they’re still drawing rave reviews today. No self-respecting Nordic household would be without one.

If you’re ever in Helsinki and want to learn more about Finland’s invaluable influence on the world of design, make a point of visiting the Design Museum.  Not only will you learn more about the architects I’ve mentioned above and see glorious examples of their work, but you’ll be blown away by the number of decorative objects, appliances, furniture, clothing, jewelry, and other household staples in American homes that you never realized were Finnish.

If you suffer with “smartphone thumb,” you can thank Matti Makkonen, the Finnish engineer at Nokia known as “the father of the SMS” (what we call a “text message” in the U.S.) He first pitched the idea back in 1984 and wrote the specifications for the technology. Photo by Roman Pohorecki from Pexels

That brings me to a couple of touchy subjects.  One of the most common comments I get from Americans is, “Socialism is the downfall of innovation.  Just look at countries like Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.  You never hear anything about new scientific or technological contributions from the Scandinavian countries.”  I cringe when someone says this, because there are three crucial errors in these statements, all of which unfortunately confirm European opinions about Americans being woefully uneducated and susceptible to U.S. navel-gazing.

So let’s take a quick look at the misperception about innovation in Finland.  (I’ll tackle the other Nordics some other time).  Finland is considered Europe’s most technologically advanced country.  It’s a leader in mobile-phone technology, ICT and artificial intelligence in the healthcare industry, and gaming — yes, Angry Birds, the mobile phone game that obsessed America, is a Finnish invention.  I could go on and on with pivotal Finnish contributions — the “black box” flight recorder, the heart rate monitor, the electric solar wind sail, the Savonius Wind Turbine, Linux — all this from a nation of only 5.6 million people.  But you get the point.  Don’t believe the hype that the U.S. beats out every other country for innovation in every arena.

All the Nordic countries have similar “Nordic Cross” flags, not because they share similar languages and governmental systems, but basically because they share a Lutheran Christian history. Fun facts: Finns call their country “Suomi.” Our name Finland is derived from an old English name for the country. Photo by Hansjorn.

My second word of caution is, avoid calling Finns Scandinavians.  Scandinavia is made up of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, which share closely related languages and forms of government — they’re constitutional monarchies.  Finland and Iceland are republics, not monarchies, and the Finnish language is completely unrelated to the Scandinavian languages.  (It’s closer to Estonian and Hungarian.)  So you can call Finland Nordic, but not Scandinavian.  Believe me, learning this will save you from embarrassment in the future.

The Finnish landmark “Three Blacksmiths” is sometimes seen as a socialist statement. While it does celebrate human cooperation and labor, is also venerates “sisu,” a prized Finnish trait that translates as “a grim, gritty, white-knuckle form of courage” — something the Finns have developed to keep the Russian bear at bay. (Look closely and you’ll see bullet damage sustained by the sculpture during WWII, when Russia tried to reclaim Finland.)

And my last piece of advice is to learn the difference between a political system and an economic one.  The Nordic countries are all considered social democracies.  The so-called Nordic Model is based on the economic foundation of free market capitalism, which practices free trade, mixed economies, and private ownership.  Culturally and socially, the Nordics support a universalist welfare state that encourages individual autonomy and upward mobility.

Politically, the Nordic countries rank among the top ten democracies worldwide.  (The U.S. ranks 25th.)  For some perspective, in 1906, Finland became the first European state to grant all adult citizens the right to vote (that includes women, folks, compared to 1920 in the U.S.)  That same year, it became the first nation in the world to give all adult citizens the right to run for public office.  For more info and a greater understanding of the distinctions between socialism and social democracy, take a look at Wikipedia’s basics on the Nordic Model or read this Forbes magazine article.

Built in 1906, the landmark-status castle was originally intended as a sort of clubhouse for students from the nearby Polytechnical Institute. It’s a phantasmagoric blend of Art Nouveau and Finland’s National Romantic style.

Whew, now that I’ve got that sticky wicket out of the way, I’ll finish with a few tips on the basics:  hotels and food.  If you’re itchin’ to know what it’s like to live in a funky Art Nouveau castle, I’d recommend staying at GLO Hotel Art.  The place is quirkily gorgeous, reasonably priced (for Helsinki), and in the heart of the Design District.  Plus, the breakfasts are unbelievable.  Every kind of Nordic dish you can imagine — I had rye porridge for the first time here.  Sounds grim, I know, but it was a delectable revelation.

You can grab lunch, pastries, or coffee at Café Kappeli and people-watch outdoors across from the park. Or you can venture inside the greenhouse-like restaurant and indulge in fine dining under its gabled wooden roof, where famous Finnish artists and intellectuals once hung out.

As far as other dining options, our two-day visit over a holiday weekend meant we had to stick to the few (somewhat touristy) places that were open.  But I gotta say, we were never disappointed.  You can always grab a light, cheap meal in Market Square or the Old Market Hall.  I’d highly recommend Café Kappelli, at the end of Esplanade street, for a coffee break or pricier (but delicious) dinner.  You’ll enjoy some great Jazz, a terrific atmosphere, and really top-notch service.  The Teatterin Grilli at one end of the Swedish Theater is also a chic spot to grab a drink and some burgers.  But wherever you go, I’d suggest you try a cocktail featuring Lakka, a traditional Finnish liqueur made from cloudberries.  Yummy!  And with that recommendation, I’ll say “cheers” to Finland for the most fun-filled weekend we’d had in a long time!

Finland has some great beers, and Lakka liqueur is delish. It’s made by soaking the cloudberries in spirits for two to six months, so watch out, it can pack a punch.  The version we tried — Lapponia — had a 21% alcohol content.

2 thoughts on “Helsinki Highlights”

  1. Great. Among those movies which You mentioned, was missing one: Telefon from the year 1977. Charles Bronson is one of my favorite actors, who was in main role.

    I have all my life wondered why all the people visiting Helsinki want to see all the same sights. Why nobody does not want to have an experience and seeking more sights where other people do not visit? Due to this thinking I published three posts presenting “Unknown” Helsinki. Fourth post with name “Search for ghost houses”, is continuation to these three previous posts. Personally, I love most of all, third part and ghost houses. Check them and wonder why You did not visit there and have unique Helsinki experiences!

    Here are links:

    Search for ghost houses

    Unknown Helsinki 3

    Unknown Helsinki 2

    Unknown Helsinki 1

    Happy and safe travels!


  2. Still love your blog,  and this segment re Helsinki is particularly excellent.  We had only one day there on the way home from St Petersburg (where our daughter was studying music 28 years ago), and loved the open,  fresh feeling of the city, with its monuments and architectural highlights somehow seeming more in scale than usual (maybe less “monumental” but just as interesting and attractive.)  Hugeness is not always better, some of us,  if not our so called President, have learned.  I also remember fondly the Mercedes taxi,. and the first cell phone I think I’d ever seen, used by the driver. 


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