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.
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).
Finland was merely a region of Sweden until 1809, when Russia claimed the territory during the Finnish War and made the eastern third of Sweden into the Grand Duchy of Finland. Russian Czar Alexander II (the guy on the pedestal clutching Finland’s constitution in his hand), gave the duchy even more autonomy in 1863. Alexander was a reformer who used Finland as a testing ground for his ideas on how to promote local self-government among Russian territories.
Carl Ludvig Engel, the Czar’s architect, laid out Senate Square almost like a military parade ground with a Greco-Roman feel. On the far left, the yellow Senate building is now the prime minister’s office. Its identical twin — the University of Helsinki (not visible in this photo) — sits directly opposite. Just to the right of the Senate building is a little blue building with a dark slanted roof. It’s one of only two buildings in Helsinki to survive from the era when Finland was a Swedish holding. Today it’s the City Museum, but it gives you an idea of the diminutive scale of the village prior to the Russian takeover.
Matthew’s standing in front of “Helsingin tuomiokirkko” — Helsinki’s Lutheran Cathedral. Yes, most Finns are Lutheran. Engel designed it (1830-1852) as a tribute to Czar Nicholas I. Intended as the cherry on Engel’s Neoclassical Senate Square cake, the edifice commands a platform that overlooks the other plaza buildings. I love this pic because it communicates that issue of scale I’ve been talking about. Look closely, and you’ll see that, like Gulliver, Matthew has Lilliputians crawling all over him.
The Czar charged Engel with rebuilding Helsinki in the St. Petersburg Empire style to shame Stockholm. (Clearly the goal was a little grandiose, but I guess Alexander just had to get in that dig at Sweden.) Engel’s design included Helsinki’s top shopping street, “Esplanadi,” (Esplanade), where you can gawk at gorgeous Neoclassical façades that house budget-breaking stores.
In the center of Esplanade is a gorgeous park, with a statue paying tribute to Engel. Although German (Prussian) born, Engel worked as architect in Tallinn and St. Petersburg, where his designs eventually caught the eye of the Czar. The park always has something fun going on: music, bubbles for the kids, food carts. But it’s also a great spot to just sit and imagine 19th-century Finnish, Swedish, and Russian ladies sashaying down the boulevard beneath their frilly parasols.
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.
Nope, it’s not a Medieval castle. It’s just your typical 19th-century attempt to replicate previous historic periods. Look closely, and you’ll see some fun modernist details on the columns and other parts of the building. In fact, Helsinki is the only European capital that has no Medieval history. Although the Swedes colonized the coastline along Helsinki in the 1300s, it didn’t become a small fishing and trading village until the mid 1500s.
What do you do when your city doesn’t have an ancient past proudly displayed through its architectural lineage? You construct one to give it some historical gravitas. Here, the former Wasa-Aktie-Banken’s building (1899) combines Tudor elements with a Venetian flair that evokes the Doge’s palace. It was designed by the office of architects Grahn, Hedman and Wasastjerna and made of Swedish red limestone.
Check out the imposing former Mortgage Society of Finland building (1899). It’s the work of prominent Finnish architect Lars Sonck, who also designed the Helsinki Stock Exchange. Again, the style harkens back to a non-existent ancient history with a Romanesque theme updated with in a Vienna Secessionist viewpoint. This kind of Historic Romanticism was all the rage in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Here’s another castle-like construction that adds historicity to a mere youngster of a European capital city. Originally Helsinki’s main fire station, this Victorian confection dates to 1891 and is still in use today as the city’s Fire Museum. No, it’s not a monument to pyromaniacs but a repository for the history and traditions of rescue services in Helsinki.
Check out the wildly patterned Old Market Hall, another ornate Victorian built in 1888. You can still buy meats, fish, cheeses, and produce from the vendors inside. The nearby Market Square is an outdoor version with food, handicrafts, and souvenirs that are pretty reasonably priced compared to some of the more expensive stores along Esplanade.
I have no idea what this building is, but I love the Art Nouveau details. Everywhere you go in downtown Helsinki, you’ll run into these ornate buildings that look like important state offices but are often only businesses, residences, schools, and shops. Sure beats the heck out of all the boring, Post-Modernist, glass-ribbon buildings we have in Chicago.
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…
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 ….
Here you can see the Russian domes that Ernst Lohrmann, Engel’s successor, added to the Neoclassical design. And despite the church being Protestant, Lohrmann managed to stick in a few saints — the 12 Apostles, which sit at the apexes and corners of the building.
As you can see, the interior of the church is spartan, with just a pulpit and an organ — staples of Lutheranism. Like any good Protestant, Lutherans eschew idolatry. But here, Engel made room for three important patriarchs of the Reformation: Martin Luther, his collaborator Philipp Melanchthon, and Mikael Agricola — a Finnish follower of Luther at Wittenberg, who translated the Bible into Finnish and is considered the author of the modern Finnish language.
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.
We missed the service the day we visited, but we did see a Finnish Orthodox priest exiting later. After the assassination of Alexander II, his successor Alexander III rolled back many of his reformations and really pushed “Russification” of Finland. Once Finland won its freedom in 1917, Orthodox Finns saw the church as an oppressive symbol of Russian Imperialism and broke off as a separate branch.
Uspenski’s décor is the polar opposite of that of the Lutheran Cathedral. Saintly icons coat most every surface of the vividly ornate interior. The Russian word “uspenski” means the “Assumption of Mary,” and the church is dedicated to this event. Such “heathen” idolatry is frowned upon by Lutheranism and has been the source of much strife throughout history.
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 ceiling is made of coiled copper that resembles a woven basket. I kept thinking about “believers” who like to wear metal helmets either to interfere with or increase communication with extraterrestrials.
I had to throw in a shot of this gorgeous altar with prayer candles. Although Matthew thinks it resembles a landing strip laid out for the aliens.
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.)
Here you can get a better idea of the layout of the Kampin kappeli (Kamppi Chapel in Finnish) and see its egg-shaped plan. Its thick, insulated walls help block out all the street noise and create a contemplative experience. Designed by Kimmo Lintula, Niko Sirola and Mikko Summanen of K2S Architects Ltd., Kamppi chapel won the International Architecture Award in 2010.
A view of the interior, with natural light streaming down from the egg-shaped skylight above, gives you the full incubator experience. Isn’t that what spirituality is all about? Pondering why you were born and what meaning your life serves in this fast-paced world? People come here to meditate, recharge, and take a breather from the struggles of the day.
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.
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.
Four brawny males, two on either side of the main door, represent Finnish farmers. Stylistically speaking, they have one foot rooted in the organic naturalism of Art Nouveau and the other planted in the geometric abstractions of Art Deco.
Check out the undulating interior of the main ticket hall. A matching dining hall on the opposite side of the station repeats the design theme. I think most folks would find it hard to believe this modernist space dates to 1914.
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.
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.
From the backside, you can see the tower windows along the front wall of the auditorium. Aalto gave it a slanted roof because he wanted the space to have the echoing acoustics of a Medieval church. The building’s exterior is clad in white marble panels that create an almost basket weave effect.
Another view of the building’s backside shows you the various levels that house large halls, meeting and storage rooms, and a restaurant with movable partitions for special events. Flexibility in the use of the spaces was key to Aalto. In true form, he designed all the light fixtures, furniture, carpeting, etc.
Viewed from this angle, you can really get a feel for the iceberg quality of the piece. I wonder if Snøhetta, the Norwegian architectural firm who designed the Oslo Opera House, got it’s iceberg design inspiration from Finlandia Hall?
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.
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.
Yep, kids, that household gold standard for scissors, Fiskars, is Finnish. Those unmistakable orange handles resulted from a machinist using leftover materials from a previous product during prototyping of the scissors.
Finnish designer Björn Weckström of Lapponia Jewelry company gained international fame when his Planetary Valleys necklace graced Princess Leia’s neck during the final scene of Star Wars. Who knew Finland would make an impact, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”?
I think a lot of people associate Marimekko with Sweden and the U.S. store Crate & Barrel, but the company is Finnish and has been around since the 1960s. Finnish designer Maija Isola’s Unikko poppy print is still hugely popular today.
Eero Aarnio’s “Pallo” chair from 1966 has recently made a comeback as the “bubble chair swing.” I’ve even seen versions equipped with stereo speakers to take advantage of the chair’s “room within a room” quality.
I’m sure you’ll recognize these archetypal chairs by Alvar Aalto and his wife Aino. The bentwood one on the left has recently experienced a big resurgence in hipster homes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How’s this for a nice little reading nook on the stairwell?
You can’t miss the opportunity to dine in a Medieval / Art Nouveau mead hall.
Check out the grotto-like lobby.
Everywhere you look, you’ll find unique little details that make you feel like you’ve stepped into a Finnish fairytale.
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!