ArchitourExamining the city's celebrated façades
Over the course of the last fifty years, Helsinki has established itself among the international elite of liveable cities, venerated for its clean living, good working conditions and pro active policy developments. Part of this recognition has been levelled at the quality of Helsinki’s architecture as local and international architects have stamped their mark on the city’s skyline.
I have lived in Edinburgh for most of my life, a city whose identity has been proudly carved through the ages by the turrets and twisted tenements of the medieval old town and the broad, linear grandeur of the Georgian new town. Despite the years I have spent there, it was not until I visited Helsinki late last year that the strong link between the civic culture of my native city and its architecture became apparent. For the Finnish capital has until a century ago existed as a culturally rudderless state, its streets and squares built and named by the ruling powers that have held the country under subjugation. Walking in the Senate Square at the heart of the city, one could easily be strolling through the neoclassical boulevards of St. Petersburg. For the elegant Greek temple facades of the University of Helsinki and the Lutheran cathedral were built to announce the city as the new capital of the autonomous Grand Duchy of Russia in 1812. The streets that wind from this central neighbourhood mark the five-century period previous to Russia’s occupation in which Finland was ruled by Sweden, as the names of every road remain written in both languages.
Having considered in detail how the work of Alvar Aalto catalysed a sense of autonomy and self-definition within Finland’s cultural sphere, I want to look closer at how architecture has developed in Helsinki since the latter part of his career until the present day. Over the course of the last fifty years, Helsinki has established itself among the international elite of liveable cities, venerated for its clean living, good working conditions and pro active policy developments. Part of this recognition has been levelled at the quality of Helsinki’s architecture as local and international architects have stamped their mark on the city’s skyline. Over the course of my stay in the city, I visited a number of the buildings that have in recent years elevated Helsinki to the rank of a global design capital.
I arrived in Finland during early November under assault from icy winds and thick, pellet like rain. Having left England on the cusp of winter, with the last vestiges of autumn lending a ruddy charm to the Bristolian countryside, I was welcomed to the north by a Baltic gust that almost swept me back into plane cabin as I stepped onto the slippery tarmac of the Helsinki-Vantaa Airport. Scrambling from my taxi into the Aalon Koti Hotel on the edge of the city centre I was struck by how dark it was. Glancing at my watch, I noted that even at two thirty in the afternoon the timid light that glimmered wanly above the city was beginning to fade, so it was with haste that I set out for Aalto’s Finlandia Hall.
As iconic to Helsinki as the Gherkin of London’s business district or New York’s Guggenheim, the Finlandia is one of Aalto’s most notable contributions to the city’s urban landscape. Clasping a cup of burnt black coffee that after a few suspicious sips proved to be more of a proficient hand warmer than an enjoyable beverage I took the short walk around the banks of Töölönlahti Bay towards the Hall. From the far side of the lake, I caught my first sight of the Finlandia, its jutting marble façade reflected in the expanse of the dark, polished water.
The concert and assembly hall was created as part of Aalto’s wider plans for a new central square that would symbolise Finland’s independence. While the majority of the large, fan shaped plaza never came under construction, the Finlandia was built in 1972. Shaped in a series of stacked, elongated rectilinear slabs, the Finlandia’s towering atrium explodes out of the horizontal hull of the building. Craning my neck, the marble shards reminded me of the violent clusters of glass and metal that form the eastern façade of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. Built in this manner to improve the acoustics of the Hall’s vast atrium, the Finlandia represents the modernist mantra of function over form while retaining the ingenuity and singular aesthetic so indicative of Aalto’s design. Both in style and scale, the Hall stands as an emblem of national pride and has placed Helsinki on the map as an international city of design.
I rose early the next day hoping to arrive at Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art before the mid morning swell of visitors began to bustle. Unfortunately, the muted Nordic sunrise forced me to wait in a café until there was sufficient light to experience the gallery properly. I sat, ponderously chewing a dry pastry, reading about the building that on its commission had almost sparked a minor coup among the city’s population.
When a competition to design Helsinki’s new centre of modern art opened in the early 1990s, over 500 architects participated. The assignment that was intended for an architect from the Nordic and Baltic countries was finally offered to American Steven Holl. Such a decision sparked a storm of indignation among Helsinki’s citizens, for many found it galling that the city’s hard won and newly defined cultural identity was under threat. The Helsingin Sanomat, one of the largest newspapers in Finland decried the decision, observing, ‘No cultural event of building project has been the object of such sharp-tongued, broad-based and long standing debate’. Even the land where the building was to be built came under scrutiny, since it was part of the hallowed turf on which Aalto had planned to extend his master plan for the city.
Conversely, I believe the decision to choose Holl’s design elevated Helsinki’s cultural standing both at home and abroad. As important as he was, Aalto’s legacy has been so pervasive over the last century that the city has run the risk of becoming insular and one dimensional in its approach to deign. By selecting an energetic, experimental American architect, the members of the competition board set the precedent for a new period of cultural openness. One that embraces the highest quality of international contemporary of art and the steadily growing influence of immigrants who view Helsinki as a viable place to make their home.
Upon stepping inside the entrance of the gallery, a number of bizarre and incongruous images popped into my head: a petrified octopus, a vertiginous canyon, the aftermath of a bomb blast. Kiasma’s curvaceous, chalky white interior swoops in a vortex of walkways, staircases and passageways that wind together to connect its twenty five gallery spaces. I spent the following hours marvelling at Holl’s design, which uses natural light to create ephemeral moments of murkiness and searing clarity. The gallery, in its litany of exemplary contemporary works and extrovert aesthetic situates Helsinki at the cutting edge of the art world.
Rather awed by my experience at Kiasma, I took a short walk over to the Punavuori district for lunch. Having consumed an intriguing array of dishes at part restaurant, part club Tres Bones, including elk on a bed of seared red cabbage, I headed to the final stopping point on my ‘Architour’, the Chapel of Silence. With a name redolent of a mythic monastery, the church is situated at the entrance of the Kammpi shopping centre, one of the busiest square miles in the country. This somewhat unlikely setting is intentional, for the chapel was installed to allow members of the public and visitors to escape the bustle of the city and pause for a moment’s peace.
Part of Helsinki’s growing reputation as a hub for civic well-being is due to the Finnish government’s investment in community projects. The chapel exists as a piece of architecture aimed directly at bringing people together in a quiet, relaxed setting. Designed as part of the World Design Capital program in 2012 by architects from the K2S agency, the facades of the chapel are comprised of great strips of spruce, bent at different radiuses. The building’s curved interior, which muffles the sounds of the city, arcs gently in an oval shape, embracing its visitors and proving them with a sense of refuge. I found myself sitting in the chapel for over an hour, not thinking about much at all, enjoying that the rush of the day had temporarily subsided.
By bringing together projects such as the Chapel of Silence and Kiasma, Helsinki is rapidly turning into a multilayered and innovative cultural centre. Aalto undoubtedly set the precedent for this renaissance, however, it is refreshing to see architects emerge from out of his shadow, and add their diverse contributions to this developing metropolis. While the old town plazas of the Senate Square stand as a regal testament to the past, the new forest of buildings sprouting up over the city points to Helsinki’s bright future.