Helsinki’s Exceptional Architecture: What, Who, Where, Why?
26-29 May 2005
Four periods of outstanding architectural achievement left their imprint on Helsinki since it was founded on the rocky Baltic shores, only two centuries ago, as the capital of Finland — then a province of the Russian Empire.
The first centers on the work of C.L. Engel, a classmate of Schinkel in Berlin, who was sent to Helsinki in the early 19th century from St. Petersburg to head the design and construction of major new buildings — churches, the university, hospitals and armories. His masterwork is the Lutheran Cathedral, set on granite rocks overlooking the old town core. Its design uniquely incorporates Byzantine massing and richness, Czarist ceremonial pomp, and Nordic Palladianism.
Around 1900 young Helsinki architects invented revolutionary new forms to emphasize Finnish identity within the dying Czarist empire. A team of students headed by Eliel Saarinen won the competition for a new railway station and built an architectural milestone. They then created an artists’ colony at Hvittraesk in a lonely forest overlooking a lake. Lars Sonk, architecturally the most forceful of the period, won commissions for a new stock exchange and a bank headquarters. The style is called “Jugend” (youth), and reflects the Finnish vernacular, but also influences as diverse as Art Nouveau and Richardsonian Romanesque. It deconstructs the Classical idiom using strong geometry and motifs (demons, animals, birds, flowers) from the Kalavala, the Finnish national epic.
Alvar Aalto is internationally the best known Finnish architect. Beginning in the 1920’s he created numerous masterpieces, including Finlandia Concert Hall in Helsinki and the Library and Auditoriums of the Technical University at Otaniemi. His designs often break with the Modernist box tradition in tightly controlled curves or rhythmic geometry, dramatically exploiting natural overhead lighting and inventive structural solutions.
Almost immediately after the Second World War and continuing to the present day successive generations of Finnish architects produced impressive buildings which received international acclaim. Among the earliest are the minimalist Palace Hotel by Revell — where the conference will be held — and the moving, also minimalist Otaniemi University Chapel by Heikki and Kaja Siren. More recent is the work of Heikkinen and Komonen, which continues and expands upon the tradition of strong geometry, dramatic overhead lighting, and strategic deployment of materials. As in all periods of Finnish architecture, the carefully considered, sensual and direct juxtaposition of buildings and nature, whether granite rocks, birch trees, or the sea in its always differing moods, is exploited in many of these projects.—Hans Buchwald