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Finnish on a high note: the centenary of Finnish independence

Marking the centenary of Finnish independence, Jonathan Glancey looks back at significant architectural influences and designs over the last 100 years

On 15 February 1899, Tsar Nicholas II issued a manifesto, ratified by the Finnish Senate under the threat of military invasion, to ‘Russify’ the largely autonomous Grand Duchy it had created 90 years earlier, with Helsinki as its new capital. Russian was to be the official language of Finland, the Russian Orthodox Church its state religion. Freedom of the press was severely curtailed. 

One immediate upshot was the galvanising of Finnish painters, poets, journalists, authors and architects. Another was the first performance of Finland Awakens, the final piece in a set of tone poems composed by Jean Sibelius and inspired by the Finnish national epic Kalevala, for a demonstration held in Helsinki that November on behalf of journalists protesting against Russian censorship. Revised as a stand-alone piece and premiered in July 1900, Finlandia echoed around the concert halls of Europe, establishing Sibelius’s international reputation while serving as a clarion call for Finnish independence. This was finally achieved on 6 December 1917 as Lenin and his Communists consolidated power in the chaotic weeks following Russia’s October Revolution.

Alvar aalto 1976

Alvar aalto 1976

Aalto in front of Finlandia Hall, Helsinki, 1967-71, on national stamps

What had been truly remarkable was the extent to which Finland’s artistic and cultural community shaped and promoted a sense of national identity in the teeth of Russian oppression. Architecture played its role hand-in-hand with Sibelius, who counted Helsinki’s most imaginative architects as friends and drinking companions, their decidedly lively meetings in the bar of the Hotel Kämp (Theodor Höijer, 1887) and in the conservatory-like Kappeli restaurant (Hampus Dalström, 1867) evoked in vivid paintings by Akseli Gallen-Kallela. 

One evening, Sibelius was called away to an event in Stockholm. Returning two days later, the very same group of artists, musicians, architects and journalists, then in their twenties and thirties, he had been drinking with – among them Eliel Saarinen, Juhani Aho, Armas Järnefelt, Eino Leino and Gallen-Kallela – was sitting around the same Kappeli table. ‘Listen here, Jean’, one slurred, ‘Either you stay outside or stay inside, but stop coming in and out all the time.’

Gettyimages 127007720

Gettyimages 127007720

Gesellius, Lindgren and Saarinen’s Helsinki head office for the Pohjola fire insurance company, 1899. Source: Guiziou Franck / getty

These high spirits were soaked through the very fabric of the new-found National Romantic style, expressing Finland’s quest for independence by this brotherhood of young architects, artists and their clients. In 1899, Saarinen, Herman Gesellius and Armas Lindgren were commissioned to design a Helsinki head office for the Pohjola fire insurance company. They responded with a granite-faced building that – underpinned by a steel frame, served by electric lifts and owing much in terms of massing and organisation to Louis Sullivan and HH Richardson – was garbed in a forest of soapstone and serpentine bears, squirrels, gargoyles, demons and grotesques drawn from the Kalevala. We are Finns, said the architecture to the Russians.

Although folkloric and even alarming in its muscular stonework and wild detailing, the Pohjola building is surprisingly well mannered, fitting comfortably into Helsinki’s Aleksanterinkatu much as Gaudí’s serpentine Casa Batlló in Passeig de Gràcia does within the Rationalist grid of Barcelona’s Eixample district.

Equally, the grid of streets forming the western part of Helsinki’s Katajanokka quarter is adorned with much-prized National Romantic-style apartment blocks, all fairy-tale roofscapes and picture-book detailing. The net effect, at once Rational and Romantic, is echoed in the form of Eliel Saarinen’s Central Railway Station (1904-14), its principal entrance flanked not by Classical columns, but by Emil Wikström’s granite giants bearing bronze electric lamps shining a distinctly Finnish light into the future.

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Emil Wikström’s granite giants at the main entrance to Helsinki Central Railway Station by Eliel Saarinen, 1904-14. Source: Tiit Veermae_Muud_Turistikad / Alamy

In the realm of domestic architecture, National Romanticism harked back to a Finnish vernacular tradition of forest clearings, timber construction, saunas and tupa. The ‘tupa’ was the main room of a traditional log cabin where the family cooked, ate and slept, although the word, like the Danish hygge, came to denote a general sense of essentially domestic cosiness and contentment. Ainola (1903), the house Lars Sonck designed for Sibelius beside Lake Tuusulanjärvi at Järvenpää, is a particularly convincing example of a home that, while of its time, evokes that sense of Finnishness that mattered so very much in the decades leading up to independence. What his fellow Finnish composer, Oskar Merikanto, said of Sibelius’s Finland Awakens, was true of Ainola: ‘We feel the melodies to be our own, even though as such we have never heard [or seen] them before.’

Ainola 1915

Ainola 1915

Ainola, Sibelius’s house at Järvenpää designed by Lars Sonck, 1903

It seems significant that National Romanticism fell out of favour as Finland found its feet as an independent republic. Perhaps the country needed something in the way of imperial grandeur to meet other nations on an equal footing, or else it was in search of an echo of the republican virtues of pre-Imperial Rome. The upshot was a connection back to the early 19th-century neo-classicism of Carl Ludwig Engel, the Prussian-born architect who shaped the superb civic buildings including Helsinki’s domed cathedral in and around Senate Square, the core of the new capital. There was a connection, too, with Swedish classicism – Finland had been under Swedish rule from the early 13th century until the Russians took over in 1809 – and it was in this style, or a version of it, that Alvar Aalto began his career in the 1920s.

Although the architectural showcase of this Nordic classicism was the Finnish Parliament House (Johan Sigfrid Sirén, 1926-31), perhaps the style was a little too grandiloquent for all too many Finns, whose culture was essentially free of aristocrats, great estates and ambitious country houses. In fact, on their version of the Grand Tour, young architects of Alvar Aalto’s generation would seek out and sketch Italy’s architettura minore rather more than they did its set-piece monuments.

Senate square and lutheran cathedral in helsinki

Senate square and lutheran cathedral in helsinki

Carl Ludwig Engel’s domed cathedral in Senate Square, Helsinki, completed in 1852. Source: Jonik / Wikimedia

One result of this fondness for vernacular classicism was that Aalto’s early work, including a number of single-family houses in the Finnish countryside and the Workers’ Club (1924-25) in the lake town Jyväskylä, showed both Swedish and Italian influences. Another was the quietly brilliant Käpylä workers’ housing development by Martti Välikangas, prefabricated on the northern fringe of Helsinki between 1920 and 1925. With its use of traditional materials, gentle Classical detailing, ochre finishes, vegetable garden courtyards and tree-lined streets, Puu-Käplya (ie, Wood Käpyla) is home today to Helsinki professionals including a sizeable population of architects, for whom these streets and houses, unlike much of the new apartment housing rushed up in and around Helsinki since 2000, exemplify the sought-after spirit of tupa.

It was not such a big step for Martti Välikangas to take from this sotto voce and industrialised classicism to Modernism, a cause he championed in the late 1920s as editor-in-chief of Arkkitehti, founded in 1903 in response to the search for an independently Finnish architecture, although published in Swedish until 1921. Välikangas’s editorship coincided with Alvar Aalto’s shift from classicism to Modernism as the young architect transformed his design for the Viipuri Library in Karelia. As the library (in Russia since 1944 and now happily renovated) took shape, so did Aalto’s Turun Sanomat building (1929-30) in Turku, much influenced by Le Corbusier, and his masterly sanatorium in Paimio (1929-33).

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The Katajanokka quarter of Helsinki: a marriage of the Rational and the Romantic. Source: Douglas Lander / Alamy

From the outset, Aalto was not an obvious, card-carrying Modern. Aside from his roots in architettura minore classicism, he was no left-winger, having fought on the side of Marshal Mannerheim’s ‘Whites’ against the socialist and communist ‘Reds’ during the Finnish Civil War of 1918, notably at the key and brutal Battle of Tampere. Mannerheim, Finland’s controversial national hero, was one of the first and most loyal clients of Helsinki’s Savoy restaurant, opened in 1937, and designed by Aalto and his wife Aino.

Finland’s most famous and influential 20th-century architect was, however, no dogmatist, fusing nature with Modernism, and an abiding sense of Finnishness with the future. In 1926, as he moved towards Modernism, he said that the ‘curving, living, unpredictable line which runs in dimensions unknown to mathematics, is for me the incarnation of everything that forms a contrast in the modern world between brutal mechanicalness and religious beauty in life’.

Rather delightfully, he made his first public appearance in London in 1933 in the far from brutal, haut bourgeois world of Fortnum & Mason, Piccadilly, with a show (organised by Philip Morton Shand) of his bentwood furniture, carpets, ceramics and textiles. Aalto’s Villa Mairea (1937-39) in Noormarkku, was commissioned by the wealthy couple Maire and Harry Gullichsen. Influenced at first by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, the house – a stylised walk in the forest – was a supremely subtle expression of a truly Finnish architecture for the 20th century, with lessons for the wider world. As Shigeru Ban noted at the time of the Barbican Art Gallery’s Alvar Aalto – Through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban exhibition (2007), ‘Many architects today are professional nomads, or snake-oil salesmen, lacking Aalto’s deep-rooted sense of home. Paradoxically, it was his immersion in Finnish topography, climate, materials and culture that encouraged Aalto to develop a style with universal appeal.’

Alvar aalto, villa mairea 02

Alvar aalto, villa mairea 02

Aalto’s Villa Mairea, Noormarkku, 1937-39. Source: Dieter Janssen / Wikimedia

Villa Mairea was, like Aalto’s first projects, a one-off. What changed after the Second World War was an urgent need for reconstruction on an unprecedented scale. Against all odds, Finland held the Soviet Union at bay in the Winter War of 1939-40, but at the cost of ceding 11 per cent of its territory and 30 per cent of its economic assets to Stalin. Among the losses was Karelia, the spiritual homeland of the Kalevala, National Romanticism and the fight for independence. Matters were only worse after the Continuation War of 1941-44. 

The postwar era witnessed, along with evacuation of some 422,000 Karelians to Finland, a mass movement of Finns from the countryside to towns and cities. New homes – many prefabricated in concrete – and new suburbs burgeoned, albeit in the embrace of a well-organised and highly regarded welfare state. By the beginning of the 21st century, less than 20 per cent of the country’s building stock dated back to before 1955, while as modernisation and comprehensive redevelopment swept Finnish towns and cities clean of their timber pasts, Porvoo and Rauma, almost alone, retained their medieval town plans along with a sizeable number of the very kind of wooden homes that, dismissed as old fashioned, are much sought after today.

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Temppeliaukio church photo vf 1400px 700x467

Temppeliaukio Church, Helsinki, by Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen, 1969. Source: Craig Moore

There were well-meant attempts to avoid suburban sprawl, especially around Helsinki, with the design of high-rise ‘forest towns’, notably precast-concrete Pihlajamäki (1959-65) planned by Olli Kivinen and designed by Lauri Silvennoinen, yet such developments have been subsumed ever more by sprawl. 

There have been attempts at radical new approaches to architecture, among them the organic and self-build designs of Reima and Raili Pietilä, including the Student Union Building (1961-66) at what is now Helsinki’s Alvar Aalto University, Tuomo and Timo Suomalainen’s Temppeliaukio (Rock Church), opened in 1969 and, today, Helsinki’s number-one tourist attraction, and Anssi Lassila’s Kärsämäki Shingle Church (1999-2004), a modern design using 18th-century timber construction technology. 

Kärsämaki 03 section

Kärsämaki 03 section

Kärsämäki Shingle Church by OOPEAA, 2004. Source: Anssi Lassila / OOPEAA

There are bold new buildings like the swooping new Helsinki Central Library, a statement design by ALA Architects, due to open in 2018. There is Steven Holl’s steely intrusion, the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art (1996-98), that looks so cold and feels out of place in the white depths of Helsinki’s long winters. There was the pitiful recent attempt to land a wholly inappropriate branch of the Guggenheim on Helsinki’s harbour front, reflecting the current privatisation of the city and Finnish culture: a Starbucks in Aalto’s once noble Academic Bookshop, a Burger King occupying the restaurant hall of Saarinen’s Central Railway Station, and more rootless new housing and office developments, ordered as if from a catalogue of gormless global design. No Finn could have imagined this just 30 years ago.  

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Helsinki Central Library by ALA Architects, 2018. Source: ALA Architects

Where Russification threatened Finnish architecture, its cities and culture a century ago, today the name of the beast is undoubtedly unbound global capitalism. This phenomenon has affected Russia in recent decades in even more striking ways than it has the former Soviet Union’s Baltic neighbours. But then Russia has long been a country of extremes – climatically, politically and, from the October Revolution of 1917, architecturally. The architectural revolution ushered in with the Bolsheviks, however, although dramatic, was short-lived. A century of Finnish independence, an occasion overshadowed by the centenary of the Russian Revolution this autumn, has offered the world something else: at best, a humanistic architecture as warm as Karelian winters are cold.

If global capitalism is an awkward affair in Russia, it suits civic-minded Finland about as well as a gloveless walk along Mannerheiminkatu in December. Perhaps Finnish architects will find a new and special voice in the country’s second independent century, and one that others will want to hear as they once did Aalto’s and, of course, Jean Sibelius’s during that era of fecund creativity between Tsar Nicholas’s February Manifesto and the onset of the Winter War.