Twentieth-century Finnish architecture, with few exceptions, has moved within the flow of contemporaneous international developments. Within this larger construct, Finnish architects have simultaneously developed qualities that are particular to the cultural and natural condition of the country. Over the past half-century, the Finns have not forsaken modernism but have continued to examine and inspect its potential, creating a legacy of superb works in architecture and planning.
Toward the end of the 19th century, a growth in national self-awareness occurred in Finland as well as in other European countries. Although this nationalism was partially based on an interest in seeking national cultural origins, it was also fostered by the establishment and growth of democratic institutions that accompanied industrial development. In response to the repression of the regime of Czar Nicholas II during the 1890s, Finland sought political independence through national self-assertion. Within the Finnish arts, the search for a national cultural identity resulted in a movement known as National Romanticism.
With the 1849 edition of the Kalevala, the Finnish national folk epic, the arts were provided with powerful poetic imagery that led to the development of a national form of artistic expression that moved from painting to music and eventually to architecture. The music of Jan Sibelius and the paintings of Akseli Gallén-Kallela express this urge toward national identity. For architects, the question of the period was, What qualities were required for a national architecture? The Finnish Pavilion for the 1900 Paris World’s Fair, by the firm Gesellius Lindgren and Saarinen, was the first occasion for a public expression of National Romanticism. The work contained many of the formal features that would characterize National Romantic architecture: picturesque compositions with irregular asymmetrical plans and masses employing tactile and rough materials. Ragged and irregular building volumes and profiles are complemented through the use of heavily rusticated masonry surfaces, protruding log ends, and numerous textural variations in materials. Often, the ornamentation featured motifs derived from Finnish nature and folklore: bears, squirrels, and other animals, along with pinecones, tree boughs, and the occasional character from folklore were sculpted decorative motifs.
The work of Gesellius, Lindgren and Saarinen and of individuals such as Lars Sonck, Selim Lindqvist, Usko Nyström, and the architect Vivi Lönn exemplified the very best of Finnish National Romanticism. Hvitträsk (1902), the home and studio of Gesellius, Lindgren, and Saarinen, combines the organizational pattern of a Finnish vernacular farm complex with massing elements from medieval stone churches. The interiors continue these direct references and include an interlocking log living space and a sitting room decorated like medieval church vaults. The Pohja Insurance Building (1901) and several apartment complexes in Helsinki are of rough masonry construction that references the work of American architect Henry Hobson Richardson. Among the most powerful works of the period was the firm’s National Museum (designed 1901, completed 1915), which incorporates direct references to Finnish medieval churches and fortresses. Lars Sonck’s best work of the period includes the Eira Hospital (1905), a bank interior (1904), and the Richardson-influenced Telephone Building (1905), all located in Helsinki. However, his Tampere Cathedral (1907) is a true masterpiece: it is a fully integrated work of art and architecture, assimilating a variety of references into a bold, assertive building. Other important works of the period include Usko Nyström’s evocative Valtion Hotel in Imatra (1903) and Onni Tarjanne’s National Theater (1902). Many of the works of this period were important cultural buildings symbolizing Finland as an emerging nation with a sophisticated population.
Finland had several women architects practicing during this period, all of whom attended the Polytechnic Institute in Helsinki. Although Signe Hornborg and Signe Lagerborg-Stenius engaged in major commissions during the National Romantic period, it was Vivi Lönn who was a major force during the first two decades of the 20th century. Her best National Romantic work, all located in Tampere, included the Finnish Girl’s School (1902), the Alexander School (1904), and the Central Fire Station (1908), along with other educational and domestic projects.
Two buildings, although appearing National Romantic, signal the movement toward a more classical approach to design among Finland’s architectural leaders: Eliel Saarinen’s (the partnership was dissolved by 1907) Helsinki Railroad Station (1914) and Lars Sonck’s Helsinki Stock Exchange (1911). Both works have a classical restraint and control and eschew the compositional excesses of National Romanticism. Although National Romanticism had provided Finland with an international reputation, the style seemed regressive and heavy. The younger architects desired to generate a purer and more rational form of expression. The exaggerations of National Romanticism gave way to a classicizing tendency emergent throughout Scandinavia before World War I.
Finnish classicism of the 1920s is exemplified by the use of simply proportioned geometric volumes with sparsely decorated stucco surfaces. The flat, stuccoed surfaces with crisply modeled classical appointments recall the neoclassicism of early 18thcentury Finnish architects Carl Ludwig Engel and Carlo Bassi and the simple classically inspired architecture found in the towns and villages throughout Italy. Despite their classical uniforms, the buildings of the 1920s contain a number of nonclassical characteristics. The plan orders are often distorted, making use of asymmetrical compositions rather than axial or symmetrical ones. A freer disposition of plan elements occurs to accommodate both functional necessities and the exigencies of context. The work of Hilding Ekelund, J.S.Siren, Erik Bryggman, Sigurd Frosterus, and Alvar and Aino Aalto embrace this direction.
Two major works, J.S.Siren’s Finnish Parliament House (1931) and Sigurd Frosterus’s Stockmann’s department store (1930), both in Helsinki, are serious realizations of Nordic classicism. The Parliament House, with its columned front surmounting a monumental flight of stairs, is an essay in restraint and repose. The interiors are well resolved and expertly detailed, creating an integrated work of form, space, and decoration. The Stockmann’s department store is more muscular in bearing because of its use of masonry. The massive vertical brick facade, clear profiles, and culminating copper roof are balanced by the large, skylit interior central space.
Four women architects made major contributions during this period: Eva KuhlefetEkelund, Kerttu Rytkönen, Elsa Arokallio, and Elsi Borg. Kuhlefelt-Ekelund designed one of the exceptional buildings of the era, the Private Swedish Girl’s School (1929) in Töölö. Rytkönen executed the exciting, more idiosyncratic Salus hospital (1929) in Helsinki. Arokallio’s work for the Ministry of Defense as well as in private practice and her Kauhava barracks (1928) are marked by a strict and elegant classicism. A crowning work is Elsi Borg’s Jyväskylä Rural Parish Church (1928), with its clear geometric shapes, arresting details, and expressive use of color.
Commercial buildings in addition to housing complexes were executed in this form of classicism. This was a period of growth and urban expansion in Finland’s major cities—Turku, Helsinki, Tampere, and Jyväskylä—and the simplicity of the forms and their responsiveness as urban design elements made classicism a suitable style for these developments. Buildings in the 1920s by Alvar and Aino Aalto in Jyväskylä and Turku and byErik Bryggman in Turku exemplify these characteristics, especially the Aaltos’s Defense Corps building (1926) in Jyväskylä and Southwestern Agricultural Cooperative (1929) in Turk and Bryggman’s two blocks of flats (mid-1920s) in Turku.
Hilding Ekelund’s “Art Hall” (1929) and Töölö Church (1930), both in Helsinki, and the Aaltos’s Worker’s Club (1925) in Jyväskylä represent, in contrast, the free play of expression found in this form of classicism. These works, while using elements of the classical language, often exhibit exaggerated, even mannered, qualities in the overall composition or the detailing.
Many of Helsinki’s suburban developments date from this period and are composed of apartment blocks executed in this form of classicism to achieve a harmonious cityscape. The streetscapes along Mäkelänkatu and Museokatu in Helsinki are examples of this unified intention. Martti Välikangas’s Käpylä Garden Suburb (1925) in Helsinki combines classical motifs and decoration with a simple vernacular-inspired building while demonstrating an understanding of the most up-to-date town-planning principles.
Finnish awareness of the new ideas emerging from continental Europe began in the 1920s, as Scandinavian journals began publishing the work of the French, German, Dutch, and Russian avant-garde. At this time, Finnish architects were especially open to currents from the outside and willing to participate in theoretical and polemical discussions. Architects such as Alvar and Aalto and Erik Bryggman, among others, traveled throughout Europe to visit the seminal works of the new architecture and to attend meetings of CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne). In particular, Aalto’s firsthand knowledge of avant-garde developments not only was instrumental in the promulgation of Finnish functionalism but quickly established him as among its leaders.
Accepting both the formal canons and the social programs of modernism, Finnish functionalism was characterized by use of the “free” plan; the separation of structure from building envelope, with the structure (usually of concrete) being detached from the “free” facade; and a machine imagery created by tautskinned, white cubic volumes with minimalistic industrial detailing. The architects further accepted the modern bias for buildings sited in open, park-like settings. In built works as well as in proposals, portions of extant urban fabric were opened to automobile access and the perceived health-giving qualities of sun, air, and greenery.
Although a number of Finns directly experienced the major new works on the Continent—which led to extremely sophisti-cated buildings being executed in this small country—Aalto’s knowledge of his peers’ work and his quick assimilation of modernism’s industrial detailing techniques were wryly commented on by Hilding Ekelund in 1930: “With the same enthusiasm as the academics of the 1880s drew Roman baroque portals, Gothic pinnacles, etc. in their sketchbooks for use in their architectural practice, Alvar Aalto noses out new, rational-technical details from all over Europe which he then makes use of and transforms with considerable skill” (Mikkola 1980, 75).
The Aaltos’s Turun Sanomat Newspaper Building (1929) in Turku and Tuberculosis Sanatorium (1933) in Paimio are seminal pieces of Finnish functionalism, as they have fully incorporated Le Corbusier’s “Five Points of a New Architecture.” However, Aalto was by no means the lone practitioner, and by the early 1930s, a number of especially fine examples of modernism existed throughout Finland. Exemplary works, embracing both modernism’s formal canons and social programs, were also produced by Erik Bryggman, Viljo Revell, Erkki Huttunen, Oiva Kallio, and P.E.Blomstedt.
P.E.Blomstedt, who worked with his architect wife Märta, completed two small but excellent works: the Kannonkoski Church (1933) and the Kotka Savings Bank (1935). After his death in 1935, Märta Blomstedt, with Matti Lampén, completed the Pohjanhovi Hotel (1936) in Rovaniemi, one of the most important works of the period. The “Glass Palace” (1935) in Helsinki by Viljo Revell embraces modernism through expression of its program of restaurants, shops, and a cinema, all part of the central bus station, as well as for its machine aesthetics. Bryggman’s library tower (1935) for the Åbo Akademi in Turku, the exceptional Helsinki Olympic Stadium (1940) by Yrjö Lindegren, and a series of works by Erkki Huttunen—the Cooperative Shop (1933) in Sauvo, the Kotka Town Hall (1934), and the SOK warehouse and office building (1938) in Oulu—are all examples of the acceptance of functionalism in Finland.
Although many architects continued to actively embrace functionalism, criticism of its propositions began to emerge during the mid- to late 1930s. This criticism initially concerned tectonics and materiality. As modernist works appeared in Finland and the forces of nature and the effect of climate began to act on them, architects questioned the advisability of using Mediterranean-inspired building forms in the harsh northern environment. To modify functionalism’s astringent forms and material palette, Finnish architects incorporated traditional pitched-roof forms; brick, tile, and stone cladding; and punched window openings. Traditional norms modified functionalist “ethics,” providing more corporeal substance and regional character to the work.
In the Aaltos’s work, this change can be seen initially in the evolution of the design for the Viipuri Library (1935) and their residence (1936) in Munkkiniemi. However, the Finnish Pavilion at the 1936 Paris World’s Fair and the Villa Mairea (1939) are the pivotal works that reveal and codify the directions that Aalto took over the next three decades of his production (Aino Aalto died of cancer in 1949). Erik Bryggman’s elegant Resurrection Chapel (1940) in Turku is another example of this movement toward a more experiential and tactile architecture. In both the Villa Mairea and the Resurrection Chapel, the interplay between nature and the architecture is an essential characteristic of the design. A number of housing complexes and service facilities for factory complexes by Aalto, Aarne Ervi, and Viljo Revell exploit this play between built form and the natural setting.
At one level, Aalto’s work dominated Finnish developments in the post-World War II era. The Säynätsalo Town Hall (1952), Rautatalo office building (1955), National Pensions Institute (1956), House of Culture (1958), and Vouksenniska Church (1959) all reinforced his international standing and independent direction. However, Finland during the 1950s and 1960s was more than Aalto.
Whereas Aalto went his own way, the majority of Finnish architects continued to practice an evolved form of modernism influenced by Mies van der Rohe and others. Their buildings are characterized by their direct approach in the use of reinforced concrete and steel along with brick and wood, coupled with rational planning and organizational techniques. Examples include Viljo Revell’s Palace Hotel (1952, with Keijo Petäjä) in Helsinki and Vatiala Cemetery Chapel (1962); the numerous housing complexes by Arne Ervi; Yrjö Lindegren’s Serpent house (1951), Kaija and Heikki Siren’s National Theater addition (1954) and Otaniemi Chapel (1957); and Aarno Ruusuvuori’s Hyvinkää Church (1961) and Huutoniemi Church (1964). Less Romantic in conception than Aalto’s contemporaneous works, these buildings expanded the rationalist aspect of modernism while incorporating more expressive spatial exploration with a richer material vocabulary.
Often, this period in Finnish architectural development is viewed as the quiet, golden age of the century, a result of Aalto’s code of not discussing his architecture, coupled with the general preference of a material palette relying on brick and wood. However, this was not necessarily the norm, and in fact much influence should be accorded the work and theoretical writings of Aulis Blomstedt. Blomstedt aimed to develop an objective theory of architecture that was verified through practice, with simplicity, austerity, and abstraction becoming essentials in his designs. His terrace housing complex (1954) in Tapiola and Worker’s Institute (1959) in Helsinki are essays in his rigorous process of thinking and doing, as are a series of abstract graphic and installation pieces that he did to study proportion. In addition to practicing, Blomstedt was a professor at the Helsinki University of Technology, and his influence is seen in the works of his students—Kristian Gullichsen, Juhani Pallasmaa, Erkki Kairamo, and Kirmo Mikkola, among others—executed during the 1970s and 1980s.
New towns were also a feature of Finnish postwar development, especially around Helsinki. Because of the city’s growth in the 1950s, a series of planned garden suburban developments was created. The most famous was Tapiola Garden City, begun in 1952, which embraced the Finn’s particular enthusiasm for living close to nature. The plan for Tapiola comprised three neighborhoods grouped around a city center and separated by green zones. The shopping and administrative center (1961) was designed by Aarne Ervi. The housing complexes were done by the best of Finland’s architects: Aulis Blomstedt designed flats (1961), terrace houses (1964), and studio housing (1965); Viljo Revell executed flats (1958) and a complex of tower blocks (1960); Aarno Ruusuvuori designed the Weilin and Göös print-ing works (1964) and the parish church (1965); and H. and K. Siren contributed a complex of terrace houses (1959).
By the late 1960s, Finnish architects were either exploring a more expressive modernist language or working toward a more rationalist, abstract form of expression. The first can be seen in the Helsinki City Theater (1967) by Tima Penttilä; the Taivallahti Church, or famous “church in the rock” (1969), by Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen; the Sibelius Museum in Turku (1968) by Woldemar Baeckman; and the Kouvola City Hall (1969) by Saarnio and Leiviskä. The second, influenced by Blomstedt, can be seen in the more purist architecture of the Villa Relander in Muurame (1966) by Kirmo Mikkola and Juhani Pallasmaa, the Moduli 225 system of construction (1970) by Kristian Gullichsen and Pallasmaa, and the Liinasaarentie multifamily housing (1971) and semidetached housing (1980), both in Espoo, by Erikki Kairamo. Aarno Ruusuvuori’s sauna (1968), designed for industrial manufacture and commissioned by Marimekko, is a true essay of architectural purity achieved with the most minimal gestures.
While a duality was established between Aalto and Blomstedt, another design force emerged in Finland during the late 1950s that appeared to bridge the two: Reima Pietilä and his architect wife Raili Paatelainen. Their early work—beginning with the Finnish Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair and including the Kaleva Church (1960) in Tampere, the “Dipoli” student union (1964) at Otaniemi, and the Suvikumpu housing (1969) in Tapiola—is both distinctive and Expressionistic yet rational. Although their work often seems to emerge from the site, somewhat akin to Aalto’s, there is still a controlled abstract quality to their architectural conceptions, as Pietilä learned much from Blomstedt and was influenced by his writings and thinking. After the critical success of these projects, Pietilä had a decade-long hiatus in his work and did not receive a significant building project in Finland until the commission for the Hervanta Community Complex in suburban Tampere in 1975. Although Hervanta was not of the quality of their earlier work, the Pietilä’s last works—the Lieksa Church (1982), the Tampere City Library (1983), and most especially the Finnish President’s Official Residence (1993)—regain an intense and expressive architectural power.
The Past Quarter-Century
Contemporary Finnish architects carry forward both the rational and the expressive threads present in the past half-century of architectural production. The best work combines both threads into a rich experiential architecture that also builds on a deep understanding of program and site. Architects such as Ruusuvuori, Pallasmaa, Gullichsen, and Kairamo are joined by Käpy and Simo Paavilainen; Juha Leiviskä; Pekka Helin and Tuomo Siitonen; Mikko Heikkinen and Markku Komonen; the three-some of Matti Nurmela, Kari Raimoranta, and Jyrki Tasa; and the group MONARK, among others, in creating some of the very best work recently done in Finland.
The Olari Church and Parish Center (1981) in Espoo, the new Parish Center (1989) in Paimio by Käpy and Simo Paavilainen, and the numerous churches by Juha Leiviskä— the Church of St. Thomas (1975) in Oulu, the Myyrmäki Church and Parrish Center (1984) in Vantaa, the Kirkkonummi Parish Center (1984), and the Männistö Church (1992)—are true instruments for manipulating natural light. Leiviskä in particular, whose churches are organized as series of parallel white planes, creates through a combination of baroque exuberance and Nordic coolness wonderfully engaging settings for light to play in. In his other works, as exemplified by the German Embassy (1992) in Helsinki and the art museum (1988) in Kajanni, Leiviskä demonstrates his mastery of the use of the wall as the primary organizing element in his architecture.
Juhani Pallasmaa took a breather from architecture for about a decade. He was director of the Museum of Finnish Architecture for five years and spent much time writing on the theory and philosophy of architecture and doing graphic design and artistic projects. When he returned to architecture, his work, as best witnessed in his Rovaniemi Art Museum (1986) and Finnish Institute (1991) in Paris, extends his earlier rationalism toward a more considered, thoughtful experiential expressiveness. Like many of his colleagues, Pallasmaa designs furniture and art objects and does graphic design: however, more in keeping with Aalto, these endeavors seem to more directly influence his architecture.
The work of Arkkitehdit Ky runs a range of expressive techniques, depending on which of the design principals—Kristian Gullichsen, Erikki Kairamo, or Timo Vormala—is in charge of the project. Gullichsen’s work, best seen in his Parish Center (1983) in Kauniainen and Pieksämäki Cultural Center (1989), is a demonstration of the concept of “building as wall,” which structures the entire site and overall spatial order. Kairamo’s work is more “Constructivist” in expression, as demonstrated in his semidetached houses (1990) in Espoo and the much celebrated Itäkeskus Tower and Commercial Center (1987) in Helsinki. Vormala’s architecture is more vernacular and traditional in expression, yet it is grounded in modernism, as seen in the apartment complex (1980) in Varisto, Ventaa, and the block of flats (1984) in the Näkinpuisto section of Helsinki. The firm also produced the highly visible and significant extension to the Stockmann’s department store (1989) in central Helsinki.
The range and scope of work executed by Pekka Helin and Tuomo Siitonen is impressive for its conceptual strength as well as detail execution. Their UKK Institute for the Study of Health and Fitness (1983) in Tampere; the Swimming Hall and Multipurpose Hall (1986) in Hollola; the UNIC Ltd. headquarters (1991) in Helsinki; their exquisite Sibelius Quarters housing complex (1993) in Boräs, Sweden; and the North Karelian Provincial Library (1992) in Joensuu, among other works, demonstrate the diversity of their projects.
A series of very interesting building complexes have been executed by Matti Nurmela, Kari Raimoranta, and Jyrki Tasa. These include the Lippajärvi Daycare Center (1983), the Post Office (1984) in Malmi, the Library (1984) in Kuhmo, and the Commercial Center (1989) in Pori. The Cultural Center (1989) for Tapiola by Arto Sipinen and the unique Finnish Pavilion for the 1992 Seville World’s Fair by MONARK are additional examples of the range of architectural thinking occurring in Finland today. And then there is the expressive and excellently executed work of Mikko Heikkinen and Markku Komonen: Their Finnish Science Center “Heureka” (1988) in Helsinki, the Rovaniemi Airport (1992), and the Finnish Chancery (1993) in Washington, D.C., all bespeak an elegant clarity in organization as well as detail quality.
Over the course of the 20th century, Finnish architects have desired to create an architecture of both place and time. In doing so, they have created a tradition of executing strong architectural ideas and conceptions and developing them toward a rich and expressive result. The architecture of 20th-century Finland is not one of overly complex ideas executed in a simple-minded fashion but, rather, that of substantive concepts that are worked and elaborated into a palpable, meaningful, and fully experiential architecture.
Sennott R.S. Encyclopedia of twentieth century architecture, Vol.1. Fitzroy Dearborn., 2005.
AALTO, ALVAR; SAARINEN, EERO;
A number of works on modern Finnish architecture exist, as do several general surveys
on the overall architectural history of the country. Most of the works lack true
comprehensiveness, and often the sections on Functionalism and postwar architecture
devote too much discussion to Alvar Aalto at the expense of other significant architects.
Aalto’s work notwithstanding, there is a much more rich and varied body of work
representing those periods. The importance of Aulis Blomstedt to postwar Finnish
developments and the critical reaction many young architects of the 1960s and 1970s had
to the dominance of Aalto (versus how he was viewed internationally) do not often
receive the attention they should. A comprehensive and detailed assessment of 20thcentury Finnish architecture is still needed. The Museum of Finnish Architecture
continues to be an excellent source for exhibitions and publications on both historical and
contemporary developments in the architecture of Finland.
Helander, Vilhelm, and Simo Rista, Suomalainen Rakennustraide; Modern Architecture i n Finland (bilingual Finnish-English edition), Helsinki:
Mikkola, Kirmo, “Finland: På spaning efter en nutid” [“Finland: Looking for the Present
Times”]. In Nordisk Funktionalism [N ordic Fu nctionalism], edited by Gunilla Lundahl, Stockholm: Arkitektur Förlag, 1980
Nerdinger, Winfried (editor), Alvar Aalto: Toward a Human Mode rnism, Munich and London: Prestel, 1999
Nikula, Riitta, and Kristiina Paatero (editors), Sankaruus ja Arki: Suomen 50-lu vun milj öö; Heroism and t he Everyday : Building Finland in the 1 950s (bilingual Finnish-English
edition), Helsinki: Museum of Finnish Architecture, 1994
Poole, Scott, The New Finnish Architecture, New York: Rizzoli, 1992
Quantrill, Malcolm, Finnish Architecture and the Modernist Tradit ion, New York and London: Spon, 1995
Richards, J.M., 800 Years of Finnish Architecture, North Pomfret, Vermont, and Newton Abbot, Devon: David and
Salokorpi, Asko, Modern Architecture in Fi nland, New York: Praeger, 1970
Suhonen, Pekka, Neue Architektur in Finnland, Helsinki: Tammi, 1967
Suomen Rakennustaiteen Museo, Profiles: Pioneering Women A rchitects fro m Finland, Helsinki: Museum of Finnish Architecture, 1983
Tempel, Egon, New Finnish Architecture, New York: Praeger, 1968
Wickberg, Nils Erik, Byggnadskonst i Finland, Stockholm: Lindqvist, 1959; as Finnish Architecture, Helsinki: Otava, 1959