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Helsinki, A Capital of Good Design

Guest Author - Ann Carroll Burgess

Helsinki, the white city of the north, is a capital city that comes by its nickname honestly, so many of the cities buildings have been built from the local pale granite that it does appear to have been made from mostly white materials. By comparison to other European capitals, Helsinki is young, although founded by King Gustav Wasa in 1550 as a cargo port to compete with prosperous Tallinn; Helsinki has only been the capital city since 1812.
Although culturally and historically tied to both Sweden and Russia, Finland has a distinctive culture that is closer in roots to Hungary and Estonia. The ancestral Finns most likely originated in present-day Estonia from forebears who had most likely migrated from Hungary. The strongest evidence of these connections is evident from the fact that the Finnish language closely resembles both Hungarian and Estonian.
On your first visit to Finland you may be surprised by a strong sense of déjà vu. For years, Helsinki has been the stand-in for a variety of Russian cities in Hollywood movies. Red, Gorky Park and White Knights are just a few of the “Russian stories” that have been played out in Helsinki’s elegant streets.

And, Helsinki is an elegant city. After Czar Alexander II moved the capital from Turku to Helsinki, he hired German designer Carl Ludwig Engel, who was responsible for some of St. Petersburg magnificent architecture, to renovate the city and the new Helsinki emerged with well-planned and spacious parks, squares, sculptures and distinctive green domes. The heart of the city is Senate Square, adorned with a triumphant statue of Alexander. This Czar was very kind to the Finnish people and his statue and throne in the museum are among the few remaining vestiges of the Russian Royal era.

The city has not simply rested on its architectural laurels; forward-thinking residents long ago restricted the building height to six stories to prevent the esthetic beauty of the older buildings from being overshadowed by new constructions. An unexpected result of this move is the length of many new buildings that can reach the length of a football field. Don’t be surprised at just how long a city block can be in this town.

For enthusiasts of Marimekko and Arabia, good Finnish design will come as no surprise; Helsinki is a living showcase of good design by such notable architects as Eliel Saarinen and Alvar Aalto. The Rautatieasema, the railway station, built in 1918 was a Saarinen-led team effort. The result is a monolith of form and function, worth a trip to see it. Just around the corner is the equally impressive bus station designed in 1836 by Carl Ludwig Engel, N. Kokko and P.Riihimaki. Also, make sure to visit OmmI Tarjanne’s 1902 Finnish National Theatre. A competition was held in 1898 for the right to design the building and Jarl Eklund won. However, Tarjanne’s s design was the one used because it was deemed more advanced at the time. The theater is located at the end of Rautatientori.
Even nature has inspired design in the city. The remarkable Church of the Rock is one of the world’s most unusual structures. Carved from an enormous boulder and covered with a copper dome, the church still hosts weekly services. Some of the interior walls are visual continuations of the natural stone. While visiting, please respect those at prayer.

And the design traditions continue. The Kiasma Center is a cooperative project geared toward showcasing modern Finnish and international contemporary art. Designed by New York architect,

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Content copyright © 2014 by Ann Carroll Burgess. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Ann Carroll Burgess. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Nadine Shores for details.

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