Etienne Achille’s perspective – Helsinki
An important point to understand Helsinki is that the capital of Finland is truly an archipelago. With as many as 330 different islands within the cities limits, this intensely complex cities’ origins, identity and recent developments were explored by La Fabrique de la Cité in their three day expedition to the famous city.
First, the cities development is rooted in three historic moments:
- 472 years ago, in 1550: as Emperor Charles V convened the Council of Valladolid to “consider and discuss how the conquests of the New World should be conducted…justly and with peace of mind”, Gustav Vasa, King of Sweden, created Helsingfors (the Swedish name for Helsinki), an outpost opposite Tallinn, a rival in Hanseatic Estonia, and Russia, which is never far away,
- 280 years ago, in 1742: a fire in the medieval town of Helsinki with its narrow and winding streets paved the way for a new city. Sweden began construction on the granite Sveaborg sea fortress (today known as Suomenlinna) in 1748, with the assistance of Louis XV of France, in response to an initial amputation of territory by Tsarist Russia. Helsinki then built up a complex identity of a city created by Sweden, designed by Prussian architect Carl Ludwig Engel following another major fire in 1808, and made capital of the Grand Duchy of Finland by Russia, which occupied it from 1809 for more than a century.
- 105 years ago, in 1917: Finland took a big stride forward, finally freeing itself from its Russian neighbour, earning its independence and asserting itself as a “Nordic” country, as its citizens like to call it.
While Helsinki is also Nordic, it is not, definitely not, Scandinavian. A few examples of Helsinki’s character can be used to paint a picture.
The first could be its quiet happiness, a certain restraint when expressing emotion.
In urban terms, this is reflected in a development plan devoid of any majestic thoroughfares, controlled on a grand-ducal and not imperial scale: Esplanadi park with its 19th century bandstands is no match for St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospect or Berlin’s Unter den Linden which leads to the Brandenburg Gate. The façades that give onto secondary streets offer very little decorative elements. Senate Square keeps to a reasonable size for a neoclassical palace and frames the overlooking rocky outcrop on which the Lutheran cathedral stands, gleaming with a boreal white.
The major architectural exception to Helsinki’s happy modesty is the Finnish Parliament, a pink granite work by architect Johan Siegfried Siren in 1931. Its immensity asserts the young democracy’s parliamentary regime.
Lastly, Nordic restraint can also be seen in the country’s reaction to the global challenge of climate change. Finland has announced that it will achieve carbon neutrality in 2030, five years ahead of its initial schedule 1, making it the most ambitious country in the world in this regard.
Second, the importance of minerals to Helsinki
The Fennoscandian Shield on which the country lies is exposed all over Helsinki. This commonplace geology is a reminder that the very recent country of Finland is connected to the early days of the Earth by this foundation that is 4 to 2.5 billion years old. Its abundant granite is a building material that colours the city grey, pink, green and black. This hard rock may have been seen as a difficult ground layer – contrary to the “easy ground” named by François Decoster (architect and co-founder of AUC) regarding the restructuring of Lyon’s Part-Dieu station – but Helsinki has successfully developed underground techniques and engineering to recover this resource. The largest wastewater treatment and cogeneration facility in the Nordic countries is located up to 25 metres below ground in the outlying district of Viikinmäki: the Viikinmäki wastewater treatment facility. Operated by Helsinki Region Environmental Services HSY, the facility processes the daily wastewater of 900,000 inhabitants, with an average flow of 290,000 m3/day and a maximum of 600,000 m3/day. It is self-sufficient for 91% of its energy and 100% of its heat.
Similarly, the thermal properties of the city’s granitic sub-soil enabled the construction of the Itakeskus swimming hall, with an immediate capacity for 1000 swimmers. It can also provide shelter for 3,800 people for three weeks following a reconfiguration that takes 72 hours to complete.
This protective function of many of Helsinki’s underground constructions – starting with the underground rail network – is a reminder of the constant existential threat that weighs upon the city: of the fires that destroyed it several times in the past, successive invasions and annexations led by Russia, and of course, that of nuclear weapons from Russia which is suddenly felt more keenly due to the war in Ukraine.
Despite these threats, Helsinki cultivates a third character trait that is twofold: transparency and simplicity.
Components of the quiet happiness felt in the city, these qualities have become a way of life and can be seen in many manifestations of Finnish life. It is generally accepted that government ministers are willing to give out their mobile numbers. This year, the Helsinki City Museum, opposite the Lutheran cathedral, is putting on “Hoes – Voices in Sex Work”, the first exhibition on voluntary sex work in the city’s streets. Naturally, as a national institution, the sauna is a sort of academy of transparency and of the simplicity of the naked body.
Simplicity also takes centre stage in one of the finest aspects of the country’s leading industry: wood. The easy-to-assemble Puutalo houses were made of this wood and provided emergency accommodation for the 420,000 refugees driven from the east of the country following the annexation of 10% of the territory by Russia in 1940 at the end of the bloody Winter War. These houses disseminated their innovative accommodation solution with 120,000 units accounting for around 9 million square metres of living floor space in Israel, the USA, Colombia, and in a surprising reversal, in the USSR.
The saga of these prefabricated houses by Puutalo Oy was explored in 2021 by the exhibition of the Finnish Pavilion at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, designed by architects Kristo Vesikansa (also editor of the Finnish Architectural Review), Philip Tidwell and Laura Berger, PhD student at Aalto University (Helsinki) 2.
This wooden house concept lives on today at the heart of the creation of the new districts of Kuninkaantammi (5,500 inhabitants) and Honsakuo (2,000 inhabitants). The latter is the largest wood construction project in Helsinki, located at fifteen minutes from the centre and the airport. Community is a key feature in the inhabitants’ daily lives, with a transparent and open lifestyle fostered by many individual terraces, outdoor play areas and the collective gardens of the new Perhosniitty park. The different housing models boast both functional simplicity and environmental performance with their passive energy design and biodiversity conservation/restoration initiatives in this former marshland and woodland area.
Simplicity and transparency can also be the outcome of meticulous work to refine shape. This is proven by the reputation of Finnish design, rooted in ancestral expertise and local materials. This reached a remarkable peak in 1937 in the rooms of the Savoy restaurant, on Helsinki’s Eteläesplanadi Street. Upon the request of the major industrialist Harry Gullichsen, Aino and Alvar Aalto designed the restaurant using wood, leather, fabrics, glass and copper in clear curves, clean cuts and simple lines. The successful Aalto vases were displayed in the long window designed as a panoramic inspection window into the restaurant’s reception areas.
The restaurant is the perfect blend of design and functionality. This exacting coherence may well have something to do with Sisu, the inner strength that sustains people and life in Finland.
Beyond design, Helsinki’s contemporary architecture also conveys this character of transparency and simplicity. In the new Musiikkitalo music venue, the stands and stage can be viewed through large bays in the reception areas. LPR Architects who designed it deliberately chose this open and transparent feel for the location, as evidenced by its south- and east-facing glazed façades which connect it to the historic Finnish Parliament and the new developments in the Töölö bay district. The inside of building is lined with quintessentially Nordic birchwood and its seating plan conjures up images of tree trunks floating on Finland’s lakes and rivers.
The Oodi central library takes the concept of transparency and simplicity even further. Designed by ALA 3 which used spruce for its outdoor base, it is striking for the functional clarity of the enormous upper floor devoted to reading. The fully-glazed western façade of this floor frames a cinemascope urban panorama going from the Parliament to the Music Centre to Finlandia Hall, designed by Alvar Aalto. Located at the heart of the new developments in Helsinki’s contemporary centre, the library could meet the concepts of “container of events” and “metropolitan meta-collector” defined by AUC (François Decoster, Djamel Klouche, Caroline Poulin) in its proposal for the international call for proposals for the Greater Paris project in 2008 4. At the time, this approach was reflected by the proposed “Greater Great Louvre”, a Great Louvre enhanced by an even closer link to public transportation, car parks and shops, in order to create a major gathering site, where crowds come together for a variety of reasons. This is broadly the intention of the Oodi library, located near the central station, which offers a wide range of services for the general public: an area for babies and families, work rooms, open-access 3D printers, mixing studios, video games and virtual reality devices, not forgetting the chess tables installed in the large glazed reception area.
Another building in which simplicity and transparency also come together to serve functionality is the Temppeliaukio Lutheran church in the central district of Etu-Töölö. Designed by brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen in 1969, it was carved out of the granite left rough on all of its walls. This sort of votive cave is topped with a copper dome supported by a circle of dozens of narrow windows which create an intense dialogue between the vast interior volume stripped of any load-bearing structure and the view towards the Nordic sky.
Another religious building that echoes the city is the Kamppi Chapel. An egg-shaped ellipse entirely covered in wood on the outside, it was designed in 2012 by Mikko Summanen, Kimmo Lintula and Niko Sirola to give the population an ecumenical gathering place at the very heart of Helsinki. K2S Architects said of the chapel: “Finland offers people the dream of a better life and future, the opportunity to find solutions and take initiative. This has made Finland a forerunner in wellbeing 5”. The chapel won 55the 2010 Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design award in the International Architecture category.
The last character trait that Helsinki boasts is that of being a connected city.
It would be an understatement to say that history has constantly put it in contact with other cities, starting with its neighbour and rival Tallin, with Stockholm of course, Berlin also, and above all St. Petersburg and Moscow.
In three generations from the last half of the 20th century to the start of the 21st century, Helsinki has done its utmost to connect itself to the major European and global challenges. It was the smallest city to host the summer Olympic Games in 1952, only 35 years after declaring its independence. An interesting architectural legacy of this period remains in the Kamppi district, with the Lasipalatsi (glass palace) building. Built in the 1930s, this functionalist construction was used during the Olympics then slated to be torn down, but public protests resulted in it being preserved. It was restructured in 2018 by JKMM and the Amos Rex art museum, with a surface area of 13,000 m², was installed in the excavated granite sub-soil.
Twenty years on from the Olympic Games, the city continued to relate to major international events. The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) was held in Helsinki in 1975 and resulted in the Helsinki Accords: in the middle of the Cold War, the drive to stabilize the continent was a major achievement for Finland which was under threat. Twenty years later, the country furthered its strategy and joined the European Union, thereby deepening its integration on the western side of the Baltic. And almost twenty years after that, in 2022, Helsinki submitted its application to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in response to Russia’s war against Ukraine, thereby setting in motion a historic shift in its foreign and security policy, the ultimate step in its strategic anchoring in the West. Greater still than in the international arena, it can be said that Helsinki consolidates its relations within its borders through the renowned solidarity of its population.
Here, the collective is valued, a legacy of an age-old tradition of mutual assistance to deal with harsh climate and external threats. The high rate of tax and social security contributions – 42% of its GDP 6, above the average of EU Member States and of the Euro Area – is indicative of the importance of sharing wealth to fund public action, a sign of the acceptance of common responsibility and a common destiny.
Unicorn company Supercell, the successful developer of mobile video games Clash of Clans, Boom Beach, Clash Royale and Brawl Stars, was the leading corporate taxpayer in Finland in 2021 (excluding groups) with €153 million paid, ahead of pharmaceutical company Bayer (€115 million) and forest product company UPM (€113 million) 7.
The fact that this top spot is symbolically held by the successful start-up is a prime example of the way the city is connected. Its roots lie to the west of Greater Helsinki, well before mobile games: located since 1865 in Espoo, Nokia has become the third global telecommunications group currently specialising in networks, 5G in particular, after having been the world leader in mobile telephone sales in the 1990s.
The Finnish flair for connection can also be seen in global start-up event SLUSH, which is held each year in Helsinki in mid-November. With the Lisbon Web Summit, it is the leading worldwide event, bringing together 20,000 innovators, entrepreneurs and investors. Actively asserting this trait in its identity, Helsinki is firmly established in the 21st century.
One of the impressions that Helsinki leaves on visitors is that of steady fluidity: that of its fun tech, and its airy movement flows and also its austere buildings such as the brick and black granite Stockmann department store designed in 1916 by brothers Valter and Ivar Thomé right in the city centre on the broad Mannerheimintie street or the opulent yet strict façades of Aleksanterinkatu, the adjacent historical main street. This urban atmosphere could well exude just harshness but instead gives off an intense feeling of life, energy and very Finnish relations.
As we leave the city after three full days of urban expedition, the last word of this sketch of a city portrait can get down to basics: the term of Finnish identity that means “Finland”: Suomi. Despite its major importance, its origin is surprisingly unclear as it is obscured by a cloud of similar words 8, attesting to the strong interweaving between Baltic cultures. Several assumptions of its origin coexist 9. The first is suomaa, the Finnish word for “marsh”, the typical landscape in southern Finland. The second considers the word suomu – fishbone – which refers to a tool used by the first Finns to make clothes. According to Klaas Ruppel, an etymology expert at the Institute for the Languages of Finland, a third option is found beyond the Arctic Circle at the heart of the language of the Sámi people: sami and suomi may derive from the Proto-Baltic źemē which in a single word refers to the country, the territory and the people who inhabit it.
There is no better way than this to sum up the simple and strong connection Helsinki enjoys with Finland’s granitic depths.
1 According to Anni Sinnemäki, Deputy-Mayor of Helsinki in charge of the urban environment.
2 See the publication of their works in New Standards (Garret Publications, 2021)
and on the dedicated website https://newstandards.info/
3 Also winner in 2016 of the competition for the new departure and arrivals building at Helsinki Airport: 43,000 m² of new builds, 35,000 m² of renovations and alterations. All the ceilings are made of prefabricated wooden units.
4 Winning teams: Antoine Grumbach, Christian de Portzamparc, Jean Nouvel, Roland Castro, Yves Lion, AUC Djamel Klouche, LIN-A, MVRDV, Richard Rogers, Bernardo Secchi, Paola Vigano.
5 K2S website https://k2s.fi/about/
6 Source: INSEE (French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Research). Annual data from 2007 to 2020.
8 soome in Estonian, soomi in Ingrian (a nearly extinct language spoken in Ingria, a former territory in south-east Finland, currently in Russia), sūom in Livonian (a Finnic language that has disappeared from Latvia), soomi in Votic (language spoken in Ingria), and suopma in the Sámi languages.
9 According to Satu Frondeliu, curator at the National Museum of Finland, quoted by Amy McPherson in an article for BBC Travel in 2016.
7 Source: Finnish tax authority. In 2021, Supercell recorded turnover of $2.24 billion and net profits of $852 million (source: statista.com). Each of its most recent games has generated more than $1 billion in revenue.
La Fabrique de la Cité
La Fabrique de la Cité is a think tank dedicated to urban foresight, created by the VINCI group, its sponsor, in 2010. La Fabrique de la Cité acts as a forum where urban stakeholders, whether French or international, collaborate to bring forth new ways of building and rebuilding cities.