Friday 10 October 2014

Helsinki Modernism - A glass palace, an Olympic stadium and Alvar Aalto.

From 1809 to 1918, Finland was part of the Tsarist Russian empire. Before that, the Swedes had been in charge. The 1918 Russian Revolution presented an opportunity for Finland to declare independence and the next few decades saw strenuous efforts in a number of creative areas to develop a distinct Finnish identity. This included architecture, where modernism was adopted as a means of expressing optimism about the future of the newly independent state.

Main tower, 1952 Olympic Stadium, Yrjo Lindgren and Toivo Jantti. Completed 1938.
Helsinki is home to many of Finland's most iconic modernist buildings constructed from the 1920's until the 1950's and beyond, with elements of the style being visible on some of the more recent landmark buildings including Finlandia Hall and the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art. I was in Helsinki last weekend for the first time since 2009 and was able to visit a number of the city's modernist buildings. 

Finland has a long tradition of providing world class athletes, especially long distance runners and javelin throwers. This was acknowledged when the city was awarded the Olympic Games for 1940. Unfortunately, the Second World War commenced in 1939 and the Games were postponed. All was not lost as the 1952 Games came to Helsinki and the beautiful stadium designed for 1940 was used for the opening and closing ceremonies, athletics competitions, major football games and equestrian events. The stadium has a 13 storey main tower with curved Bauhaus style balconies which has fantastic views over the city. The tower is 72.71 metres high which was the distance the Finnish javelin thrower, Matti Jarvinen had thrown to win the 1932 Olympic gold medal. Built between 1934 and 1938 it was designed by architects Yrjo Lindegren and Toivo Jantti. An interesting side story to this is that Lindegren competed in the 1948 London Olympics in the now defunct arts competitions, winning a gold medal in the town planning category.

Detail, main tower, 1952 Olympic Stadium.
The city also boasts a number of residential modernist buildings. These include the housing prepared in advance of the 1952 Olympics in the Taka-Toolo neighbourhood, but my favourite is a stunning apartment block at Bulevardi 15, Helsinki's most elegant street. Sandwiched between art nouveau style apartment block from the 1910's, the building has retail at ground floor level and apartments above. There are square towers at each side of the block with large portholes at the uppermost level, but the real stars of the show are the long central balconies. Exquisitely curved and each one serving two apartments, the balconies are reminiscent of much warmer climes - Tel Aviv or Haifa. The block was built in 1936 to the designs of architect Karl Malmstrom.

Bulevardi 15,  Karl Malmstrom, 1936.
One of the earliest modernist buildings in Helsinki was the Stockmann department store. This huge store opened its doors in 1930 to sell clothes, household goods, food, drink and luxury brands from home and abroad. It remains the largest and busiest department store in northern Europe with 17 million customers every year. There are many art deco/ modernist interior features including the lift doors and the clock by the lifts at ground floor level, the squared off galleries above the ground floor parfumerie and a most spectacular, narrow spiral staircase. It is worth a visit to the store for the staircase alone. Looking up from the ground floor visitors can see a pencil thin spiral ascending far into the building. Looking down from the top floor is also a treat with a wider, snail like spiral drawing you back to the ground floor.  Architect Sigurd Frosterus won a competition for the honour of designing Stockmann. As well as being a successful architect, he was also an art critic and collector. His collection was donated to the Amos Anderson Art Museum and included a number of works by Alfred William Finch.

Stockmann department store. Sigured Frosterus, 1930.
Upward view, Stockmann staircase
Downward view, Stockmann staircase
Stockmann spreads into a second building facing Pohjoisesplanadi, one of the city's glitziest streets. This building houses the Academic Bookshop designed by modernist hero Alvar Aalto. More recent than the other buildings in this post, designed for and winning a competition in 1962, it was not completed until 1969. The exterior is austere and functionalist, but the interior is a modernist palace with a light filled atrium and books being sold over four floors including a basement. The balconies are reminiscent of the Bauhaus style and again remind me of my most favourite city, Tel Aviv. The bookshop has a cafe on the first floor - Cafe Aalto which still has the original light fittings and is my favourite coffee and cake spot in the city. Unlike many of Helsinki's cafes, it offers table service and visitors can sit and read, watch the other customers or admire this most stylish space.

Much earlier, Aalto had been responsible for the interior of the Kosmos restaurant in Kalevankatu, just across the road from Stockmann. Opened in 1924 it quickly became a haunt of students, artists, musicians and other bohemian types. Aalto designed the furnishings whilst Einari Kyostila and Eino Rasanen carved Hellenic motifs into the wooden booths. Several of the original fittings remain and there are some great 1930's paintings by Finnish artists on display. It can be very difficult to get a table, especially at weekends - so book in advance.

Interior view of the Academic Bookshop, Pohjoisesplanadi. Alvar Aalto, completed 1969
Entrance to Kosmos restaurant, Kalevankatu, opened in 1924. Exterior remodelled in 2001.
 Interior details by Alvar Aalto.
Aalto's works can be seen all over Helsinki and across Finland. During my weekend in the city I visited his former home, now a museum at Riihitie 20 in the Munkkiniemi neighbourhood. Guided tours are available at weekends. Times and other details about visiting can be found here.

Villa Aalto was built between 1935 and 1936 and includes office and studio rooms in addition to living quarters. It is divided into three sector. A two storey volume where the work rooms are located is separated by a roof terrace from the bedrooms and a hall and a living room, dining room and kitchen on the ground floor where there is also a patio for eating al fresco. Work rooms and living areas can be combined by means of a sliding wall.

Villa Alto, Alvar Aalto, 1935-36.
The house was constructed of brick, reinforced concrete and steel columns with external timber walls. As well as being visually striking, the house had to be designed to take account of the Finnish climate, especially the fiercely cold winters. This involved detailed research into forms of insulation against the cold weather supplemented by a range of internal wall finishings including non-woven fibrous rugs and wood to add further warmth to the house. The flat roof is waterproofed with lead bitumen sheets covered with uncrushed seashore gravel. The flat roof necessitated sweeping away the snow during the winter. 

Extensive efforts were also made to maximise the use of natural lighting through the orientation of the terraces. The ground floor living room has a beautiful view of the terrace garden which at the time of my visit included a spectacular contrast of green and red autumn leaves against the white building exterior. The views must have been even more attractive when the house was first built and the area was less settled. In 1935 there would still have been views of the sea from the rooftop terrace.

Ground floor living room, Villa Aalto.
The contents of the house are also interesting. Much of the furniture were designed by Aalto including a spiral metal smoking table which I especially liked but which was never taken into mass production, deemed too expensive to make on a large scale. Not all of the furnishings are his work. He was a keen traveller and the four dining table chairs were purchased and transported back from Italy when he was on honeymoon with his second wife. I also liked the seating in the ground floor living room - the zebra striped rug in particular adding a touch of pizzaz. The soft lighting and the autumnal day made it easy to imagine the cosiness of living here with the warmly insulated interior, comfortable furnishings and views of the cold, colourful autumn garden.

There is a small shop in the house selling books, postcards and a few Aalto design items. It is possible to combine a visit to Villa Aalto with a visit to his studio just a few streets away.

Metal smoking table, Villa Alto.

Zebra print chair, Villa Aalto.
Work studio, Villa Aalto
The tram back to the city centre from Villa Aalto takes you directly to my favourite Helsinki modernist building - the Lasipalasti, or Glass Palace at Mannerheimintie 22. Built in 1936 to the designs of student architects Niilo Kokko, Viljo Revell and Heimo Riihimaki all of whom were in their twenties at the time. Revell later went on to design Toronto City Hall. The u-shaped Glass Palace was originally intended to be a temporary structure for the ill-fated 1940 Olympic Games. The upper floor stands on concrete pillars whilst the white plaster surface is only relieved by the colourful awnings and signs of the shops, cafes and restaurants that make up the complex.

The Lasipalasti is also home to the former Rex Cinema, the interior of which has a number of modernist and art deco features. Unfortunately the cinema, now an events venue is only accessible when performances or activities are taking place. For a number of years the building was neglected and demolition was considered. Luckily it became listed in 1991 and restoration work was undertaken by Pia Ilonen and Minna Lukander who brought the signs, lamps, walls and curved glass features back to their former glory. The building is now home to a number of shops and cafes including a good ground coffee and chocolate shop and the excellent Cafe Lasipalasti which retains some of the original furnishings and has a real 1930's feel to it.

Helsinki is a compact city with an excellent public transport system and much to see. You can see more pictures of the city here.

First floor restaurant, Lasipalasti, Mannerheimintie 22, Helsinki. Kokko, Revell and Riihimaki,  1936.
Restaurant entrance, Lasipalasti.

Former Cinema Rex, Lasipalasti.

Da Vinci cafe and restaurant, Lasipalasti.
Neon sign, Lasipalasti.
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1 comment:

  1. Alvar Aalto designed the interiors of Savoy Restaurant, not Kosmos, which was designed by Arvo Aalto, student of architecture