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
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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
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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 Kuhlefet-
Ekelund, 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 by Erik 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
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Finnish Functionalism
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
Entries A–F 871
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.
Postwar Developments
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
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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
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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
The work of Arkkitehdit Ky runs a range of expressive techniques, depending on
which of the design principals—Kristian Gullichsen, Erikki Kairamo, or Timo
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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

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