The four stone men are the most extraordinary features of what is already an extraordinary building. The architect Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950) – father of the Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen – designed it in 1909 after winning the country’s first public architecture competition in 1904. However, the 1909 design – a supple building teetering between art nouveau and modernism – departed considerably from Saarinen’s original proposal, a hefty Romantic Nationalist design. The revision was prompted by a lively public debate concerning the architectural style of the train station, as well as Saarinen’s travels in Scotland and Germany from 1904-9. The new station should be “functional”, it was felt, and look to the future, not a romanticised past. In the first decade of the 20th century, design and architectural style played a conspicuous role in how the Finnish people – still a decade short of independence – wished to portray themselves.
This is as true today as it was a hundred years ago. Disegno arrived in Helsinki in mid-September, just as the city’s annual Design Week was commencing. Helsinki Design Week has been organised in its current form since 2005, and has grown into a sprawling and multi-faceted event over its 13 years in operation. The week coincides with Habitare, one of the world’s oldest consumer and contract design trade fairs (it started as a biannual show in 1970, and has been held annually since 2010); it collaborates with Helsinki Design District, a central area which boasts hundreds of design, craft, and lifestyle shops; it intersects with Design Forum Finland’s promotion of its Young Designer of the Year awardee (this should not be confused with Helsinki Design Week’s own Design Awards nominees, which are announced halfway through the week); and it serves as an umbrella host for a number of independent events and museum exhibitions.
There is an enormous commercial gain to be made of such an activation of the city’s design scene. “But while it offers a meeting place and sales platform for companies, [it] is also building the identity of Finnish design,” says Laura Sarvilinna, the creative director of Habitare.
The identity of Finnish design and architecture has been mediated in complex ways over the course of the country’s complex history. Up until 1809, Finland was under Swedish rule. The presence of the formal coloniser can still be intimated in street signage (provided in both Swedish and Finnish), and, interestingly, in a number of contemporary names for high-end businesses (design shops and galleries are called things like Lokal and Tre; a restaurant is called Fabrik – all Swedish words). Swedish is still taught as a compulsory subject in Finnish schools, while Russian – the language of Finland's more recent coloniser – is not.
In 1809, Finland became a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire, and remained so until its independence in 1917, when, following the October Revolution, the Finnish Parliament took swift advantage of the right to self-determination for “the peoples of Russia” granted by the Bolsheviks. It was under Russian rule, however, that much of central Helsinki was planned and built: specifically by Carl Ludwig Engel, a German architect favoured by the Russian Empire. Senate Square, Engel’s showpiece, is vast, imperial and orderly, and dominated by a towering cruciform cathedral. At its centre stands a statue of Tsar Alexander II. "A lesser St Petersburg,” is how architecture critic Jonathan Meades once described it.
Late 19th-century Romantic Nationalism – the style abandoned by Eliel Saarinen in favour of a modernist idiom – should be viewed as the architectural counterpoint to such imperial designs. Walking through central the districts of Kamppi and Kaartinkaupunki, one sees it everywhere: formidable buildings with massive rusticated detailing, medievalising turrets, arrow slits for windows, imposing porticos. Such buildings were part of an effort to assert a specific and supposedly authentic Finnish identity in the face of centuries of external rule.
Consider the Helsinki Telephone Exchange Building from 1905, which today houses Microsoft. It was designed by Lars Sonck (1870-1956), a key proponent of the Romantic Nationalist style, and is an exercise in architectural ancestor worship. Like his contemporaries, Sonck drew inspiration from the Kalevala, an epic folk saga compiled in the early 19th-century from oral sources. With its cast of murderous wizards, witches, ground-giants, and spirits, it is a kind of proto-Lord of the Rings written out in trochaic tetrameter. Sonck’s Telephone Exchange building, which features hefty rustication and mysterious ornamental glyphs, conjures some of this, in spite of its decidedly modern function: “It’s a form of ancestor worship,” Meades has said of this building. “A very distant ancestor.”
A 15-minute walk north of Korkeavuorenkatu, where Sonck’s Telephone Exchange Building is situated, an altogether different architectural beast lies buried. Unveiled earlier this summer, Helsinki’s new underground state-of-the-art museum Amos Rex is situated beneath Lasipalatsi Square, the city’s former bus terminal. Here, too, notions of national identity have played out in the public reception of the building. Readers will perhaps remember the drawn-out controversy surrounding the Guggenheim’s plans to establish an outpost in Helsinki – plans which were ultimately rejected by city councillors in 2016. Amos Rex is a privately funded museum designed by Finnish architects JKMM. It serves as an expansion of the already-existing collections of early 20th-century Finnish newspaper magnate and art collector Amos Anderson. “In the Finnish context, [Anderson’s collection] was quite important in showing the newest contemporary art in the 60s and 70s,” explains Timo Riitamaa, head of communications at Amos Rex.
When the Guggenheim’s proposals were rejected two years ago, Osku Pajamaki, a city council member, explained that “instead of buying a subsidiary of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, we can now focus on creating unique local cultural attractions in Helsinki.” Amos Rex is such an attraction, and its opening was heralded as a triumphant coming-together of Finnish cultural forces in stark contrast to the Guggenheim’s attempt to bulldoze in its global franchise. “With Amos Rex, Helsinki shows you don’t need to import a brand to get cultural prestige,” declared Dezeen in its writeup, and many locals agree. “It’s nice we have our own contemporary art museum,” says a Helsinki-based design curator Disegno speaks to on its visit.
Questions of identity at Amos Rex are not played out stylistically, but rather in its funding model, the museum's local roots, and the choice of a home-grown architectural practice. Lasipalatsi Square is “for all intents and purposes the facade of the museum,” says Riitamaa, and its alien cyclopian chimneys – which serve as skylights for the underground space – are in no way recognisably “Finnish” in style, whatever that would mean. Instead, they speak the global language of parametric architecture – although executed on a modest scale. The curved chimneys also satisfy the more general demand for iconic public space that cultural institutions around the world increasingly aim to supply, whether it’s a harbour-side ledge in Oslo or a tiled courtyard in London: “We wanted to build a museum that doesn’t take the square away from people of Helsinki, but do something that keeps it in public use,” says Riitamaa. “It’s really fun to see a lot of teens hanging out on the roof, skating, or doing whatever.”
The tension between an emphasis on local identity and global cultural movements is also felt in Helsinki’s design scene. At Habitare, the theme for this year’s displays is “roots”. “The theme emphasises the authenticity and origins of things,” says Anni Vepsäläinen, the CEO of Habitare’s host venue, Messukeskus. “In today’s world, there seems to be an ever-growing demand and appreciation [for] our own roots and interest in the origins of things.” A stroll around the fair reveals that minimally treated blond wood functions as a short-hand for “roots”: from the exquisitely crafted cabinets and tables by Design Forum Finland’s Young Designer of the Year, Antrei Hartikainen, who has a special display at Habitare, to Woodio, a new Finnish brand which produces terrazzo-like cast resin wood chip sinks.
Finland's modernist legacy looms large here, both in materials and execution. Alvar Aalto (1898-1976), the country's most famous designer-architect, feels ever-present in Helsinki, and, in spirit, at Habitare. Not only does one keep bumping into his buildings – the 1969 Academic Bookshop on the central Pohjoisesplanadi is an especially lovely place to step in for a browse and coffee – his concern for the material properties of wood reverberate in much Finnish contemporary design. During Aalto's career, his style was viewed as part-and-parcel of the region-wide promotion of Scandinavian Modern (although Finland is not technically part of Scandinavia), which served to boost the Nordic countries' manufacturing and export industries, as well as their international image in the postwar years.
However, like many other countries in Europe today, Finland’s manufacturing industries are on the decline. Wood can be sourced elsewhere today, from the Baltic countries or sometimes further afield. The Fiskars Group, which represents Finnish design giants such as Arabia and Iittala, recently moved much of its production out of Arabia’s famous 1930s factory building and abroad to its “partner network outside Finland”, with Arabia’s primary manufacturing taking place in Romania and Thailand today. (Iittala’s production still takes place in the eponymous village of Iittala, with the exception of its wine glasses, which are produced in Germany.) Since Arabia’s production moved out of the factory in 2016, the space has been converted into a multi-purpose design centre and outlet store. The realities of global supply chains and the increasing practice of outsourcing manufacturing means that Finnish identity and “roots” are typically conjured with the help of lifestyle branding rather than actual material provenance.
Harri Koskinen served as Iittala’s design director from 2011 to 2016. Disegno visited him in Helsinki’s Siltasaari neighbourhood, where he has had a studio for ten years. Koskinen founded his practice in 2000, and has noticed a certain PR-ification of the design industry since. “When I first had a chance to work for Iittala in 1996, the idea was to fill the catalogue with nice objects,” he says. “There were never any market studies or research done. Now, everything is done so carefully, and planned for four or five years. The brands are thinking much more about the marketing stories.” Koskinen welcomes this development, as it stops brands from churning out unnecessary products. But he pauses and frowns. “When I started, I sketched everyday for many hours, and then I was at the workshop. Today I mainly speak.”
Outwardly, Helsinki's architecture and design scenes are on the rise, with a number of big architectural projects underway, and ever-increasing attendance and profit being generated by its Design Week. A massive new-built public library is due to open at the end of the year, and Designmuseo, the city's national design museum, is in the initial stages of planning a large expansion together with the Architecture Museum. "We need more space and we need to showcase design and architecture on a scale that’s internationally expected from us," says Designmuseo director Jukka Savolainen. "Because those areas have been so integral to the creation of the Finnish modern society." The country certainly has the institutions and the branding to represent its rich design scene and heritage. How its marketing of "roots" and "identity" sits in relation to the reality of its dwindling industries will be for future generations of consumers to decide.