When Helsinki's city council voted on December 1, 2016 to refuse the offer of a $138m Guggenheim museum, the art world was a little shocked. Here was a city rejecting a cultural landmark, rejecting new architecture, rejecting the chance to become a tourist destination. The proposed design was quite modest: French architects Moreau Kusunoki had won the competition with a (quite good, although wrongly sited) dark timber-clad building. But the Finnish government didn't want to pay for the franchise, and neither did the council.
The rejection could have been interpreted as austerity. Or as the newest example of the public rejection of globalisation. Or it could have been seen as a pointed rejection of the idea of an internationally franchised blockbuster institutional architecture that has become almost de rigueur for cities that aspire to global status. Bilbao kicked it off with its Guggenheim, Las Vegas had a go (it quickly shut down), Abu Dhabi is now the franchised cultural hub with a big (although still empty) Guggenheim site. But Helsinki isn't Abu Dhabi, even if, for a European capital, it is a bit of a newcomer.
The city is celebrating its centenary as an independent capital next year. Before 1917 it was a Russian city and before that it was Swedish. Its main square was built by a German architect to resemble St Petersburg, so it is, in its way, a proto-global architectural city. It is not burdened by a legacy of historic architecture. Originally a small town founded in 1550 as a rather unsuccessful Swedish rival to the booming Hanseatic port of Tallinn across the water, its first incarnation was in timber and has entirely disappeared. It was only fully developed in the late 19th century and executed in a cool Nordic classicism occasionally tempered with a rock-solid national romanticism; the two types of architecture segued in the 20th century into a considered modernism that makes the city's architecture a delight for admirers of a humane, subtle alternative to the global clichés of mainstream globalised modernity.
But now the city seems to be experiencing a bit of a crisis of identity. Architects are experimenting with typologies, styles, materials and flamboyance in a manner rather uncharacteristic of this otherwise conservative place. It makes for an intriguing moment, one bristling with controversy and the electric charge of change in which the Guggenheim was only one single spark.
The low-rise city recently sprouted its first tower, a blandly generic block (the Clarion Hotel) wrapped in a randomly generated façade, the quality of which should, with luck, put the city off building too many more. But it also has the stunning Helsinki University Library (Anttinen Oiva Architects), a skillful work of urban infill, which behind its monumental brick parabolic arches creates a genuinely public interior. This is a society that values libraries deeply and, just as the UK is shutting its down, Finland is building a whole layer of new spaces for books and learning. The university library, unlike most such institutions elsewhere, is open and free for all to use. It is a public space for a city where it is dark and cold for much of the year. Its bright, elliptical atrium scoops what light there is down to the heart of the building while ribbons of continuous reading desks wrap around it.
The city is also building a new municipal library (ALA Architects), a sinuous, twisting shape that will create another huge new public interior. It envisages a covered landscape for a type of building with a very open future — what might a library look like in 20 years? The new library will create a foil for its hulking neighbour, Helsinki's single experiment in global iconism: Steven Holl's huge Kiasma Museum (1998). This is a freestanding, sculptural structure the size of a couple of city blocks that now looks like what it is: a cultural blockbuster from the last century.
Both buildings were conceived as standalone works and it is difficult to see how either relates to the city. Perhaps they will counterbalance each other in scale and self-conscious sculptural intent, if not in coherence. The wonderful functionalist Lasipalatsi (Glass Palace) of 1936 is also being restored and will house the Amos Rex art museum, making it difficult to see exactly what need there ever was for a Guggenheim.
At the other end of the scale is the city's obsession with the sauna. It is an understandable retreat when winter temperatures regularly plunge to double figures below zero but it makes for a curious kind of urbanism. Avanti Architects caused a stir with its faceted stealth sauna, Loyly, on the waterside in Hernesaari. An embryonic attempt at the regeneration of a still-industrial dockside, this little timber boarded building becomes a landscape, in the current fashionable vein of Oslo's Opera House or Amanda Levete's MAAT Museum in Lisbon, a ridge on which to clamber up and observe the sea rather than a conventional building block. It is an approach that fits the social spaces here: the communal steam rooms, bars, restaurant and outside terraces wrapped into a sap-smelling, smoky timber embrace.
Even at the very heart of the city, alongside the busy dock, the popular Allas sauna and floating pools (one heated, one unheated, salty and shrivellingly cold) by Huttunen Lipasti Pakkanen Architects becomes a kind of climbing frame, a mini-mountainside for a flat city. The sauna, the Finns' default interior social space, has become the city's social outdoor hub and a proxy public space.
Architecturally, what makes Helsinki so fascinating is its compressed history. Many of its best buildings date from an era when modern architecture in most countries was moribund and reviled. The Temppeliaukio, for instance, is surely one of the most unexpected major tourist attractions of any city: churches from the late 1960s may be fashionable among architecture geeks but they are hardly a mainstream taste. This remarkable structure — an ellipse carved into the urban bedrock by architect brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen — intriguingly avoids the problem of style by refusing to have an exterior. It is teeming with Asian tourists and despite the constant traffic remains a profoundly moving space. Perhaps it was this experience that K2S Architects attempted to emulate with its Kamppi Chapel, a timber-clad vase of a building in the crowded main square that serves as an urban retreat and place of ecumenical quiet. It, too, has quickly become a popular attraction yet its architecture is that of the pure object, as much like something from an expo as a genuinely urban place.
Looming over it all is the long, beneficent shadow of Alvar Aalto, Finland's greatest architect. Aalto is probably more famous for his plywood chairs and wavy vases than his buildings and although he lived most of his life in the capital, his finest buildings are elsewhere. Nevertheless, Helsinki is peppered with works by the great man, from the wonderful Academic bookstore to the vast Finlandia concert hall, and they are (mostly) appreciated and kept in extremely good shape.
Best of all is Aalto's house and studio, a short stroll from each other in the suburbs (which was still wild country when he built them). Architects' houses have become places of pilgrimage as design shifts up the tourist agenda and this one is a gem. Modest in materials and scale, intimate, domestic and inventive with warm bricks and timber cladding, it is where the architect developed his characteristic "Romantic Functionalism", a seeming oxymoron that in a way sums up Helsinki's distinctive charm. It is exactly that inheritance, the desire for practicality combined with an idea of architecture as an expression of the national character (which is itself a character that doesn't much like to express itself), that continues to make the city so fascinating.
This article was originally published by The Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017