Art Nouveau in Helsinki – Part 1

Although Helsinki (Helsingfors) was founded in 1550 when Finland was part of the Swedish Empire, it wasn’t until the country came under the the control of Russia in 1809 that it became the Capital city. The Russians began to rebuild the city based on a regular grid pattern. New neo-classical buildings were constructed, turning it into a stylish modern capital, similar in style to St Petersburg. However, at the end of the 19th Century there was an upsurge in Finnish nationalism. Reflecting this a new style of buildings developed which was also influenced by the new movements in European architecture known as “Art Nouveau” in France and Belgium Jugendstil in Germany, Secessionism in Austria and Szecesszió in Hungary.

In Finland, the style is known by the German name, Jugendstil. There are examples everywhere throughout the city constructed during the end of the 19th Century and early 20th Century. There are a particularly large concentration of fine examples in the district of Katajanokka, in the streets behind the Russian Orthodox Cathedral.

The Jugendstil buildings often stand cheek by jowl with others built in more neo-Classical and later 20th Century styles, as can be seen in the following photograph that I shot across the harbour from the Market Square.

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As I’d already explored “Art Nouveau” buildings in the streets of Brussels and Budapest, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to explore examples of the style during my recent visit to Helsinki.

A couple of leaflets, with versions in several languages, are available from the City Tourist Office which outline routes that can be taken on foot in the city centre and by tram which allow visitors to see some notable examples of Jugendstil buildings. Copies of the leaflets can be downloaded here. The English version is clearly the post popular and there were none left on display when I went to the Tourist Office (I nearly had to resort to trying to read Spanish) – although one of the staff was able to find one for me behind the counter. Having said that there were so many Jugendstil  buildings around the city that it wasn’t really essential to have a leaflet. There were several that I spotted following the walking route that weren’t mentioned in the leaflet.

The Finnish version is less florid and more geometric than Belgian/French Art Nouveau.  As in Budapest, the architects were trying to develop a national style. Traditional,  vernacular elements were incorporated into the new, modern architecture that was quite  distinctive from the historicism that dominated the buildings constructed by their Russian overlords.

One of the most well known Jugendstil buildings is the Central railway station. It was the first one that I noticed as the Finnair bus from the airport pulls in right beside it.

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It’s a relatively late example of the style having being designed in 1909 by Eliel Saarinen and and opened in 1919. It’s most notable features are its clock tower and the two pairs of statues holding the spherical lamps, lit up at night, which flank the main entrance, and which are reminiscent of “Art Deco”.

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The Finnish National Theatre, built in 1902, is near to the station, on the north side of the large square.

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To me, some features are neo-classical and even neo-Gothic (the towers in particular), but the the Jugendstil influence can be seen in many decorative elements including the dandelions on the railings on the first floor balcony, the circular windows on the second floor and the numerous carved motifs.

There are a number of buildings like this that are classed as examples of Jugendstil architecture, but which have more “traditional” features. For example the Pohjola building which has a very rustic character“

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However it features a large number of carvings and motifs which would never appear on a “neo” style building.

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Similarly the former Institute of Physiology.

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At first glanceit  appears to be a fairly traditional style building, but which has has a number of more “Art Nouveau” style decorative features.

These buildings illustrate that Jugendstil was not a rigid style, but incorporated many influences, although the traditional styles were subverted by what were then more modern features.

Next door to the Theatre is a much more clear example of the style, built in 1907, which isn’t mentioned in the Tourist Office Leaflet.

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Its a much simpler building, with clean lines and relatively minimal ornamentation. However it has interesting windows, particularly on the first and fourth floors and two protruding semi-circular bays with windows rising from the first to the fourth floors and crowned with half domes. It is painted a bright ochre, characteristic of many Nordic buildings and stencilled with interesting motifs.

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It’s a pity it’s crowned with the large Pepsi logo!

I particularly like these simpler buildings which seemed to have been from the later years of the Jugendstil Movement and which have many features that could be considered to be particularly proto-Modernist. I saw many other examples around the city. The following were all on the route set out in the Tourist Office Leaflet (although not all are mentioned in it)

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Some seemed to have a more “perpendicular” style

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17 thoughts on “Art Nouveau in Helsinki – Part 1

  1. I have recently become very interested in the Scandinavian countries, their literature, design, way of life and the breathtaking landscape, of course. Reading your post has intensified this – the architecture looks beautiful.

    • Thanks Eirene. I think a lot of people have been interested in Scandinavia due to the growth in popularity of their crime literature and, lately the Danish programmes on TV. I’ve been a fan of Wallander for quite a long time and like other authors. I’ve been an avid watcher of the Killing and Borgen on BBC4 and we’ve booked a holiday in Copenhagen later this year! I’ve been lucky enough to go to Stockholm and Helsinki with my work, so after Copenhagen I’ll only need to visit Oslo to complete the set!

      • Even though I have been interested in Scandinavian design for a long time, it was watching Wallander that increased my interest in those countries. And then I read the ‘Girl…’ trilogy which I loved so I started reading quite a bit of their crime fiction despite the fact that I am not a fan of that genre. Like you I loved The Killing and Borgen.

        I love Scandinavian furniture and jewellery, their design is outstanding.

        I must visit and it is on my long list of places to go to, so hopefully one day I will. Meanwhile, looking forward to the Copenhagen posts on your blog.

      • It will be a little while – we’re not going there until August – but I’ll definitely be writing about it 🙂

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    • Yes, I think we definitly used the same leaflet from the Tourist Office as the basis of our “tours”! It’s interesting to see your perspective of our common interest and exporation of Helsinki. There are Judenstil buildings all over the city centre. I’ve been back a couple of times since my first visit and explored other areas and seem to spot them on almost every street. I introduced my two British friends who live in Helsinki to the style and now they keep looking out for them too!

  5. Fantastic introduction and reference–always intrigued by the ‘nature’ inspired Art Nouveau myself, thus thoroughly enjoyed the uniquely Finnish details you pointed out as a new perspective, thank you very much.

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