SUOMEN TASAVALTA/REPUBLIKEN FINLAND or the Republic of Finland. HELSINKI First Impressions
Arriving in a foreign city usually brings with it some anxieties or aspects of culture shock, especially when driving. I still remember my feeling of chaotic disorientation that very first time we drove in a rental car from Juan Santamaría International Airport in Costa Rica on the famed Pan-Americana and on Hwy 3 to Atenas, Alajuela Province. I had never before been in Central America and nothing looked even remotely familiar. There were few road markings, crazy speeding vehicles interspersed with barely moving traffic, and traffic lanes that ended quite abruptly. The absence of familiar landmarks was also a factor in driving in Helsinki, naturally, but the biggest challenge here was the language. As a German speaker, I am used to long words, funky lettering, and loads of Umlaute. Since I understand the meaning of any given long word in German, I automatically break it down into their components without actually thinking about it. But if you don’t understand the meaning of a word, you’re lost. Where does one component end and another one begin? The Finnish language has many very, very long words, often equipped with double consonants, not to mention their liberal use of double vowels. Finns love to ratches up the Umlaut-game as well by including dotted double vowels in those extra-long words the meaning of which remains entirely obscure to most outsiders since it is a Uralic language, unrelated to the usual vanilla European languages based on Indo-Germanic roots. The resulting lingual goulash could even be considered a deliberate abuse of foreigners were it not so aesthetically pleasing to behold. Judge for yourself:
Kaasu means gas, in this case presumably the gas main. The longer word is more fun: Sähköpää can mean e-mail, while keskus means central, sähkö alone is electricity and pää alone is either “head” or “mainline”. Thus we might have found the electrical main for the building. But one has to be careful with the letters! While sähköpää means email, seköpää means nutcase. Just saying …
You can well imagine that it was practically impossible to distinguish one Finnish street sign from another as we drove through the busy metropolis trying to stay clear of bus lanes and tram rails. We were deeply grateful for the GPS function of my phone to guide us to our Airbnb home in central Helsinki.
There is one more tiny language confusion in Finland which I only discovered after trying to locate our address in preparation for the trip. When I typed the street name Korkeavuorenkatu into Google maps, I was directed to something called Högbergsgatan instead. Hmm. Google gets a little confused sometimes, so I typed it again, making sure the search was indeed located in Helsinki. Nevertheless that Hög thingy came up again. I knew that gatan is the Swedish word for “street” but what was a Swedish street doing in Finland? A little more googling revealed that Finland has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish. Gobsmacked! I have to admit that I had no idea, although historically there are logical reasons for it. Consequently, most streets have two names just like most products are labeled bilingually. Some Swedish words are guessable, e.g. Höhe means Height in German and Berg means Mountain which turns Högbergsgatan into the Highmountainstreet which turns out to be the meaning of Korkeavuorenkatu as well. It does not explain, however, what a high-mountain street is doing in the middle of a Finnish coastal town. Well, it was a smidgen hilly …
Our building was the cream-colored apartment building in Nordic Classicism style with a granite foundation. It was designed by well-known Helsinki architect Jarl Gunnar Taucher in 1929 as an office building that has since been converted for residential use. It’s actually a double complex with two large courtyards separating the two blocks of housing stacked one behind the other. As the pretty façade indicates, it was a very well renovated and maintained building with secure parking in the first courtyard, an elevator, and excellent laundry facilities. As a matter of fact, the drying room had such a powerful exhaust system that a load of wash was dry within three hours. The apartment was spacious and bright with high ceilings, offering a private sauna in the bathroom.
Being city-dwellers by nature, our tour through the Baltic Nations was designed to be an urban exploration rather than a discovery of the forests and coastal landscapes of the region. In Helsinki, we found exciting architecture and a treasure trove of the nordic, Art Nouveau and Modernistic designs we have long admired – after all, we have used the same Christmas table setting designed by Marimekko for the last 40+ years! For that reason, we had selected an apartment right in the center of the Design District Helsinki, just down the street from the Design Museum. The city calls the Design District “a state of mind & a neighborhood in the center of Helsinki”, I call it brilliant.
For today’s post, I think, I will just show you around our neighborhood. Then we’ll go to visit a couple of Helsinki’s more prominent landmarks in subsequent posts.
Walking through the streets of our neighborhood, we encountered the most delightful architectural expressions ranging from understated elegance to wild exuberance.
Here you have the 1907 Lars Sonck designed granite-clad Art Nouveau office building that just blows you away with its playful details and heavy-duty rock armor, contrasted against the modern, polished granite office building with its crisp lines and balanced symmetry next door which was built in 1967 by Raoul Lehmann.
Next door we admired the 1907 Emil Alfred Stevensson stucco building, decorated with cheerful Jugendstil applications.
Talking about red brick buildings, just up the road from the fire station we encountered St. Andreas Church, the headquarters for The Evangelical Free Church of Finland. The brick building of the same era as the fire station was built in 1886 by architect Alexander Sebastian Mauritz Gripenberg, as stated in the archives of Phorio, a database of buildings.
The well-known Gripenberg family was an aristocratic Swedish-Finnish military family that over time provided Finland with several generations of architects. However, I doubt it was Mauritz who built this church. First of all, his first names were listed in the wrong sequence, but more importantly, his CV says that following his military education, Mauritz served as military attaché for Russia in Stockholm while simultaneously studying art/architecture there, graduating in 1899. In 1886 he would have been a 17-year old cadet. Besides, his building style was more a minimalist, nordic Jugendstil. Puzzling! Mauritz’s father, Lieutenant General Johan Axel Gripenberg, would have been the right age, but he was a professional soldier and governor in the service of the tsar. After some digging, I found another Gripenberg of the correct age, a certain Baron Obert Sebastian Gripenberg, Architect, Senator, and Banker. Obert received military training as was customary for the Gripenberg males, but just as Mauritz would do two decades later, Obert chose architecture over a career in the military. He studied at the Helsinki Polytech and also in Vienna, working as an architect in private practice from 1879 to 1908 – a perfect timeframe for our little red church. Ultimately, yet other records I found confirmed the baron as the true designer of the Free Church at Korkeavuorenkatu 22.
And then we found the mothership.
Sadly, we discovered Hills Dumplings too late. Hills was closed when we passed by these doors and we were scheduled to leave Helsinki the next morning. Truly quite tragic, as dumplings are my most favorite food. Well, they’re certainly among my top ten most favorite foods. And Hills even makes BBQ pork bao! MOW turned out to be the Mothership of Work, providing flexible and personalized coworking spaces. As they describe it, “MOW is a community platform for developing, growing and running business and putting your greatest ideas into practise” and where you can have bao for lunch every day. Their brochure doesn’t actually include the bao statement, I’m just imagining that pleasure.
If we missed Hills, where did we eat? At home, as simple as that. We spent the day exploring and sightseeing with a break here and there for a glass and a snack in the form of tapas or a slice of cake. On the way home, we stopped either at “our” supermarket which had a fantastic salad bar and a deli counter with prepared dishes, or we browsed the offerings at Vanha Kauppahalli, the Old Market Hall down the hill from us in the Southern Harbor. This is the oldest indoor market in Helsinki, it opened its doors to shoppers in 1889.
Appropos Stora Enso Oyj, which was formed in 1998 in a Stora [Swedish] & Enso [Finnish] merger. The corporation holds the oldest known share certificate which was issued, believe it or not, in 1288. Stora Enso could be the oldest company with limited liability in the world!
On the way home from the Old Market Hall, we liked to stop in at The Cock, a very popular, funky neighborhood bar.
Walking to or from the Southern Harbor area, we often crossed the Kasarmitori, the Barrack square in front of the Finnish Ministry of Defense …
… around which both The Cock and our supermarket were located. The square is bracketed by beautiful period buildings, several of them executed in the nordic romantic-style of Art Nouveau. The first one constructed was actually the corner building in which The Cock currently occupies the ground floor and basement. It was designed by the architectural firm of Gesellius, Lindgren & Saarinen, Eliel Saarinen that is or Saarinen père of World Expo fame. Saarinen’s 1901 “Agronomitalo” building at the Kasarmitori, then called “The Doctor’s House”, received mixed reviews by architects and the community owing to its highly unusual dissymmetrical appearance and layout. It was designed as an apartment building with several dwellings per floor for both residential and professional use. Saarinen envisioned it to provide both residences as well as offices for doctors. This flew straight into the face of local customs to keep cozy family homes separated from commercial premises. We, on the other hand. are more strongly interested in the industrial designs of Eliel’s son Eero Saarinen who was also an architect with an outstanding international reputation. Eero won the 1948 competition for the design of the Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis, Missouri. He built many remarkable structures in his short life. I love his absolutely brilliant furniture designs, especially his tulip chair and table. Both father and son are revered in Finland, but Eliel is a national hero.
But the real story here is the polished steel soldier in the center of Kasarmitori. His name is Valon tuoja He-who-brings-the-Light and he was created by Finnish sculptor Olli Pekka Kauhanen and unveiled in 2017 during ceremonies celebrating 100 years of independence of the Republic of Finland. It is the first National Monument to officially commemorate the 1939-40 Winter War between the USSR and Finland. The material used, polished steel, stands for the harshness of conditions for the soldiers and also their toughness. The 7m tall statue resembling a soldier is pierced by holes to illuminate the darkness of war and of wintertime in the North. In the base are 105 original photos from war archives which can be viewed through the portholes of the base sphere. They represent the 105 days of war during one of the coldest winters ever experienced in Finland.
Valon tuoja is certainly not the first war-related action seen in Kasarmitori. I found the image in online archives and I was struck by the sad bravery of the ragtag band of volunteers. The cobbles in the square have been renewed since 1918, but we can clearly recognize all three buildings in the background.
DISCLAIMER: Believe my translations from the Finnish language or the interpretation thereof at your own risk.
Join me at my next post for a visit to Alvar Aalto’s home, won’t you?