Design and Defense of Helsinki

April 5, 2022

Crowning a Baltic cruise is the port of Helsinki. Too often regarded in the shadow of flanking ports of St. Petersburg and Stockholm, Helsinki is a gem to be enjoyed beyond typical shore excursions to the Olympic ski jump and a sunken church. Helsinki began as a master-planned city, by German and Swedish architects, at the behest of a Russian emperor. For 165 years, it was muse to modern design, adopted through the world as Danish or Swedish modern. Americans are familiar with the NYC TWA Terminal designed by Saarinen, now a spectacular hotel. Saarinen was taught by his architect father in Helsinki. Helsinki never ceased its role as venue for cutting edge design.

image of port of helsinki
Port Of Helsinki Designed By Engel

From inception, Helsinki sat on the razor’s edge, poised between Sweden and Russia. During World War II, Finland faced Russia and Germany, losing ground to both. The great Finnish military strategist and national leader Gustaf Mannerheim, a name not well known outside of Finland, was one of the inspiring forces of twentieth century.

ThiThis quick look at Finland is meant to inspire deeper inquiry of this special place.

Sweden controlled Finnish lands from the mid-12th century. Russia chipped away at Swedish controlled lands in 1703, when Peter the Great founded his city of St. Petersburg, in a swamp, during war with Sweden, on land belonging to Sweden. That is another story. 

In 1808, Sweden lost another battle to Russia. Sweden created the independent Duchy of Finland prior to ceding territory. Russia inherited a vassal state, of Swedish speaking people. Moving Finland from connection to Sweden was a priority of Russian emperors Alexander I and his brother Nicholas I. They desired a vassal capital close to Russian land. 

Russia accomplished control of the northern Baltic by reenforcing an island fortress to garrison troops along a line from Tallinn in Estonia to Finland. That fortress, built in 1748 by Swedes, stands today as Suomenlinna Fortress. The mainland supply depot for enhancing and supplying the fortress as a Russian bastion transformed a tiny fishing village to the site of Helsinki. Today the fortress has a small military compound. Most of the historic structures are art studios and vacation rentals.

Helsinki By Design: Ehrenström and Engel

image of fortress now art studios
Fortress – Now Art Studios

The city begun by a Russian monarch was planned by a Swedish noble and designed by a German architect. Russian emperor Alexander I appointed aThe city begun by a Russian monarch was planned by a Swedish noble and designed by a German architect. Russian emperor Alexander I appointed a committee to build his new city, headed by Johan Albrecht Ehrenström, a Finn by birth, raised as an aristocrat in Swedish society. Ehrenström married the daughter of Johan Sederholm, a merchant whose fortune came from goods sold to the fortress. The Sederholm house is the oldest stone building in Helsinki, seen on a corner in Senate Square, visited by shore excursions.

image of Engel & Ehrenstrom
Engel & Ehrenstrom

In 1816 Ehrenström’s committee recommended Carl Ludvig Engel as the city architect. Engel was a German, whose resume included civic buildings in Tallinn and St. Petersburg.   Ehrenström and Engel created a master-planned, uniformly neo-classical capital city, with straight streets on a new grid. Focal point of their city was, and still is, Senate Square. In the center of the square is a monument to another city benefactor, Emperor Alexander II.  

image of Cathedral and Statue of Alexander II
Cathedral and Statue of Alexander II

The city built by the duo looks today much as it did during their lifetimes. Nicholas I relocated the university to Senate Square in Helsinki in 1827. Engel’s Nicholas Church, known The city built by the duo looks today much as it did during their lifetimes. Nicholas I relocated the university to Senate Square in Helsinki in 1827. Engel’s Nicholas Church, known as the Cathedral, crowned Senate Square by 1852. Behind the Cathedral was an Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity, built for a small congregation in 1826. The growing congregati0n was accommodated in 1868, by Uspenski Cathedral, on the eastern hill, initially reserved for an imperial palace. The Russian Byzantine church is the largest in western Europe.

Around Senate Square are Engel’s 1822 Palace of Council of State, or Senate House. Today it houses the Presidential Chambers; raised to four stories in 1911. The 1763 Bock House was transitioned by Engel in 1819 to Ionic column-fronted Town Hall, which became the City Hall, then the Municipal Courts Building. In 1832 Engel designed the main building of Helsinki University. Immediately north is the 1840 Engel designed University Library.

image of Engel Library Interior
Engel Library Interior

Cruise travelers docking at Helsinki’s inner harbor are treated to a vista of Engel’s creations. Facing the docks on market square is City Hall, designed by Engel in 1833, as Seurahuone Club, a hotel and meeting place for city leaders. Bought by the city in 1901, Seurahuone became the City Hall in 1913. Also facing the docks are three buildings designed by Pehr Granstedt from 1816 to 1820, with modifications by Engel when transitioning buildings from private homes to the Presidential Palace and Supreme Court.

South of the docks were Guard’s Barracks, designed by Engel in 1822, on a site where Ehrenström’s plans indicated a theater. Heavily bombed during World War II, today the building is a police garage. Visible through trees, south of the central city, Helsinki Observatory is still in use today, just as it was designed by Engel in 1834.

image of Esplanade

Ehrenström’s design laid out a city on a perfect grid. Intersecting the grid, east to west, south of Senate Square, Ehrenström placed an Esplanade of gardens, designed by Engel, where residents could walk from Market Square at the docks, to a Swedish Theater. Palatial homes of affluent residents were located south of the Esplanade. Commercial buildings and civic offices were located on the north side. The plan is easily seen today.

image of finnish national theater
Finnish National Theatre

Deviating from Engel’s Greek-columned plaster façades are buildings emanating from the Esplanade of 19th into 20th century Finnish National Romanticism. In this era, architects looked to castles and local stone for inspiration. Emblematic is Onni Tarjanne’s Finnish National Theater, built in 1902, on the railway square, and the National History Museum.

image of market hall
Market Hall

North of the Esplanade are three buildings by Carl Theodor Höijer, from 1887 to 1890. Notable on railway square is Athenaeum, a national art museum, begun with works donated to Finland by Alexander II of Russia. Arched windows are decorated with fanciful sculptures of classical artists. Another architect of the period, Gustaf Nyström, built Market Hall in 1889 on the harbor, to keep food products clean for purchase. 

image of Romantic Nationalism in Pohjola Insurance
Romantic Nationalism in Pohjola Insurance

The Finnish Pavilion at the 1900 World Exposition in Paris brought National Romanticism to the world and was a step onto the world stage for Finnish architectural colleagues Herman Gesellius, Armas Lindgren, and Eliel Saarinen. Their National Romantic contribution to Helsinki includes the 1901 Pohjola Insurance Company building and 1910 National Museum on Mannerheimintie Boulevard.  

Lindgren’s 1913 design for the Ministry of Labor at the Market Square entrance to the Esplanade has no traces of Romanticism. The building was the tallest in the city at the time. It has sleek, strait cut corners, sans towers.  

Eliel Saarinen’s design for the Helsinki railway station changed from inception in 1904, to execution in 1914, from Romantic to an icon of Finnish Art Deco modern. Eliel Saarinen was born in Finland when it was an Imperial Duchy of Russia. He ended his days in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, as a professor of architecture at the University of Michigan, where his students included Ray and Charles Eames. His son, Eero, who was born in 1910 and died in 1961, had notable commissions in the US. 

image of Lindgren's 1913 Ministry of Labor
Lindgren’s 1913 Ministry of Labor
image of Eliel Saarinen Bus & Train Station Helsinki
Eliel Saarinen Bus & Train Station Helsinki

Alvar Aalto was born in the Finnish Grand Duchy of Russia in 1898. He studied architecture in Helsinki, during the period of transition from Romantic Nationalism to the rational Modernism. Aalto infused his designs with organic features of Finland. His designs incorporate natural light, stone, and greenery. In 1962, Aalto designed the headquarters for Enso-Gutzeit, a paper company, on the far side of Market Square. The lone marble-clad, sleek modernist building, with the open rooftop staff cafeteria overlooking the bay, was intended to be joined by several modern buildings reflected in the bay. Today visitors find a Ferris Wheel backdrop for the singular modernist building.

Aalto’s initial projects were in collaboration with his wife, Aino, also an architect and designer. Aino Aalto was the moving force behind Artek, a home furnishings store, which revolutionized interior design from a suite of furniture to perfectly designed, coordinating pieces. Aalto’s Paimio chair is a Mid-century Modern classic.

 1 Eliel Saarinen: 1873 to 1950; Herman Gesellius: 1874 to 1916; Armas Lindgren: 1874 to 1929.

 2 Alvar and Aino were married from 1925, until her death in 1949.  In 1952 Aalto married architect Elisse Aalto.  Their marriage lasted to his death in 1976.

image of Uspenski Cathedral & Enso-Gutzeit by Aalto
Uspenski Cathedral & Enso-Gutzeit by Aalto
image of Alto's Finlandia Hall
Alto’s Finlandia Hall

Icon of Finnish Modern is Finlandia Hall. Built by Aalto between 1971 and 1975, the hall rises from trees, clad in white Italian marble. There are no decorations, paintings, or statues to detract from Finlandia Hall, which welcomes dignitaries to Helsinki.  

Gustaf Mannerheim – The Father of Modern Finland

In 1918, at the close of WWI, Russia transitioned to the USSR, and Finland declared independence from Russia. Finland refused to revert to Swedish control. The Soviet Union did not easily relinquish control of Finland. Finns required a military leader. That leader was Gustaf Mannerheim.

Gustaf Mannerheim is revered by Finns as the father of modern Finland. He was born 1867, in Russian controlled Finland, to Swedish speaking, Swedish hereditary nobility.  He began his military career in the Imperial Russian cavalry at age twenty and ended public service as president of independent Finland at age 77. 

image of Gustaf Mannerheim
Gustaf Mannerheim

Most statues of Gustaf Mannerheim depict a cavalry soldier on a horse: his tall, thin physique, dashing in royal uniform, with a plumed helmet. Mannerheim had seven siblings when his father left the young family to be with a mistress. His mother died when he was fourteen. Incorrigible in school, Mannerheim found his place in the military. 

Russian royals were open to inclusion of Swedish aristocrats in the army. Mannerheim was sent to China 1906, as a Russian spy, under the cover of a Swedish explorer on an academic mission with a group of archaeologists. His actual mission was to assess strength of the Chinese military in the aftermath of the Chinese rebuff of Japan.

The Dalai Lama of Tibet was in league with the Russians. When Britain sent troops to Tibet, Dalai Lama fled to Mongolia, then China. Over two years, Mannerheim traveled 8,700 miles, walked the length of the Great Wall of China, met with the Dalai Lama, and sent intelligence to Moscow on the status of the Chinese military.

At age 45, Russian Major-General Mannerheim was given a post in Poland. Two years later, in 1914, suffering rheumatism, he was headed to a spa in Wiesbaden, when he learned of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria. Russia and Austria were at war.  

Meanwhile, back in Finland, Russia repressed Finnish home rule. Mannerheim’s brother was exiled from Finland for supporting independent Finland. He chose loyalty to Russia. 

In 1917, Russian royals abdicated. Mannerheim was expelled from the Russian military.  

He was fifty years old and involuntarily retired.

On December 6, 1917, Finland declared independence. Mannerheim declared himself a citizen of Finland and returned home. He found the country in civil war, divided between Red Socialists and While Anti-Socialists. Soviets armed Reds in Finland and Germany supplied arms to the Whites. The Reds issued an arrest warrant for Mannerheim. He was given command of the White cavalry unit and soon earned respect of all Finns. 

After World War I, Finns were starving. Mannerheim negotiated with the British for grain shipments to Finland. Despite proven leadership, Mannerheim was not elected to office. He was out of favor for over-throwing the Red-Finnish army. Once again Mannerheim headed into retirement.  

In 1933, at age 66, Mannerheim was called back into national service. He was head of the Defense Council. If war came, he would be Commander-in-Chief. He saw storms brewing.

As WWII approached, Finland was on the razor’s edge of a dilemma. Mannerheim cautioned against Finland standing with the Germans. The Finnish government did so.  

Stalin entered a Devil’s Pact with Germany, in effect returning Finland to Soviet domination, in the event of war. Sept 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland from the west. Soviets invaded from the east. Soviets demanded a Finnish naval base. The Finns demobilized. Soviets, unable to provoke Finland, staged an attack on their own troops for the world press, credited to Finland. Finland was drawn into the Winter War.

Age 72, Mannerheim became Commander-in-Chief of the Finnish forces. With few resources, he devised creative means of withstanding Soviet superiority in forces. The 

Mannerheim line was a trench, creating an obstacle course for tanks. Between his tactical savvy, and the training and skill of Finnish forces, the war was a standoff.

The treaty of March 1940 ended the Winter War. Finns gave up the Karelia peninsula, which connects Finland to the Soviet Union at Leningrad, now called St. Petersburg. The Soviets gained a buffer, while 500,000 Finns relocated to emergency housing in the empty Olympic village. In June 1941, the Soviets bombed Finland. Finland preferred neutrality. Neutrality was not an option. Karelia was a battleground. Hitler’s siege of Leningrad devastated inhabitants, for which Soviets held Finland and Germany responsible.

Image of Havis Amanda
Havis Amanda Looking Toward Market Square
image of chapel of science
Chapel Of Silence

Mannerheim saw war turning against Germany. He tried to disengage Finland from war.  

The Finnish government countered his actions by affirming connections with Germany.  

Hitler flew to Finland to honor Mannerheim on his 75th birthday in 1942.

In Feb 1944, the Soviet army broke through German lines and relieved Leningrad. Soviets headed to Finland with an angry passion. Soviets wanted a price Finland could not pay to end the war. Finnish President Ryti agreed with Germany not to make peace with Russia.

In June 1944, to void Finland’s agreement with Germany, President Ryti resigned. Finnish parliament made Mannerheim president. Mannerheim negotiated for peace. 

Mannerheim retired as Commander-in-Chief in 1944 and resigned as president of Finland on March 4, 1946. He died at age 83, on January 27, 1951. Finns show unwavering respect for the leader who brought them through war. The main boulevard, in the heart of Helsinki is Mannerheimintie. Mannerheim’s home from 1924 to 1951, is now a museum. 

image of Cruise Through History: Ports of the Baltic Sea: Itinerary 11
Cruise Through History: Ports of the Baltic Sea: Itinerary 11

When visiting Helsinki today dwell in Market Square at the beloved statue, Havis Amanda, often adorned in a sports team jersey. Take the city rail to the National Museum and Finlandia Hall like a local. Ride the bike trail to new museums, library, and chapel. 

Enjoy the city created by design, defended by its favorite son.

Enjoy more stories of Baltic ports in Cruise Through History Itinerary XI. All storybooks are on sale now.

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