I had arrived in Helsinki a few days before. Immediately taken by its architecture, design, public art, and parks, I was smitten. Having just spent time in Denmark and Sweden, my eye was attuned to the particular design aesthetic of the region. To come to Finland, though, is to see the work of the men that inspired much of the furniture, textiles, glassware, and architecture I adore so much. Here, the work of Alvar Aalto and Eliel Saarinen had shaped the city and still affects the designs coming from the region today.
I spent days entranced by the shops lining the Esplanadi park: Marimekko, Iittala, Artek, Arabia … these were the ceramics, textiles, and flatware of my dreams. Curse my tiny, full suitcase. I lingered and dreamed of shipping to California these dishes … equal cost to purchase as to ship. Another time. I buy an easy-to-fold-up-and-pack-away Marimekko shirt that I treasure still. I come back each day, hoping to find the perfect token dish to bring home. I cannot possibly decide on just one, and end up leaving empty-handed.
I took a walking tour, since my time here was limited and I wanted to see as much as possible. We did a Nordic Walk, which I learned means walking deftly and with incredibly long strides–something that may come much more naturally to a very tall Scandinavian who must bear a walking commute during the brisk winters. I am not short and my legs are long, but I promise you that in order to not be left behind, I nearly ran behind this woman.
We started at Market Square, where stalls of artists, farmers, and cooks sell their wares near the port. I had spent the morning here the day before, and looked again—unsuccessfully—for my size felt booties. The search would continue.
From there we climbed the steep incline on Katajanokka Island, our guide pointing out Aalto buildings and influences at every turn, to the Uspenski Katedraali. The Uspenski is a remnant from Russian rule over Finland. A Russian Orthodox church, it is imposing and commanding. Built of dark brick high on a hillside, affording a beautiful view of all of Helsinki, it has golden turrets and domes. The icons within are said to be miraculous. I was taken by the turquoise blue paint used inside the cathedral; the vastness of the room and the blue ceiling give the impression of the sky within. With more gold than I’d ever seen in a building, the church had the usual portraits and statues, but on a scale that to my eyes (my inexperienced, non-church-going eyes) seemed bigger. Like it was not only convincing you, but telling you that this was what was right. I took a photo that makes this declarative church artful, and still love to see it hang in my sister’s house.
We trekked on to the site of the 1952 summer Olympics, its tall, modern tower looming over the stadium, recently renovated in 2005. From there we made our way through Central Park, a rich and continuous stretch of parkland through Helsinki proper. Ten kilometers in length, it holds public art, protected primeval forests, an arboretum, children’s playgrounds, access to hiking trails, lakes, farms, saunas and swimming halls. Most famous, besides the Olympic Stadium, is the Sibelius Monument, a creation made of 600 welded pipes by Eila Hiltunen in 1967. I stayed here for a bit, watching the tourists take photographs of one another in front of the monument, posing in those awkward photos that I wonder what will be done with them once in printable form.
Next to the monument was a plot of land that didn’t ask for attention, it was planned, of course, from a landscaping point of view, but was unlabelled. It was just a stretch of land leading to the Sibelius monument of green grass and birch trees. The trees, each spaced with enough room for walking through and between, captured me. The strong color juxtaposition of white, papery bark, black striations across each trunk, the green of the grass below and the rich, blue sky stopped me in my tracks. I loved that moment, and photographed it to keep forever, or at least until I lost them in a hard drive failure. I would be reminded of this place years later on a visit to the Tate Museum in London, for their entrance gardens are similarly designed around the beauty of airy and fluttering birches.
From there, The Church in the Rock, Temppeliaukio Kirkko, gave us a completely different church experience. Built directly into a giant rock formation in the center of the Toolo neighborhood, taking up roughly a city block, the church is minimalist and reserved. From the exterior, its entrance is barely a break in the side of a mountain with a tiny, steel cross planted near the top. Inside, one enters a room with a circular glass ceiling, a copper coil occupying the center of the ring of windows, and a room made of stone. The effect of the rock and the windows above makes you calm; it is elemental instead of ornate, natural over embellished. With sunlight coming in from above, a few candles lit on an iron candelabra on the far wall, I sat, amazed at the structure. A woman plays classical piano in the front, a few worshipers sit in the pews, and I sit, feeling more at home in a church than I ever have. The music, the copper ceiling and the shear beauty of the church are remarkable. I had read about this church before leaving for this trip in the Travel pages of the New York Times. I remember being interested in seeing the church after reading the article, but after seeing the church, I think that writer had the same difficulty I’m now experiencing; how to describe a place so different and so impressive that it’s almost impossible. I was speechless then, as I am now.
On the way back through town, we saw the Museum of Contemporary Art, the building itself a modern architectural feat. We pass the Aalto designed Finlandia Music Hall, the Saarinen designed National Museum of Finland where the country’s national animal statue of the brown bear sits up on a pedestal. My friend Jimmy poses like the bear—Jimmy be the bear!—we shout to get him to pose accordingly. He’s quite good at it.
I was struck by the public art. Benches of various designs surrounded the art museum–some sittable, some concave, convex, slats crisscrossing, declining straight to the ground. A giant sculpture of a strawberry plant sat outside a modern building, directly next to one with such austere practicality that it looks more like a Berlin building than anything else. There were sculptures everywhere. I loved the street signs with three languages on them: Finnish, Swedish, Russian, some with an animal associated, and the old telephone booths. The city was beautifully designed and maintained; I was struck over and over how Helsinki is truly the most design-aware city I had yet visited. One of the favorite things I encountered was an art installation on the corner of a city building–the artist had set up a camera to photograph passerby. These photos were placed onto tiles and are now a part of the exterior. It was inspiring.
To end our tour, we made our way to the Central Railway Station, Saarinen designed. The exterior was grand and commanding, especially with four giant statues of men holding round lamps that flank the doorway. The interior though, was like a mid-century modern design shop. This is exactly what Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe looked to for inspiration. Every light fixture, piece of furniture and window were designed specifically for the space. It felt more like a museum than I train station, or a Design Within Reach shop put to use.
Our last step was the Esplanadi Park, where locals picnic and spend time in the sun under the trees. Surrounded by statues, artful landscaping, design shops and restaurants with outdoor seating, this was clearly the center of town. It led us directly back to the Market Square, ending the whirlwind tour of this gorgeous city. Exhausted, we made our way back to the Scandic Hotel for a sauna and rest before our traditional Lappish dinner of reindeer and Arctic char. Helsinki—entirely—in one day, and still time to watch the sun set.