The cityscape in Helsinki harmoniously combines Neoclassicism, Art Nouveau, Alvar Aalto and contemporary architecture. The buildings in the city centre present visitors with a fascinating journey through the changing styles of past centuries. Overall the city’s architecture is typified by Nordic minimalism and refinement. Helsinki’s districts each have their own style, the best examples being the historic city centre, Eira and Katajanokka.
The area around Senate Square forms a unique and cohesive example of Neoclassical architecture. Thanks go to the genius of German architect Carl Ludvig Engel and the generous financial support of Russia’s tsars. The first buildings here appeared in the 1640s, including a church, cemetery and town hall. The jewel in the crown is the brilliant white cathedral known in Finnish as Tuomiokirkko. Between Senate Square and the Market Square is the Tori Quarter, which is home to lots of small boutiques and restaurants.
To balance the simple Lutheran cathedral, an Orthodox cathedral was built nearby in Katajanokka in 1862–1868. Uspenski Cathedral represents Helsinki’s Byzantine-Russian architectural heritage and is the largest Orthodox church edifice in Western Europe.
The Art Nouveau or “Jugend” movement flourished in the early 20th century and was given a unique National Romantic interpretation in Finland. Splendid Jugend buildings designed by the legendary architect trio Gesellius-Lindgren-Saarinen and Lars Sonck can be found throughout the city centre, including Jugendsali, Pohjola-talo (the former headquarters of the Pohjola Insurance Company) and the National Museum of Finland. One of Helsinki’s famous landmarks, the Central Railway Station was designed by Eliel Saarinen in the Functional style that succeeded the Jugend movement.
Wooden architecture is still as much a part of the Finnish soul as “sauna, sisu and salmiakki”. The freshest examples of contemporary wooden architecture are the Kamppi Chapel of Silence and the Kulttuurisauna “Culture Sauna”. The tradition of building out of wood can be admired in the districts of Käpylä, Kumpula and Puu-Vallila. The architecture in Käpylä represents Nordic Classicism of the 1920s, the other extreme of which is the monumental Parliament House designed by J. S. Sirén. The period of Functionalism that followed this is represented by the Olympic Stadium and Lasipalatsi.
The works of legendary Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, including Finlandia Hall, Kulttuuritalo and Rautatalo, are the most outstanding examples of Nordic Modernism. Another design classic, and one of the most popular tourist attractions in Helsinki, is the Temppeliaukio Church. Carved out of the granite bedrock, the church was designed by Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen.
The Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma is itself a work of art that was designed by the American architect Steven Holl. Other fine examples of contemporary trends in architecture include the minimalistic steel and glass Sanomatalo, which stands alongside Kiasma, and the High Tech Center in the Ruoholahti district.
Helsinki is going through a fascinating process of renewal as former industrial and harbour areas, such as Kalasatama, Jätkäsaari and Kruunuvuorenranta, are being converted into new districts that will attract visitors too.
A stroll around Töölönlahti Bay is a great way of experiencing the city’s architecture in such landmarks as Helsinki Music Centre, Finlandia Hall, the National Opera and Kiasma. Visitors can also rent a bike and ride along the Baana, the new bicycle and pedestrian route that has replaced an old railway line, to enjoy the contemporary architecture in the Ruoholahti district.
It is easy to discover the splendid architecture in Helsinki’s districts on foot, by sightseeing bus or even by riding the 3T tram. Special architectural tours are also available.