A Walk-through Helsinki’s Jugendstil districts
When thinking about Baltic Art Nouveau, the grandiose buildings of Riga usually spring to mind. However, Helsinki boasts over 500 ‘National Romantic’ and ‘Jugend’ buildings from the turn of the 20th century. The German term ‘Jugendstil’ or ‘Youth style’ has been adopted, taken from the avant-garde magazine Jugend published from 1896, to designate these buildings. You will look in vain for the curvi-linear fluid forms associated with the French and Belgian ‘whiplash’ or ‘’coup de fouet’ style. Finnish architects and designers developed their own nationalistic style, one based on native architecture and folk traditions. Finnish traditions were now deemed to be modern, and local individualism reflected international expressions of independence as seen in Barcelona and Glasgow. On a walk through the Jugend districts of Helsinki you will discover a fairyland of castles decorated with all manner of wild beasts, from bears and wolves to frogs and trolls. One can see where Tove Marika Jansson found her inspiration for the Momintroll books!
‘Swedes we are not, We do not want to become Russians, So let’s be Finns’.
Johan Vilhelm Snellman (1806-1881)
‘The poems of the Kalevala are truly so sacred to me that, for instance, when singing them it feels as if you were resting your weary head upon some strong steadfast support.’
Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931)
Karelia: ‘ancient Finnishness could still be found, frozen in time-in a state that could be revived.’
Ville Lukkarinen (1957-)
Helsinki: Jugendstil capital
Replacing the old capital of Turku, Helsinki had become the economic and cultural centre of Finland by the mid-19th century. With an exodus of rural workers to the urban factories, the population grew quickly from around 32,000 in 1870 to 43,000 by 1880. In 1902 the population officially passed 100,000. New housing was desperately needed for both the affluent middle-classes and the working classes. Housing for the wealthy was built around Kasarmitor Square and Bulevardi. Kallio was traditionally a working-class area. The traditional wooden houses were swept aside by a new type of accommodation, apartment blocks rising five or six storeys. These large apartment blocks were largely bult by housing associations and housing companies spurred on by State loans.
There were lots of opportunities for ‘home-grown’ architects and master builders who had graduated from the Helsinki Polytechnic Institute. Although studying at home, rather than in Sweden or Germany, they were still aware in international trends especially the emergence of the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau. However, the move towards a modern architecture, underpinned by the latest technologies, was coupled with a growing desire to create a Finnish style. Finnish nationalism was growing, with demands for independence from Russia. The Finnish spirit grew stronger after the 1899 February Manifesto, when Russification began in earnest under Czar Nicholas II. Russian became the official language; the press was censored, and notable Finnish leaders were deported. Architects responded by incorporating motifs that drew on the flora, ferns, pines and acorns, and fauna of Finland, notably bears.
Tales from the Kalevala
Artists and architects also looked to the Kalevala, a compilation of epic poetry, ballades, and incantations published by Elias Lönnrot in 1835. Lönnrot drew on Karelian and Finnish oral folklore and mythology to create a national epic.
The Kalevala captured the imagination of the artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931), who sought to represent the spirit of ‘Finnishness’ in his paintings; the tale of Anio who escapes marriage to Väinämöinen by drowning; Lemminkäinen who is brought back to life by his mother and the ill-fated Kullervo who mistakenly seduces his sister and eventually commits suicide. Characters from the Kalevala will appear on Helsinki’s Jugend buildings. Jean Sibellius (1865-1957) was similarly inspired by the Kalevala. Both painter and composer were involved in the cultural-nationalist group Nuori Suomi or ‘Young Finland’.
Architects also studied Finnish vernacular structures, churches, castles, and domestic buildings, notably the ancient wooden houses of Karelia, an area which straddles Finland and Russia, where it was claimed, true Finnish traditions had survived. The Finnish Antiquarian Society organised field trips for students to discover medieval churches and agricultural buildings. Karelianism underpinned the National Romanticism that flourished at the turn of the century. Tradition was now deemed to be modern.
Paris 1900: a watershed
The prize-winning Finnish Pavilion for the 1900 Paris Universal Exhibition marks a watershed in the evolution of Jugend Suomessa. It was created by a young threesome:
Herman Gesellius (1874-1916), Armas Lindgren (1872-1929), andGottlieb Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950) They founded their architectural practice in 1896, while all three were still undergraduates. Drawing on Finnish medieval churches, they created a uniquely nationalistic building. The tall spire represented a maypole or ‘midsummer pole’, denoting one of the nation’s most important festivities. Gallen-Kalela painted the central dome with tales from the Kalevala. It should be remembered Finland was exhibiting as a Grand Duchy of Imperial Russia.
Gallen-Kalela, Ilmarinen ploughing the Viper-field
The Defence of the Sampo: Lemminkäinen joins forces with Väinämoinen and Ilmarinen, two of the other main heroes in the Kalevala, to steal the Sampo from Louhi, metamorphosed into an eagle. 1926-28.
The district around the railway station became the heart of Helsinki’s cultural and commercial centre. It was here the first “rugged granite” buildings appeared. Ironically the Finnish National Theatre, designed by architect Onni Tarjanne in the National Romantic style, was influenced by the American architect Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886). ‘Richardsonian Romanesque’ freely blended 11th and 12th century French, Spanish, and Italian Romanesque characteristics to create an American style!
In addition to round-headed Romanesque arches, often springing from short squat columns, the style incorporated cylindrical towers with conical caps embedded in the walling and rich rustication. Lars Sonck’s Headquarters of the Helsinki Telephone Association (1903-07) echoes these features. Rough-hewn granite was seen to embody the tough Finnish character.
You will often find a base course of granite underpinning an apartment block. Above the rendered walls were invariably painted in earthy yellow or reddish tones. Other elements to look for include spires, lancet windows, projecting bay and oriel windows, monumental arches, and steep gables. Decorative elements cluster around doorways, windows and under the eaves, as seen on the apartment block at Bulevardi 24.
The apartment blocks that sprung up across Helsinki certainly took their cue from castles, being massive bastions with sheer walls and monumental corner towers. Their severity is broken by decorative motifs around doorways and windows or under the eaves. Finnish identity was expressed through motifs adapted from woodcarvings, metalwork, and textiles. The angularity of some motifs, especially the ancient swastika (both facing right and left), stars and lozenges, creates a visual language very different to the curvilinear forms of Belgian and French Art Nouveau.
The Doctors House/ Lääkäreiden building (1901), now known as the Agronomitalo, Fabianinkatu 17/ Kasarmitori, designed by Gesellius, Lindgren, and Saarinen set a standard. Five storeys high, clad with rough yellow render, its sheer walls were relieved by projecting oriel windows. The main decorative element is quirky frog appearing to support a corner turret. The frog might reference the ‘Little Frog’ dance, ‘Små grodorna’ in Swedish, performed by children around the Maypole. Midsummer festivities are important across all the Nordic countries. Built on Kasarmitori (Barracks Square), a rather impressive area, these apartments were for the upper-middle classes: the spacious accommodation had professional areas, as it was envisaged that doctors would take up residence. Hence, its local name. Some of the interiors were furnished by Louis Sparre with custom furniture and fittings.
Nearby the Torilinna building (1906), Eteläinen Makasiinikatu 5/Fabianinkatu 13, takes its name from the location, meaning Tori (Square) Linna (Castle). It was built by G.W. Nyberg and Edv. Löppönen.
In the KAMPPI district, Yrjonkatu is lined with Jugend apartment blocks. The run starts with Koitto House [Dawning] (1907), Yrjonkatu 31/ Simonkatu 8, by Vilho Penttila, which has been mauled by later editions, and Pietola, Yrjonkatu 38/Simonkatu 10 (1908) by Heikki Kaartinen. Many of the apartments are named. Koitto, meaning ‘dawning’, could be a reference to a new start at the opening of the 20th century. However, it was also the headquarters of a temperance society founded by Doctor Aksel August Granfelt. As secretary of the Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation and advocate of total abstinence, Granfelt was an influential ‘Fennophile’. The building housed rental apartment, shops, a restaurant, café, gym and even a banquet hall with a stage. According to the society’s centenary publication, ‘Koitto was simultaneously a temperance society, worker’s institute, study group, club for women and young people, library and sports club, part of the cooperative movement and savings bank institute, and even functioned, in a way, as a trade union and a political party.’
Pietola, Yrjonkatu 38/Simonkatu 10 (1908) by Heikki Kaartinen, can be a personal/surname name, but it is also a small hamlet in western Finland.
Harjula by Heikki Kaartinen, constructed by Asunto Osakeyhtio, housing company, (1905), Yrjonkatu 32/ Eerikinkatu 1, also appears to have been named after a country town in southern Finland. Like Pietola it can also be a surname. This apartment block is distinguished by panels of stylised birds. The same motif is transformed into the entrance gate to the courtyard.
Jukola, Yrjonkatu 25 (1906) by Heikki Kaartinen, stands opposite, named for a literary masterpiece. Aleksis Kivi (1834-72), who died aged only 38, is said to have written the first significant novel in Finnish, Seitsemän veljestä/ Seven Brothers. Translated into 33 languages and still a mandatory text in Finnish schools, it is said to depict ‘ordinary Finns in a realistic way’ or a ‘not-so-virtuous rural life’. As Jukola was the farm where the brothers grew up, they were known as ‘the Jukola brothers’. The building is decorated with bear heads and acorns.
Adjacent, Yrjönkatu 23 (1907-08) by Gunnar Stenius, a partner in Lindgren & Stenius, is architecturally quite different being clad in patterned brickwork. Stenius may have been influenced by Danish, Swedish, or German buildings of a similar date. It also had the novelty of a central kitchen. Apparently ‘they made living easier for families, as middle-class mothers began to work outside the home and many households no longer employed domestic help.’ An elaborate doorway leads to a beautiful staircase painted with Mackintosh style roses. The building is crowned by a tall weathervane, which stands out on the skyline.
Facing Jukola, Yrjönkatu28, is the courtyard of the Kyllikki (1904) apartment block; the romantic towers evoke a medieval skyline.
Kyllikki (1904), by Georg Wasastjerna and Karl V. Polon, Kalevankatu 7 and Yrjonkatu 28, is now part of Hotel Torni. Kyllikki is Lemminkainen’s happy wife in the epic Kalevala. It has the prettiest façade you will encounter. Its two round oriel towers are decorated with friezes of children. On the right the children are fighting or more sensibly running away from a bear. On the left they appear to be felling trees. The stylised bird under the eave, apparently a Blue-bill Duck, is quite unique. Stylised fruit trees surround the windows. A swallow completes the delightful naturalistic ornamentation.
The last interesting building is this sequence is Yksitoista [Eleven] (1908), Kalevankau 11, by Vilho Penttila. Rather than a sheer face, it has a recessed façade with varied balconies above. Commercial spaces take up the ground floor.
Areas to explore:
In Kaartinkaupunki, you will find the Doctor’s House, Sirius, Torillinna and the Helsinki Telephone Company by Lars Sonck.
The Katajanokka area, the other side of the Market Square, has many impressive apartment blocks, notably Olofsbourg with its monumental tower by Gesellius, Lindgren and Saarinen.
A walk along Bulevardi takes you passed Huvilinna, Sanmark House, and Bulevardi 11.
An example of Nordic- Classicism, the Suomi-Salaman building (1909-11, 1927) an insurance company, can be found at Lönnrotinkatu 5. Designed by Onni Tarjanne and Armas Lindgren with sculptures by Eemil Halonen (1875-1950). Architect Karl Lindahl made additions in 1927.
Architectural Guide Art Nouveau Helsinki, Helsinki: Helsinki City Museum, 2020.
Becker, Ingeborg and Sigrid Melchior, Now the Light Comes from the North-Art Nouveau in Finland. Berlin: Brohan Museum, 2002.
Korvenmaa, Pekka, Innovation Versus Tradition: The Architect Lar Sonck Works and Projects 1900-1910, Helsinki: Finnish Antiquarian Society, 1991.
Moorhouse, Jonathan, Michael Carapetian, and Leena Ahtola-Moorhouse, Helsinki Jugendstil Architecture 1895-1915, Helsinki: Otava, 1987.
Nikula, Riitta, Armas Lingren 1874-1929, Helsinki: Museum of Finnish Architecture, 1988.