Bilbao, Finland
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Feb. 26 2003 7:03 PM

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Today's slide show: Images from Helsinki.

The luxury ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki before departure.
The luxury ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki before departure.

THE BALTIC SEA—We are gliding through a frozen Baltic Sea in a cruise ship, making our way from Stockholm to Helsinki. The trip lasts 15 hours, right through the night. A moment ago I was standing alone on the ship's prow, which made a very soothing noise as it parted the thick ice floes under the darkening Nordic sky. Then I noticed that icicles had formed on my nose.

Now I am back in my commodious cabin, stuffing my head with stereotypes about the Finns that I glean from the brochures I brought along. Let's see. The Finns love hunting and cellphones. They are mad about the tango, which arrived in Finland in 1913 and has been a national passion since. Finns are taciturn, blunt-spoken, and literal-minded; if you say, "See you later!" they respond, "When?" I wonder if they will be as insensible as the Swedes were to my delicate jokes.

Time for dinner in one of the ship's restaurants. We order the reindeer, which turns out to be tender and delicious. It tastes like elk, only a bit less gamy. I pair it first with a cabernet franc from California, then with a Châteauneuf du Pape. It goes better with the latter.

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Waking up from the most restful sleep I have had on this trip, I see that we are pulling into Helsinki's harbor. From the water I can spot the Senate building, a magnificent Classical structure crowned by a circular colonnade and cupola. The square in front of it strikes me as one of the most beautiful in Europe. (The scenes in the movie Reds set in St. Petersburg were actually filmed there.)

It was around Senate Square that Helsinki was laid out in an orthogonal grid in 1818, not long after Finland became a duchy of Russia. The Russian czar's architect designed the new capital. The city was designed almost from scratch, and it remains quite compact and walkable today. As with Stockholm, most of the serious building in Helsinki was done in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (Finland became a sovereign republic in 1917.) There are lots of handsome Art Nouveau buildings with flamboyant stonework. The fancy shopping street, the Esplanade, looks a bit like a Parisian boulevard. It is on this street that we end up staying, at the Kamp Hotel, reputedly the finest in Finland.

Of the two Finns who are known across the world, one happens to be an architect, Alvar Aalto. (The other is a composer whose initials are J.S.) Aalto was one of the great figures of 20th-century architecture, ranking with Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. He died in 1976, so today's young generation of Finnish architects is the first not to have had personal contact with the master.

And what have they, and their predecessors, managed to create? "It is a curious fact that Finland, generally progressive in government and social policy, and non-traditional in architecture, has produced relatively little experimental architecture aside from Aalto, and few buildings of international distinction"—so says one standard history of modern architecture. But the Columbia architecture historian Kenneth Frampton declares Finland to be "a great modern architectural culture that in a collective sense has never been equaled by another other country in the course of the 20th century." Tomorrow I hope to sort out this rather stunning disagreement.

First, though, I'm keen to see Helsinki's new architectural star, the Museum of Contemporary Art—or "Kiasma" as it is known. Kiasma was finished a couple of years ago. It's by Stephen Holl, the greatest living architect in America according to Time magazine. As it happens, Holl was designing a little house for me around the time he was working on Kiasma. I used to see models and drawings of Kiasma when I went to Holl's office in downtown Manhattan, and I could never figure the thing out: It seemed completely illegible, with its strange curves and angles inside and out. Well, my house didn't get built, but Kiasma did.

As we approached the museum, which sits on a plaza across from Finland's parliament, it looked like a sort of Cubist version of the ship we had just disembarked from, rendered in glass and zinc and aluminum. You enter through a glass-ceilinged hall as tall as the entire five-story structure, with walls of unfinished white concrete. That leads to a ramp of black concrete that takes you into the heart of the building as it curves from one side to another. (Kiasma means "crossing over" in Greek.) The rough-hewn minimalism embodies all kinds of subtle geometries, with hints here and there of the "golden section," a classic mathematical ratio of beauty that is one of Holl's trademarks. At night, the museum's glass walls glow from within, providing a luminous backdrop for the equestrian statue of Karl Gustaf Mannerheim, the George Washington of Finland, that stands next to it.

Now that I finally understand Kiasma, I don't blame Helsinki for loving the thing. It is a Nordic counterpart to Frank Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao, which made that city a destination for architectural dilettantes. This gives me an idea. I have never liked the standard nickname for Helsinki, "the daughter of the Baltic." It's too banal. If Copenhagen is the Paris of the North, and Stockholm is the Venice of the North, then why can't Helsinki be the Bilbao of the North?

Check out our earlier trips to Kashmir, Zambia, the Outlaw Trail, the Blues Highway, the Galápagos Islands, and Costa Rica.

Jim Holt writes for The New Yorker, the New York Times, and other publications. A former visiting journalist at U.C. Berkeley and an American correspondent for BBC Wales, he now divides his time between New York and Paris.

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