The Formula for Finnish Style
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Feb. 27 2003 6:18 PM

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Today's slide show: Images from Helsinki. Today's video: Jim Holt interviews young Finnish artist Nora Fleming. Today's surround video: A rare moment of solitude in the Church of the Rock.

HELSINKI—On the second of our grossly insufficient two days in Helsinki, we frantically see every piece of significant architecture in the city (or very nearly) and talk to an ingenious young designer who helps us end our Nordic lark in a blaze of color and imagination.

First the architecture. Yesterday I proposed, as a new nickname for Helsinki, "the Bilbao of the North"—the implication being that Stephen Holl's Kiasma has made Helsinki a destination in the same way that Frank Gehry's Guggenheim did the city of Bilbao. Foolish, foolish. I withdraw the nickname. Helsinki was already a destination for architectural dilettantes. And a good bit of new stuff by young Finnish architects has appeared here even since the completion of Holl's museum.

Designed by Alvar Aalto, Finlandia Hall is a Helsinki landmark
Designed by Alvar Aalto, Finlandia Hall is a Helsinki landmark

Jumping into our powerful Volvo, we drive past Eliel Saarinen's Art Nouveau train station and Holl's Kiasma before we arrive at Alvar Aalto's last big project, Finlandia Hall (it was competed in 1979, three years after his death). Pausing briefly to admire this Carrara-marble-clad behemoth, we cruise by Helsinki's new modernist opera house—much better looking than Paris' Bastille Opera (and with great acoustics, I'm told)—on our way to a more characteristic, earlier work by Aalto, the House of Culture (1958)—the master's most exciting use of curving brick to wrap a structure. Then on to the nearby Olympic Stadium (built for the canceled 1940 games, finally used for Helsinki's 1952 Olympics), with its dramatic Functionalist (but function-less) white tower, which is 72 feet tall—the record at the time for the javelin throw. Next we drop into the Church of the Rocks. Designed by two Finnish brothers in the 1960s, this church is a cylindrical space hewn out of a rock hill; its circular dome is a continuous coil of copper 14 miles long that floats upon a circular clerestory window.

All these buildings have a distinctively Finnish style, which I would sum up as aesthetic rationalism, plus Nordic romanticism, plus humanism (witness the javelin-throw height of the Olympic tower). This is the architectural culture that Kenneth Frampton, with perhaps the tiniest bit of hyperbole, praised as being unequalled in the last century.

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As for the other historian I quoted yesterday, the one who said that Finnish architects other than Aalto had produced little of international distinction, let me cite a bit of old news. In 1976, a survey was taken of U.S. architects. They were asked the question, "What is the greatest architectural achievement on American soil?" No. 1 turned out to be Thomas Jefferson's campus for the University of Virginia. No. 2 was Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling Water House. And No. 3 was the work of a Finn—Dulles Airport, by Eero Saarinen. He also did that big arch in Saint Louis, by the way.

On Helsinki's waterfront, where traditional harbor activities have been disappearing, there are scores of new buildings going up by younger Finnish architects. Nothing wildly experimental, but bolder than the comparable stuff in Stockholm, with lots of really good modernist details. You could wander around for a couple of days savoring them all. I especially liked Nokia's new research center, by the architects Helin and Siitonen; its lyrical use of glass reminded me of Jean Nouvel's Cartier Foundation in Paris. Finland's architectural culture seems quite healthy, and the corporate clients are clearly a part of it.

Ditto for Finnish design. The Esplanade, the elegant boulevard we are staying on, is lined with design stores, including no fewer than three Marimekkos. One of Marimekko's new stars is Nora Fleming, who has a design studio in an old industrial building called the Cable Factory. We go to meet her there. Fleming is 29, but looks 10 years younger. She shows us a collection of hers that is based on a fanciful insect she calls Melansirkka. This winsome creature (which, she tells us, began as a self-portrait) emerged from an eggplant one day and has since cultivated an entire lifestyle, one reflected in the delightful fabrics and T-shirts that Fleming has created. I am aware of the fact that I have a rather large grin on my face as I leave her studio. Those colors could thaw even a Helsinki winter.

But now I'm feeling a little sad. Our architectural romp though Denmark, Sweden, and Finland has come to an end. We were running around so much in search of aesthetic highs that we forgot to sample the nightlife. We didn't even make it to a local tango palace or sweat out an existentially uplifting hour in a sauna. I sampled neither the aquavit in Denmark nor the herring in Sweden, and I left my ambition to enjoy a meal of bear in Finland unfulfilled (I hear it's like elk only gamier). Tomorrow, Christian Kallen, our redoubtable photographer, will return to Northern California, and Jim Laurel, our intrepid videographer, will return to Seattle. And I will make my way back to that most un-Nordic of all places, New York City, where the most momentous architectural decision of the year is about to be announced: Whose design will rise up on the former site of the World Trade Center?

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

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