We fell in love with Helsinki. It seems to us that the Finish capital has the charm that both Oslo and Stockholm somehow lack. Though the three capitals boast loads of typical early 20th-century Scandinavian buildings, Helsinki has some truly outstanding Art Deco palaces. We felt glamorous walking around the exceptional train station, and there was more glam to come! In Helsinki, modern and contemporary architecture is spectacular and everywhere: from Alvar Aalto’s Finlandia to the Museum of Modern Art Kiasma and the recently built Oodi Library. Additionally, lush nature surrounds virtually every neighborhood. The city is full of green areas, promenades, parks, and the sea at every corner!
Helsinki Modern Architecture Guide
Helsinki is a relatively young city. Although founded in the 16th century by the Swedes, it was in the 19th century when it became part of Russia that Helsinki started to become a real city. The city’s prominence got a boost in 1812 when Helsinki replaced Turku as the capital of Finland. Thus, as you can imagine, there aren’t many old buildings in the city. In fact, Helsinki’s 19th-century architecture was typically Neoclassical, and then in the 20th Jugendstil and National Romantic. At the same time, though Helsinki has some fine examples of pre-war modern architecture, the city flourished in the 50s and 60s. Thanks to Alvar Aalto, Helsinki, and Finland as a whole came to the world’s spotlight.
Helsinki Central Station
Eliel Saarinen – 1919
The first building on our list is not quite modern, but it changed the past and opened the door to future trends. Since Helsinki’s original central station from 1860 couldn’t keep up with traffic, in 1904 a competition took place to choose the new building. Winner Eliel Saarinen original design was essentially in a national-romantic style. However, he soon embraced Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) and changed his design completely. Finish granite covers the new Helsinki Central Station. A tall clock tower and two giant lantern carriers shape its imposing facade. Considered by many as one of the most beautiful train stations in the world, we simply loved it.
Helsinki Olympic Stadium
Yrjö Lindgren, Toivo Jäntti – 1938
Paavo Nurmen tie 1
The Helsinki Olympic Stadium was designed for the summer Olympics of 1940. The games were to happen in Tokyo, then were moved to Helsinki, and were finally canceled due to World War II. Architects Yrjö Lindegren and Toivo Jäntti designed it in a simple functionalist style. The characteristic white tower is 72,71 meters tall, the exact distance that Matti Järvinen threw the javelin in 1932 winning the gold medal. Fortunately, the tower is open to the public and offers brilliant city views. In 1952 Helsinki hosted the Olympic Games, and many Olympic events took place here.
Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen – 1969
The church with a long difficult to pronounce name is absolutely unique in the entire world. Carved directly into solid rock, the Temppeliaukio Church is also known as the Church of the Rock. The idea to build a church on the present site came up in the 1930s, but then the war began. In 1961 a new contest for the church was launched but for a smaller place. The winning design is a simple lined church carved directly out of the granite rock. The result is magical. The sunlight enters the church through the large skylight around the central copper dome. The church still serves as a place of worship, but also holds concerts and is a popular tourist site. Though we are not religious, we felt at peace here.
Alvar Aalto – 1971
Alvar Aalto was already an established architect when he designed his grandest work: Finlandia Hall. It is the only building completed from Aalto’s elaborate city plan for Helsinki’s central area. A tower-like structure with a sloped roof dominates the structure. Aalto believed that as church towers do, the high empty space underneath would provide for perfect acoustics. Strongly inspired by the Mediterranean culture, he chose white marble instead of Finnish granite. Aalto himself designed all of the interior’s details: floors, ceiling, furniture, lamps, and decorations. The building houses a large concert hall, a chamber music hall, a restaurant, and a congress space.
Steven Holl – 1998
One of the buildings that established Helsinki at the forefront of modern architecture is the Contemporary Art Museum Kiasma. The contest held for the museum in 1993 received 515 entries, all of them Europeans except for one. American architect Steven Holl won the competition with his slick design inspired by genetics chiasm (Kiasma in Finnish). You can see the contemporary art collection of the Finnish National Gallery in the 9000m2 exhibition space. The building has four floors and curved galleries with different shapes. Two main volumes meet at the big atrium with a ramp that leads to the upper floors. Natural light illuminates all rooms and exhibition spaces. Aluminum and glass cover the intricate façade, while zinc the roof.
Antti-Matti Siikala, Jan Söderlund – 1999
Another interesting building in the so-called Töölönlahti cultural quarter of Helsinki is the Sanomatalo Building. Helsinki’s largest newspaper company, Helsingin Sanomat, has its editorial offices in the building. The large box structure is one of the first buildings in all Scandinavia completely made of glass. Two diagonal paths intersect the square plan. We are talking about a transparent building that absorbs the soft light of the northern sun. This seems to extend the adjacent public space. In fact, the building’s main area is like a big covered square but opens to the public. Inside you’ll find an art gallery, a restaurant, a design forum, and a couple of shops. Obviously, the offices are on the upper levels.
Musiikkitalo – Helsinki Music Centre
LPR Architects – 2011
Next to Finlandia you’ll find another jewel made for music lovers. The new Music Center Musiikkitalo is a concert venue, home to the Helsinki Philharmonic and the Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the headquarters of the Sibelius Academy. Its façade connects the building’s use with its location. The green copper façade pays tribute to the surrounding green area, while the remaining glass façade connects the inner and outer spaces. The building’s highlight is its majestic central Concert Hall that can accommodate up to 1700 people. There are several smaller halls and rehearsal rooms for the philharmonic orchestras. Additionally, the center’s Sibelius Academy Music Library has an impressive collection of all things music.
Kaisa House – Helsinki University Library
Anttinen Oiva – 2012
Though Helsinki University owns several cool buildings, award-winning Kaisa House stands out. A bold design by Anttinen Oiva won the architectural contest. A brick façade that follows an orthogonal grid fills the lot. However, two large parabolic openings interrupt the somewhat traditional facade. In fact, the windows on the upper parabola offer gorgeous views of the city. Currently the largest university library in Finland, its collection is divided into five different sections: social sciences, arts, law, theology, and educational sciences. Apart from the library, the building houses the American Resource Center, the Guidance Corner, and a couple of recreation areas. Go to the one on the 7th floor to access the rooftop terrace.
K2S Architects Ltd. – 2012
The smallest project on this list is unique in many ways. The tiny Kamppi Chapel breaks the orthogonal monotony of the surrounding Narinkka square. You will recognize it immediately from its round shape, light materials, and colors. We are talking about a subtle but impressive design. Go inside and prepare to be dazzled: sunlight penetrates the chapel from the skylight around the vaulted wooden ceiling. Built in 2012 to celebrate Helsinki as Design Capital of Europe, it is a chapel of silence. We believe the concept is great! This is a chapel that belongs to no one and where everybody is welcome! The entrance is a bit hard to find, but persevere; you’ll feel at peace inside.
ALA Architects – 2019
The newest addition to Helsinki’s modern and contemporary architecture skyline is the library of the future. Located in the middle of the Töölönlahti cultural quarter, the Oodi Library is almost entirely a public space. We love this new trend of designing buildings that extend the surrounding open space, like Oslo’s Opera. This time the architect went even further. The library is divided into three levels: the lively ground floor, an enclosed middle level where the library facilities are, and a quiet top floor. The ground floor is a natural extension of the nearby public space, and the interior spaces are fluid and varied. Everything is flexible and transparent.
Other Helsinki Buildings and Sites Not to Miss
Modern and contemporary architecture lovers will be in heaven in Helsinki. However, you shouldn’t miss some of the older landmarks. The imposing neoclassical Helsinki Cathedral is the city’s most famous building. Built on top of the Senate Square it can be seen from many parts of the city. Another interesting church you should visit is the Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral. Helsinki was part of Russia for over 100 years, and the church is the remnant of those times. Don’t miss the beautiful monument dedicated to Finland’s most famous composer Sibelius. For the best examples of Finnish national romantic style visit the National Museum and the National Theater. Finally, if you have an extra day in Helsinki, go to the gorgeous Suomenlinna Island.
Where to Stay in Helsinki
In Helsinki, stay in a modern, or contemporary architecture landmark. We chose well and stayed at the wonderful Crowne Plaza Helsinki. The slick modern building with a cool swimming pool, spa and great views over Hesperia Park, provided a well-deserved rest. You can see some of the abovementioned buildings from the privacy of your own room. The Solo Sokos Hotel Torni is another historic landmark worth staying in. Built in 1931, it was Finland’s tallest building until 1976. Since its last renovation, it offers rooms in art deco, art nouveau, and functionalist styles. If you are looking for something a bit more classical, yet equally chic, stay at the Grand Marina Hotel. This elegant hotel combines Finnish national romantic style with art nouveau. The original building was a warehouse, turned into a hotel in 1986.