From Helsinki to Lapland, Finland is a magnet for architecture lovers looking to explore everything from old wooden churches to modern masterpieces.
Alvar Aalto is someone who most Finns and visitors alike think about when it comes to Finnish achitecture. He was a modern visionary with a human touch and a deep appreciation of nature. Alvar Aalto is undoubtedly one of Finland’s most famous architects but there’s much more to explore from the National Romantic landmarks of Eliel Saarinen to new award-winning designs like Helsinki’s Oodi Central Library. These places are best experienced in person as many Finnish architects showcase the interplay between ever-changing light and nature. Their designs are rich in detail, reflecting the famous Alvar Aalto idea of a building as a complete work of art.
Scroll down to explore our curated list of some of the most famous public architecture buildings in Finland.
Article published in May 2020. Image above by Amos Rex Art Museum.
Full of interesting contrasts, such as the four seasons, the Midnight Sun and winter darkness, urban and rural, East and West.
Finland’s greatest and most widely known architect, Alvar Aalto, culminated his career with this cool white marble-clad concert and conference center located in the Helsinki city center in 1974. With interiors by Elissa Aalto, it is impressive down to the smallest details. The building will be renovated in 2022–24. Also located in Helsinki are Aalto’s own small villa and studio – great places to visit also for those interested in interior design. In and around the Lakeland town of Jyväskylä are the Aalto-designed Jyväskylä University campus, Säynätsalo Town Hall and Muuratsalo Experimental House. In the southwest Finland, you can spot Aalto’s Villa Mairea near Pori and the Paimio Sanatorium near Turku.
The Oodi library, a book heaven located in right the center of Helsinki, opened in late 2018 and was voted the world’s best new library the following year. It is a birthday present to the nation to mark the 100th anniversary of its independence. It is also a symbol of Finland’s dedication to literacy, skill-acquisition and equality. Designed by Helsinki-based ALA Architects, its soaring spruce-clad structure is part of an upsurge in new wooden architecture in Finland. In its airy glass-encased top level, potted trees reach toward luminescent skylights around a spiral staircase. Oodi is more than just a library; it also offers cafés, an art-house cinema, an auditorium and a terrace looking over esteemed neighboring landmarks such as the House of Parliament, Helsinki Music Center and Kiasma art museum.
Opened in 2018, Amos Rex swiftly became one of Helsinki’s most popular art and design destinations, garnering international media acclaim. Most likely all visitors to Helsinki come across – on purpose or by accident – the five conical domes that jut out from the surface of the Lasipalatsi Square, resembling a moonscape. The sprawling art complex includes underground exhibition spaces, part of the functionalist Glass Palace (Lasipalatsi) from 1936 and its Bio Rex cinema, as well as an event forum on Lasipalatsi Square. The new annex to the old Amos Anderson Art Museum was created by Finnish JKMM Architects, who also designed the Turku Central Library.
Temppeliaukio Rock Church by Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen
Opened in 1969, this impressive subterranean church is one of Helsinki’s most popular sights, attracting more than 900,000 visitors each year. It also actively operates as a church and concert venue, with pristine acoustics and a summer café. Under its soaring copper-lined dome where natural light filters in through glass panes, the inner walls are rugged granite, with a millennia-old crevice as an altarpiece.
The iconic Senate Square, Helsinki’s Neoclassical architectural gem, is dominated by four buildings designed by Carl Ludvig Engel (1778-1840): the Helsinki Cathedral, which is the icon of the city, as well as the Government Palace, the main building of the University of Helsinki, and the National Library of Finland. Nearby you can also find the Uspenski Cathedral – the largest orthodox church in Western Europe.
Helsinki Central Railway Station by Eliel Saarinen
Mythical stone giants guard the main doors of this iconic station, completed in 1919 in a slightly modernized Jugendstil or National Romantic style. In 2013, it was rated by the BBC as one of the world’s most beautiful railway stations. The copper tops of the ornate clock tower and entrance arch have taken on a fine green patina over the past century. A few blocks away rises the distinctive spire of the National Museum, which Eliel Saarinen co-designed with his partners Herman Gesellius and Armas Lindgren.
This oval-shaped wooden chapel is an oasis of quiet in one of the busiest parts of Helsinki in Kamppi. The non-denominational chapel is open to all. Its interior, with soft natural lighting, offers an intimate place for a moment of meditation. The façade is spruce, the interior alder and the furniture made of ash. Built ahead of Helsinki’s World Design Capital year in 2012, it won the International Architecture Award for the Best New Global Design, and it is being expanded in 2020.
This exquisite wooden structure, which is a restaurant and public sauna, was completed in 2016 in Helsinki’s dockside Hernesaari district. The structure’s undulating shape aims to be part of the rocky coastline. Built of wood according to strict sustainable principles, it offers visitors and locals alike the chance to experience genuine Finnish sauna and culinary culture, contemporary architecture and a connection with nature in the city.
The sturdy symbol of Finnish democracy, Parliament House located in the Helsinki city center was inaugurated in 1931. This classically-inspired monumental building was renovated in 2017 by Helin & Co Architects, who also designed the Little Parliament annex in 1999. The Parliament House overlooks the Citizens’ Square (‘Kansalaistori’ in Finnish), which is bordered by four contemporary landmark buildings: the Oodi library, Kiasma Art Museum, the Helsinki Music Center, and the box-shaped Sanoma headquarters with a glass exterior.
Finland’s leading contemporary art museum ushered in a new era of bold contemporary architecture in central Helsinki when it opened in 1998. New York-based architect Steven Holl’s light-soaked white design with its curving ramps echoes the Guggenheim museum in his home city. The ground floor, which includes exhibits, a theater, restaurant and shop, is open free of charge.
Olympic Stadium by Yrjö Lindegren and Toivo Jäntti
The Olympic Stadium was completed in 1938 ahead of the planned 1940 Olympics, but it had to wait until 1952 to host the games. Since then it has hosted many other key events including the 2005 World Championships in Athletics and concerts by the likes of the Rolling Stones (four times) and Bruce Springsteen (three times). Its sleek functionalistic style has stood the test of time, topped off by its 72-meter Stadium Tower, which affords breathtaking views of the city. The stadium reopens in August 2020 after a four-year renovation.
Otaniemi Campus and Dipoli by architects including Alvar Aalto, Raili and Reima Pietilä, Heikki & Kaija Sirén and Verstas
Aalto University was named after Alvar Aalto, who studied there when it was still Helsinki University of Technology. In the 1950’s, he created a detailed plan for a campus in the neighboring city of Espoo, transposing amphitheater forms from classical Greek architecture into warm red brick. Since then the area, which is the highest concentration of high technology in the Nordic countries, has been expanded with projects by Reima & Raili Pietilä, who designed the main Dipoli building in 1966, as well as Heikki & Kaija Sirén, Arkkitehdit NRT, Verstas Architects, and others.
This fanciful 1903 log mansion in Kirkkonummi, 30 minutes from the Helsinki city center, was designed by Eliel Saarinen, Herman Gesellius and Armas Lindgren as their shared studio and home. They often hosted major Finnish cultural figures such as composer Jean Sibelius and painter Aleksi Gallen-Kallela, who designed some of the decor. After Saarinen’s partners moved out, it remained home to his family including his son Eero Saarinen, who was born there. In 1923, the family moved to the US, where Eero Saarinen designed landmarks such as the Gateway Arch and New York’s TWA Terminal, which is now a luxury hotel.
In a perfect marriage of classic and contemporary, this hybrid structure joins the original city library with a larger new wing completed in 2007. The old part, from 1903, was built in the Dutch Late Renaissance style on the banks of the River Aura, and remains in active use. The adjoining 100-year-old governor’s chancellery now houses a café and meeting rooms. The bright, airy annex is characterized by glass walls, emphasizing the notion of openness.
Erik Bryggman (1891-1955) teamed up with Alvar Aalto to bring modern architecture to Finland. Many of Bryggman’s works combine Nordic classicism, functionalism and minimalism. This chapel in Turku from 1941 adds a more romantic, spiritual and human touch. The surrounding nature inspired such ornamentation as the Tree of Life pulpit and the leaf patterns on the doors.
Wivi Lönn, first Finnish independent female architect, was also the first female architect in Finland to win an architectural competition, for the Tampere Central Fire Station. The Art Nouveau-style building was completed in 1908. It was creatively altered in the 1920’s to accommodate the new motor vehicles when they replaced horse-drawn fire engines. Lönn also designed the 1905 Commercial Institute next door, as well as key buildings in Helsinki and Tallinn, Estonia.
This grey granite church with a red-brick roof, most famous for its frescoes, was completed in 1907, a decade before Finland gained its independence. The surreal frescos by renowned Finnish painters Hugo Simberg and Magnus Enckell caused a stir at the time. Sonck also designed the National Romantic-style Eira Hospital in Helsinki and Ainola, home of the composer Jean Sibelius in Järvenpää.
Gösta’s Pavilion, Serlachius Museum by MX_SI architectural studio and Huttunen–Lipasti–Pakkanen Architects
Art Museum Gösta, one of several named after industrialist and art patron Gösta Serlachius, was renovated in 2014. The upgrade added a wooden pavilion that expanded the space for exhibitions, which focus on works from the Golden Age of Finnish art and older European masters as well as the latest contemporary art. A restaurant with scenic lakeside views, a festival hall, and a museum shop were also added.
Apila, opened in 2012, is connected by a tunnel to the old main library from 1965, designed by Alvar Aalto. It was renovated and re-opened in 2015. The new building has three wings or ’leaves’, hence the name Apila, which means clover in Finnish. Its angular shapes were also inspired by Japanese origami. The facade is covered with copper and the surface pattern resembles fish scales.
Petäjävesi Old Church by Jaakko Klemetinpoika Leppänen
Built by peasants in the 1760s, the enchanting Petäjävesi Church is the only place of worship among Finland’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It was cited as a distinctive example of the Nordic tradition of log construction and wooden church architecture, including masterful folk carving styles. The belfry, designed by the original architect’s grandson, was added in 1821. The church is located 30 minutes west of Jyväskylä.
Kerimäki Wooden Church by Anders Fredrik Granstedt
The world’s biggest wooden church, the Kerimäki Wooden Church, is still in active use. At Christmas, it is lit entirely with live candles, creating an unforgettable atmosphere as it holds more than 3,000 people. The ceiling soars to a height of 27 meters and the dome to 37 meters. The church is near Savonlinna in Eastern Finland, site of the dramatic Olavinlinna Castle, which hosts an annual opera festival.
Reidar Särestöniemi, who passed away in 1981, was Lapland’s best-known artist. His family home, Särestö, is a charming farmhouse from 1873, making it one of Lapland’s oldest surviving houses. It has been expanded to create the Särestöniemi Museum with three newer buildings by Raili and Reima Pietilä, who also designed Tampere’s curvy Metso Library. Särestöniemi is located near Kittilä.
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