Category Archives: Finland

Suomenlinna Fortress

Little bears are listening to Uuno Klami’s Suomenlinna Overture, composed in 1940, a loose musical description of the 18th century sea fortress guarding the Helsinki archipelago. Klami was a modernist, but this overture reveals him at his most traditional and conventionally patriotic. It makes for easy listening, a refreshing change in Finnish music! Goes very well with chocolate 🙂

Fortress of Suomenlinna

The founding of the city of St Petersburg in 1703 changed the strategic significance of the Baltic Sea in one fell swoop. The era of Sweden as a superpower ended with the Great Northern War fought between 1700 and 1721. After the Russo-Swedish war of 1741-1743, with the treaty of Turku, signed in 1743, Sweden lost of all its important Finnish border fortresses to Russia. To safeguard the eastern border of the kingdom, the Swedish Riksdag (parliament) decided to establish a new depot fortress on a group of small islands, called the Susiluoto islands, off the coast of Helsinki. The construction of Sveaborg, called at the time Viapori in Finnish, began in 1748.

Viapori was intended as the main fortress of Finland – a depot fortress acting as a naval base and a place where troops were assembled. Initially, a double fortress was planned for Helsinki, in which the city of Helsinki and the Susiluodot islands would be fortified. The building began on the mainland in the Ullanlinna district, but the project was soon limited to the construction of the Viapori fortress. The work was supervised by the Swedish Admiral Augustin Eherensvärd (1710-1772), who adapted Vauban’s theories to the very special geographical features of the region.

Augustin Ehrensvärd (25 September 1710 – 4 October 1772)

The fortress was built by Finnish and Swedish soldiers. Most of the funding came from France, the then ally of Sweden. Construction of the fortress continued for about 40 years but was never fully completed. However, Suomenlinna was capable of defence and in the early 19th century still considered a very strong fortress.

Viapori was among the world’s largest fortresses of its time and one of the Swedish state’s most significant construction projects. It was estimated to take about 7000 men to defend the fortress. Suomenlinna saw military action during the Russo-Swedish War of 1788-1790, the Russian siege of 1808, the Crimean War of 1855, the Viapori Rebellion in 1906 and the bombings of the Continuation War in 1944.

A part of the footing of a watchtower that stood on Susisaari island

An irregular bastion fortress built on six islands, Suomenlinna has been compared to the fortress of Gibraltar, which was considered unassailable. Four of the islands had enclosed fortifications, and two had open defences.

The original fortress was built using local rock and fortified with a system of bastions over varied terrain. The purpose of the fortress was originally to defend the Kingdom of Sweden against the Russian Empire and to serve as a fortified army base, complete with a dry dock. The Viapori dockyard built, repaired and stored the Swedish archipelago fleet’s frigates, barges, gunboats, sloops and other vessels. These vessels were designed specifically for the difficult conditions of the Finnish archipelago. The low-draught vessels could be both rowed and sailed. The large dry dock was the world’s first and probably the largest. Its construction began in 1749.

This boat may have been part of the original Swedish Archipelago Fleet. The boat was built from oak felled in the mid 18th century, and repaired with new oak parts in the early 20th century.

Sandbanks, barracks and various other buildings were added during the 19th century Russian period. The defensive system was adapted to match the requirements of a modern fortress and developed in the 19th century using contemporary fortification equipment.

Coat of arms that adorned the bow of a warship from the days of Emperor Nicholas II (1894-1917)

Under Russian rule (1809-1918), the dockyard was used significantly less. An aircraft factory operated in the area in the early years of Finnish independence. After the Second World War, the dockyard built ships for the Soviet Union for Finland’s war reparations. The dock basin is still in use, but the last new vessel built was completed in 1974.

Today, Suomenlinna’s dry dock is run by a foundation whose mission is to preserve and pass on traditional boat-building skills.

The fortress has experienced two changes of ruling regime. From the year 1809, Viapori became a Russian fortress. When Finland was merged with the Russian Empire in 1808, the Russian military maintained a permanent presence in Helsinki. The bulk of the troops were accommodated in the Viapori fortress, but some units were housed in the city area.

The Viapori fortress and the excellent port it protected were significant factors in making Helsinki the capital of Finland in 1812.

Finland declared independence on 6 December 1917. The fortress of Viapori, nevertheless remained under the control of the Russian military for some time; during the Russian era, the fortress had not been administratively part of the Grand Duchy of Finland. A Civil War was fought in Finland in spring 1918. The Russian troops on Viapori did not engage in the hostilities; instead in April 1918 they gave over Viapori to the Finnish Army and began their withdrawal from Finland. The Finnish flag was raised on Kustaanmiekka for the first time on 12 May 1918. The islands were formally annexed by the Republic of Finland and the fortress was renamed with the Finnish language Suomenlinna.

Reproductions of dresses used in the 18th and 19th centuries
Uniform jacket of Russian infantryman, 1820-1850
Children’s overalls from early 2000s

When the fortress was being built in the 18th century, it was a sort of national masterclass in building technology. Men from all over Finland were recruited for the construction project. These men only knew about building in wood. On Suomenlinna, they worked under the supervision of Swedish engineering officers and other experts and learned about new techniques and materials, such as building in stone.

Today, Suomenlinna is something of a field laboratory in the area of restoration and conservation and traditional construction methods. Experts in a variety of fields take part in the work: architects, engineers, professional builders, stone masons, gardeners, painters, researchers and restorers. Repair work on the walls and ramparts is also done as prison work by inmates at Suomenlinna prison. Because of the harsh and humid climate on Suomenlinna, repair work on the stone walls and elevations is a never-ending job.

Until the mid-1980s, the renovation policy on Suomenlinna was to restore the exterior elevations of buildings but to outfit the interiors as if they were new buildings. Today, the basic principle is to use the techniques and methods with which the buildings were originally built. Repairs are undertaken so that as much of the original structure and materials are retained as possible. Any new structures are built so that they can be dismantled without interfering with the original structures.

Suomenlinna is also home to more than 800 permanent residents, as a district of Helsinki. Most of the flats on Suomenlinna are rented and are owned by the state. The houses are maintained and restored and blend unobtrusively with their surroundings. Most of the current residential buildings were originally used by the garrison, but by the 19th century they had begun to be transformed into homes.

One of the residents is Petra Tandefelt, the owner, collector and manager of the Suomenlinna Toy Museum. She represents the fourth generation of a Suomenlinna family.

Petra Tandefelt – owner, collector and manager of the Suomenlinna Toy Museum
Suomenlinna Toy Museum – house built in 1911 (late Russian period)
Suomenlinna Toy Museum

Although Suomenlinna is often considered to be a summer attraction only, it is open to visitors all year round.

The view from the ferry as it arrives at Suomenlinna

Puffles and Honey made a beeline for the Toy Museum, of course 🙂 Elevenses first!

Suomenlinna Toy Museum Cafe

Before catching up with some friends.

Suomenlinna Toy Museum
Suomenlinna Toy Museum
Suomenlinna Toy Museum
Teddy bears like elevenses…
…and music…
….and adventures!

The toys in the museum are collected from Finland, played with by Finnish children, mostly made in other countries, but bought from Finnish toy shops originally. The Finnish toy industry has never been very big.

Suomenlinna Toy Museum – Moomin Valley Rascals

Moomin dolls from the 1950s were made by Atelier Fauni that specialised in troll characters. The Moomin family of Atelier Fauni had 14 members: Moomintroll, Moominmamma, Moominpappa, Snorkmaiden, Too-Ticky, Hemul, Fillyjonk, Snufkin, Mymble, Little My, Stinky, Sniff, Miisa and Hattifattener.

Atelier Fauni was established in 1952 when Helena Kuuskoski (1919-2013) sew her first plush characters. The Atelier closed down in 1971. The first Moomin figures created in the mid 1950s were made of leather and fur and approved by Tove Jansson, the creator of the Moomins. Moomins were dressed up in Marimekko designs. Stockman was the first store to have Moomin dolls for sale and they sold out in record time. More than 80,000 Moomins were exported to Sweden in the late 1960s.

Suomenlinna Toy Museum

In April 2017, Finland entered the Space Age by launching into space its first satellite, Aalto-2. To celebrate the occasion, the Suomenlinna Toy Museum launched its own little satellite, a selection of space toys ranging from the 1950’s to the 1990’s. The ‘satellite’ also showcases futuristic toys relating to science fiction television shows, with the emphasis on British producer Gerry Anderson’s Space: 1999 (1975-77) and Thunderbirds (1965-66).

Suomenlinna Toy Museum ‘satellite’ exhibition
Suomenlinna Toy Museum ‘satellite’ exhibition
Suomenlinna Toy Museum ‘satellite’ exhibition
Suomenlinna Toy Museum ‘satellite’ exhibition – love that Kirk has been relegated to last place!
Suomenlinna Toy Museum ‘satellite’ exhibition – Naveta spatiala

A Mezza Voce


From the outside, Helsinki’s new concert hall, Musiikkitalo, seems unpretentious. Inside, it houses six concert halls to suit different requirements, a school of music and a library.

The discussions about the new concert hall started in the early 1990s when the Sibelius Academy signalled the need for new premises in the centre of Helsinki, closer to the other Sibelius Academy buildings. It was not until resources were pooled that the plans could be realized. The Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra and the Sibelius Academy formed an operator consortium, meeting the construction costs of €188 million.

The idea of a new concert hall for Helsinki was pressing since Finlandia Hall, designed by Alvar Aalto and completed in 1971, although impressive, is quite an inappropriate structure for symphonic music concerts in terms of acoustics. The new concert hall had to have outstanding acoustics.

A two-phased international architectural competition was held in 1999–2000 and received 243 entries during the first phase and 68 during the second. The competition was won by Arkkitehtitoimisto LPR-Arkkitehdit with their work “a mezza voce”. Yasuhisa Toyota was chosen to design the acoustics.

From an architectural perspective, “a mezza voce” (with a moderate voice) meant to tread lightly without disturbing the surrounding landscape.

The site for Musiikkitalo is located between three of the city’s architectural monuments – Parliament House, in neoclassical style, across Mannerheinintie, Aalto’s Finlandia Hall to the north, and Steven Holl’s Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art to the south.

The winners had to comply with building height restrictions and some conformity of the venue’s overall countenance with the Parliament House across the street. Also important was the fact that the building was to be located on the same line of landscape, on the shore of Töölö Bay, as Finlandia Hall and the Opera. And most importantly, the architects had to cooperate with acoustics specialist Yasuhisa Toyota, one of the world’s most prominent experts in his field. His collaboration with Frank Gehry to engineer Walt Disney Concert Hall’s famed acoustics brought in commissions from around the world for acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota. For acoustics designers like Yasuhisa Toyota, success arrives when an audience is rapt in the music, oblivious to the complicated physics it takes to project a Beethoven symphony with warmth and clarity. Walt Disney Concert Hall was an outstanding success!

Master acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota’s designs are now found in many classical music concert halls famous throughout the world apart from the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles: the Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall in St. Petersburg, the Danish Radio Concert Hall in Copenhagen, the New World Center in Miami, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, ElbPhilharmonie in Hamburg, Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University, the Radio France Concert Hall in Paris, Vitoria-Gasteiz (Spain) Concert Hall/Auditorium, the Shanghai Symphony Concert Hall and the Helsinki Music Center Concert Hall.

His primary focus can be reduced to just two key elements – space, or the shape of the room, and material – but there is a staggering amount of options to consider and decisions to be made at the detail level of both elements. Overall, Toyota is a consummate collaborator: For Toyota, the success of any one building is ultimately the result of his ears, the architect’s eyes and the collective interpretative force of a conductor and orchestra combining to make something greater than the sum of their parts.

In the world of classical music, acoustics are important and the design might come before even the architectural design. In a hall that doesn’t program classical music, but only pop music and rock & roll, then sound systems, microphones and loudspeakers are more important than room acoustics itself.

Talking about the room shape of a classical music concert hall, details include the seating height and width and shape. When it comes to the material, it’s not just the surface material that is important but the structure behind that. Even with the same acoustic surface material, the thickness is important. The structure behind the panels is not visible, but is important to the sound. The room shape and material are also the issues which the architect is working with. The room shape and material are important visually and acoustically. The architect and the acoustician work in different fields, but designing with the same items, and collaboration is the answer.

Toyota has used wood in some form in all the halls he has designed. In the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles he used Douglas-fir, in Sapporo and Kawasaki he used Japanese wood, in the Mariinsky Theater in St Petersburg he used Finnish wood components and at Musiikkitalo in Helsinki he used pine and birch.

Wood is a good material in concert halls, acoustically and visually. And Toyota finds that natural materials also offer the audience a comfortable atmosphere. He considers the stage floor part of an instrument, with sound, and he designs is out of soft local wood.

Musiikkitalo main auditorium stage

In Helsinki the stage is made of Finnish pine and the boards have no knots. The density of the wood has been precisely calculated, as the stage is the largest and most important instrument resonating in the space. Above the stage, a special concrete object weighing 27 tonnes is hung from 40 steel cables. Four of these cables would have been sufficient to hold the weight, but the builders of the hall wanted to make completely sure, so that the orchestra would not have to steal occasional nervous glances at the threatening object above their heads. The block of concrete is part of the acoustics design for the hall, as is the ceiling of the concert hall. The ceiling of the main hall was named “Sound Canopy” (Finnish: Sointilatvus) following a public competition arranged to come up with a name for it. It goes without saying, sound quality does not depend on the number of people in the hall.

Musiikkitalo sound canopy

Most of Toyota’s best halls resemble Suntory – Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, Philharmonie de Paris, Shanghai Symphony Hall, Bamberg Symphony Hall, Danish Radio Concert Hall, Mariinsky Theatre Concert Hall and Helsinki Music Centre Concert Hall.

Musiikkitalo main auditorium

The vineyard style is Toyota’s favourite audience layout, a visual representation of his philosophy that the enjoyment of music should be shared – the vineyard design allows viewers to feel a spirit of community in the perception of sonic information. Another of Toyota’s enthusiasms is striving for the presence of the national identity of the respective country. Forest and wood have given the Helsinki Music Centre not only its visual aspect, but also character and atmosphere. The pail-like main hall has been dubbed “smoke sauna”, owing to the tone of its warm, dark birch panels, while the seats in the vineyard-like audience have been described as a “logjam” and the wooden stairs are like creeks. Strips of glass allow daylight to stream in and make for visual reference points between the auditorium and the foyer.

Musiikkitalo main auditorium
Musiikkitalo main auditorium

In case you are wondering, he doesn’t have a favourite hall. He responds to the question with a story.

A few years ago, on January 1, my phone rang. It was Valery Gergiev, the conductor and artistic director of the Russian Mariinsky Theatre. He was with the Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons at the time, and there had probably been some drinking going on. The two had been having a discussion: Gergiev was of the opinion that the acoustics in the Sapporo Concert Hall were the best, while Jansons, on the other hand, preferred the Kawasaki Symphony Hall. I designed the acoustics in both and the gentlemen wanted to know: “Yasuhisa, which is better?” So I simply asked: “Valery, tell me: How many children do you have?” He understood what I was saying straight away.

Suntory, Toyota’s, and Japan’s, first vineyard-style hall, opened in 1987 in Tokyo. Conservative Japanese audiences were quick to complain. A hall layout where neither the listener nor the musician has any place to hide visually or audibly was a bit too in your face. But Suntory had the blessing of the conductor the Japanese most admired. The Berlin Philharmonic’s music director, Herbert von Karajan, had overseen the construction of his own early vineyard-style concert hall, the celebrated 1963 Philharmonie.

Suntory, 30 years later, remains far and away the most prestigious concert address in the East, no matter the architecturally stunning opera houses and concert halls popping up in China, Indonesia, the Emirates and the Southern Caucasus. The Vienna Philharmonic is an annual visitor at Suntory and sounds remarkably comfortable here despite the radical difference between modern Suntory and the orchestra’s heavenly 19th century home, the Musikverein. That comfort hasn’t translated into their acceptance of eastern musicians in their midst however.

The large auditorium at Helsinki’s Musiikkitalo boasts 1,704 seats and is located in the main building, through which the concert house is also accessed. In addition to the Concert Hall, there are five smaller halls for roughly 140-400 people. The acoustics in each hall have been designed to serve the function or purpose of each hall, such as electronically amplified music performances, or chamber music performances or lectures. Owing to height restrictions, the building features a large underground area. Ultimately, an eight-storey building was created, with two-thirds of it located underground. The many underground storeys are also filled with light, thanks to the large glassed atrium, which allows the generous Northern daylight to be manifested to the fullest.

Musiikkitalo Camerata hall – suitable for small music ensembles
Musiikkitalo – Black Box hall – suitable for amplified music and lectures

The Main Foyer is located on the third floor, which is the entry floor for visitors arriving from the Kansalaistori Square.

Musiikkitalo Foyer Level
Musiikkitalo Foyer Level – view from outside
Musiikkitalo Main Foyer with Gaia, by Kirsi Kaulanen, suspended from the Music Centre ceiling

The sculpture by Kirsi Kaulanen was named Gaia after the ancient Greek goddess of the Earth. At 14 metres in length, 10 metres in height, and 2,200 kg in weight, the sculpture in polished stainless steel is visible both inside the Helsinki Music Centre and from outside, in the direction of Mannerheimintie.

Constructed from organic forms, Gaia resembles a saxophone, a horn, a landscape, or a winding shape. It is linked to nature by its flowing form and by the fact that it includes 28 of the 150 currently-endangered Finnish plant species.

Musiikkitalo Main Foyer’s cafĂ© – the cakes were very good, the salmon quiche is best never mentioned again!

As the architects report, what they were aiming for is a “quiet kind of architecture”. The concert hall does not attempt to outclass its prominent neighbors with extravagant façade designs. Instead, it looks as if it is trying to crouch down in the depression between the busy Mannerheim Street and Töölö Bay. Verdigris copper façades form the transition to the greenery of the nearby park and to the Parliament Building. Generous, seaweed-colored glass fronts face the Kiasma Museum and the Baltic Sea.

The patinated copper roof is also characteristic of Helsinki’s oldest architecture while the large-scale glass façades fit in well with the more modern buildings of Finland’s capital, including the neighbouring temple of contemporary art, Kiasma.

In music circles the biggest expectations were focused on the acoustics. Users of the Main Hall have responded with both praise and excitement. The acoustics of Helsinki Music Centre yield a clear sound, with a long echo and tone beautifully carried everywhere in the hall, to every single seat. Including the seats we had for the Laulu-Miehet Finland 100 concert of Sibelius music.

Musiikkitalo – Laulu-Miehet Sibelius concert as part of the Finland 100 celebrations

A Finnish Institution

Olaf’s Frozen Adventure

Olaf’s hilarious sauna adventure reminded me of our sauna adventure in Finland.

Saunas and other types of heated bathing rooms are found in many cultures, but nowhere else is it as large a part of the national identity and culture as it is in Finland.

For Finns, the sauna is a part of life that they become familiar with very early in childhood. Finns use the sauna for spiritual relaxation with family and friends, after sports and exercise, as part of an evening spent with friends or co-workers or even for no particular reason at all. The warmth of the sauna also helps them through the cold and dark winters. The sauna is a place for celebration, negotiation, discussion and deep deliberation. Finnish policymakers and influential business figures have probably negotiated some of their best contracts in a sauna. For a Finnish host, the sauna is a source of pride and a gesture of hospitality. If your somewhat taciturn Finnish host invites you to join him, stark naked, in a small wooden room heated to nearly one hundred degrees Celsius, try not to run for the hills!

Says she, who arrived in Finland determined not to experience this Finnish cultural aspect since most saunas have a no-clothes policy, although they will allow you to keep your towel on.

When we arrived at Levin Iglut – Golden Crown in the Finnish Lapland, one of the experiences available was a private sauna and spa session in the Northern Lights House. After checking with reception that ‘private’ meant what I expected it meant, off I went on my sauna adventure.

Following the directions given, I found a house with a door that was opened by the key I had been given, went in and I found this room.

In quick succession my thoughts were, I am in the wrong place, how odd that the key opens all the houses, and finally, it must be the right place because there is no other place around.

After opening every door in the house, I finally found the sauna. It was behind the last door, of course!

But before the sauna experience, I went to get little Puffles and Honey, and the camera…

While I experienced the sauna, little Puffles and Honey relaxed under the starry ceiling, since the starry sky was thoroughly covered by clouds!

That settled, I remembered that the spa was outside on the terrace. I opened the door, stuck my head out, thought to myself, no way, and firmly closed the door. Another tour of the house, and two minutes later I was back at the terrace door, this time venturing outside to check that the spa had indeed been prepared for me. Still thinking no way, I went back inside and finally entered the sauna room.

The sauna was heated by a special sauna stove with rocks that are heated to very high temperatures by burning wood (or by electricity in other places). The hot rocks heat up the sauna to approximately 80-90 degrees Celsius (there was a temperature gauge on display). Bathers can throw water on the hot rocks; the water vaporises, heating up the room and increasing the humidity in the air. I threw water on the hot rocks once, was essentially chased out of the room by the vapour 🙂 , and after going back inside I stuck to the dry heat experience only.

The room had elevated wooden benches, it smelled of clean wood (no aromatherapy or other essential oils) and it was very relaxing lying down on the bench. And in the 90 degree heat, I finally felt like I was beginning to warm up! That day, the maximum temperature had been -25 degrees Celsius.

The traditional sauna experience also includes a vasta, a bunch of small fresh birch branches with leaves on, used by the bathers to swat themselves and their fellow bathers briskly to open up the skin’s pores and further boost blood circulation. I didn’t notice one, and it is highly unlikely I would have used one if provided. A tip I picked up from the locals is to have a shower first and head to the sauna before towelling off so you aren’t going in dry and dehydrating your body too much.

With the relaxation came a willingness to reconsider the outdoor spa experience. That willingness eventually saw me outside, bare foot in the snow, wrapped up in a towel in what must have been -30 degrees, trying to work out how to turn on the water jets! Luckily one of the buttons worked and as I was relaxing in the spa, I was thinking of the irony that in the sauna, a completely enclosed indoor room, I had kept on my underwear, and now I was outside in a spa with no underwear on!

There aren’t many things better than the sauna in Finland, but nature is one of them. Finland is a sparsely populated country with plenty of clean nature. Most of Finland is covered by forests and over 100,000 lakes, most of which have very clean and even potable water. A Finn is perhaps happiest when he or she can combine the two pleasures of the sauna and Finnish nature. With the sun setting on the horizon late on a summer evening, casting a shiny bridge across the glassy calm surface of a lake, a Finn can spend hours bathing in the sauna, taking breaks to swim and just sit on the porch enjoying the peace and quiet. Sounds blissful…

The Finnish Sauna Society sums it all up in the words of the Finnish writer Maila Talvio: “There is nothing that Finns have been so unanimous about as their sauna. This unanimity has remained unbroken for centuries and is sure to continue as long as there are children born in their native land, as long as the invitation still comes from the porch threshold in the evening twilight: ‘The sauna is ready.’ ”

A link to some real saunas, not the pampered one I experienced 🙂

On the Concert Hall Trail in Northern Europe

The in-depth stories about each concert hall will come later, but little Puffles and Honey want to give a preview of their beary exciting musical adventures now 🙂

Northern Europe is the location of no less than four cultural venues with crystal-clear acoustics and breathtaking architecture. Little bears, of course, checked out all the locations for themselves 🙂

First Harpa in Reykjavik. The venue is unusually defined by its facade. It’s a powerful statement created by fusing the creative visions of Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects and internationally acclaimed artist, Olafur Eliasson. The sparkling glazed fenestrations transform the public areas, which are now often seen as being almost as important as the performing spaces themselves.


It is probably no coincidence that although Eliasson is Danish, his parents are Icelandic, allowing the citizens of Iceland to have at least part ownership in this world-class success at a difficult time in their history.


Seen from the foyer, the halls form a mountain-like massif that similar to basalt rock on the coast forms a stark contrast to the expressive and open facade. At the core of the rock, the largest hall of the building, the main concert hall, reveals its interior as a red-hot centre of force.

Harpa main auditorium

Little bears attended Kristján Jóhannsson’s annual Christmas concert, a festive program also including Dísella Lárusdóttir, Ólafur Kjartan Sigurðarson and Margrét Eiríksdóttir performing opera favorites and classic christmas songs with the Reykjavík Opera Choir and Kópavogur Men’s Choir, accompanied by the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Bjarni Frímann Bjarnason.


Little bears attended another two shows at Harpa, Arvo Pärt and Mozart and How to Become Icelandic in 60 minutes, a hilarious comedy that taught them how to say Eyjafjallajökull!

Elevenses at Harpa

Next on the list was Musiikkitalo in Helsinki.


Musiikkitalo deliberately reveals its treasures only after one actually enters the building. In the lobby huge panoramic windows look into the dark stained concert hall. Not only does the rather understated building have an auditorium with 1700 seats and five smaller halls – there are also three saunas!

Elevenses at Musiikkitalo – the cakes were very good, the salmon quiche is best never mentioned again!

Musiikkitalo was the least fun place to visit.

Musiikkitalo main auditorium

The stairs and stand of the auditorium are dazzling; the asymmetrical seats remind one of jammed rafts. The big hall resonates richly, but at the same time transparently; acoustics guru Yasuhisa Toyota was involved in the planning process from the start and did a great job here, where it is all about communication and not worship.

Musiikkitalo – Sibelius concert as part of the Finland 100 celebrations

Wozzeck at Oslo Opera House was also not fun. Not the most cheerful of operas! Just between us, we can say we were present at Wozzeck but not that we have really seen Wozzeck.

Oslo Opera House

The location, Oslo’s Bjørvika neighbourhood, was chosen because it was in need of urban renewal. The building had a subsidiary role in spearheading dockland redevelopment. Snøhetta opted for a roofline that rose from up from the waterline and the structure has been likened both to an iceberg and a stealth bomber that crashed into Oslofjord. The edges of the building can be used as a diving platform where they meet the water, and visitors can also walk up its sloping walls to the very top to admire the view. Passers-by often find themselves wandering into this fun structure without realising they have entered a concert hall.

In common with Harpa at present, the Oslo Opera House is surrounded by construction sites as the area continues to be renewed.

Oslo Opera House

Wondering around the opera house was a bit more fun 🙂

Oslo Opera House
Oslo Opera House

The Oslo Opera House has proved a remarkably successful building, although the general view remains that there is a lot of bloom to the sound and that the overall building is more visually stunning than its auditorium.

Oslo Opera House
Oslo Opera House
Oslo Opera House
Oslo Opera House

Little bears found Stage 2 where Jingle Horse! was playing, a Christmas collage of well-known stories with a new twist, sometimes funny, sometimes less so. The show was in English, none of the stories escaped parody and not much was off-limits! Not even Mary Mother of God or the refugee crisis.

One of the reviews said the ensemble acting was so strong that it could carry any kind of text you could imagine. That was certainly true!

Jingle Horse!
Jingle Horse!

But the main character was very cute indeed! And an excellent actor 🙂

Jingle Horse!
Jingle Horse

And yet at the end, everybody left the stage and left him all alone…

Jingle Horse!

Little Puffles and Honey went to the rescue… 🙂

Oslo Opera House – Stage 2
Big hug from Jingle Horse

Danish Broadcasting’s new concert hall in Copenhagen, DR Koncerthuset, is sultry, curvaceous and clothed in aromatic reds and oranges. It is also spatially deceptive.

DR Koncerthuset
DR Koncerthuset
DR Koncerthuset
DR Koncerthuset
DR Koncerthuset
DR Koncerthuset

The performance of the Danish National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Fabio Luisi was outstanding. It received a standing ovation and rightly so.

DR Koncerthuset

The Verdict on the Northern Lights Locations

Many moons ago, we selected a number of locations for the best chance of seeing the northern lights.

We have now visited all the locations and we have selected our favourite location for the northern lights: Tromsø. And not just because we were very lucky indeed to see the northern lights three nights in a row. As we have now discovered, there is a fundamental difference between the northern lights tours in Tromsø and the ones in Iceland, Sweden and Finland.

Given a clear and dark sky, suitable solar activity and a bit of luck, you can see the northern lights in each of these locations. You can choose to sit there and wait for the lights to come to you (it does happen!), or you can go find them! You might need a bit of help from the locals to find them.

The lights came to us both in Tromsø and in Abisko. It was playtime with little bears 🙂

Aurora display at Lyngen Lodge west of Tromsø
Aurora display at STF Abisko Touriststation

The tours from Tromsø essentially come under the category of chasing the northern lights, which means that the tour operators have a single focus, finding a location to see the lights. They will drive 150-200km if that is what it takes to find a spot with a clear sky and aurora activity. I did find it odd that in the small print of the tour from Tromsø with AuroraPhotoGuide it said to bring my passport, but now I know that they will go all the way to Finland if that is what it takes!

By comparison, the tours from Abisko, Sweden, and Rovaniemi and Levi, Finland, have a set location, and seeing the northern lights would be a nice experience while they are filling in the time with other activities. At least in Abisko we had a photography focus and took some interesting photos.

During the first “northern lights tour” in Rovaniemi I got quite cranky. I could imagine Geir (the aurora guide from Tromsø) saying, “did you come here to see the aurora or did you come here to cook sausages?” And worse, there were children everywhere! Needless to say, we didn’t see the northern lights. The cloud cover was thick and covered the sky as far as the eye could see. At the end of the night, the tour guide made so many cheesy comments about the failure of the tour that if I rolled my eyes any harder, they would have got stuck permanently backwards!

All the tours were pre-booked and paid for, so sausages or not, I went on a second tour in Rovaniemi the following night. There was an improvement, no children in sight! I mean, late nights, cold nights and children. What could possibly go wrong? The sky was perfectly clear but the aurora did not show up at that location. And we had to survive -25C while waiting for it! It took so long to cook the sausage that I gave up and ate it half cold!

I also scheduled two “northern lights night tours” in Levi, but cancelled the tour on the first night. It was cloudy with no chance of a clear sky, -25C was the maximum temperature that day!!! so I abandoned the tour, which was essentially snowshoeing. I went out on the second night for the experience of driving the snow mobile. I didn’t think we had any chance of seeing the lights, but I took my camera and tripod just in case. The snow mobile experience was a lot of fun, but we didn’t see any lights.

As for Iceland, we joined a tour called Northern Lights Escape. Yeah, right! Zero effort was made towards the northern lights aspect. Adding the ‘northern lights’ to the names of the tours has become a nifty marketing ploy. And if you get really lucky and see the lights, they will happily take the credit.

There are plenty of fun activities in all these places, but if you want to maximise your chances of seeing the northern lights, and getting some good photographs of them, you need to look for a tour like the ones in Tromsø where the focus is only the northern lights and nothing else. And stay off boats. They are not suitable for photographing the northern lights. If the ‘northern lights’ tour includes snow shoes, snow mobiles, huskies, reindeer or some other similar thing, then the focus is on the snow shoes, snow mobiles, etc. etc., and not on the northern lights. But a warning, a real northern lights night tour can take 6-7 hours to 2am. With no toilet break! Remember, you are not at an established location. Like Geir would say, did you come to see the northern lights or did you come to sleep?

Aurora display near Tromsø

Good luck!

Sibelius’ Helsinki

Sibelius’s work may not say “Helsinki”, but the city was central to his life. He studied there, premiered many of his works there, and wined and dined to excess there before building a retreat, which he named Ainola, after his wife, 30 miles north of the city. He is synonymous with Finland and Finnish music, and deservedly in any pantheon of great composers.

Main Building of the University of Helsinki
Jean Sibelius moved to Helsinki in 1885 to study law at the University of Helsinki and music at the Helsinki Music Institute. The Great Hall of the University was the city’s main concert hall at the time. He conducted there the first performances of nearly all his main orchestral compositions. Sibelius also served as the model for the pale-cloaked man in the centre panel of Albert Edelfelt’s fresco The Inauguration of the Royal Academy of Turku that adorns the wall of the Great Hall. Badly damaged by bombing in 1944, the original architecture from 1832 was altered. The acoustics suffered and the hall lost its position as a leading concert venue.

University of Helsinki, Main Building

National Library
The National Library of Finland houses the biggest collection of Sibelius’ musical manuscripts. Work on the complete critical edition Jean Sibelius Works began here in 1996. The edition is based on a thorough study of all surviving sources.

National Library, Finland
National Library, Finland

Helsinki Cathedral
Sibelius passed away on 20 September 1957. The funeral was held on 30 September in the Helsinki Cathedral. The coffin was brought to the church on the previous day, and that evening 17,000 people came to pay their respects to the great composer. Students formed the honour guard. Seven candles burned on the altar at the funeral, one for each of Sibelius’ symphonies. The laying of wreaths lasted two hours. Musicians carried the coffin out to the car, which then drove towards Järvenpää. People lined the way for the entire 40-kilometre journey. Sibelius was buried in the wooded garden of his home, Ainola.

Helsinki Cathedral
Helsinki Cathedral at dusk

Arppeanum, Snellmaninkatu 3
During his study years Sibelius played violin in the Academic Orchestra. The orchestra played in the university’s music hall in the Arppeanum, which also housed the university’s chemistry laboratory.


House of the Estates
Freemasonry was revived in Finland here on 18 August 1922, when Sibelius too was inducted. He later composed ritual music that is still used by the Freemasons in Finland and the USA.

House of the Estates
House of the Estates, Interior

City Hall
Originally built in 1833 as the Seurahuone Hotel, the City Hall building also housed a restaurant and banquet hall. Around 1900, the Helsinki Philharmonic Society Orchestra held here popular concerts that were often attended by Sibelius. His compositions were also performed; the first version of his Karelia Suite was premiered in 1893 at a charity concert in the banquet hall. In 1913 the City of Helsinki acquired the hotel and converted it into the City Hall. The interior underwent a brutal modernisation in the late 1960s, but the banquet hall was retained and is still used at times for concerts.

Helsinki City Hall

Doctor’s House, Fabianinkatu 17
In 1901 a group of doctors had an impressive Art Nouveau house built on the corner of the Kasarmitori square. Sibelius’ doctor from 1908 to 1919 was Dr. Wilhelm Zilliacus, who lived and worked here. Zilliacus was a strong opponent of Russian repression and supporter of the Finnish Jaeger movement – young men who had sought military training in Germany with the aim of liberating Finland. In 1917 he received a copy of the words for the Jaeger March, written by one of the Jaegers serving in Liepaja, Latvia, and smuggled into Finland. Zilliacus asked Sibelius to compose the music for the march. In great secrecy, Sibelius soon delivered the composition to Zilliacus, and it became a powerful symbol of independence.

Doctor’s House, Fabianinkatu 17, Helsinki
(now called Agronomitalo – Agronomy House)

Swedish Normal Lyceum, Unioninkatu 2
As early as the spring of 1886, Sibelius attracted attention as a violinist in the student concerts of the Music Institute held at this school (built in 1880). Some of his earliest compositions were performed for the first time here, including his highly acclaimed String Quartet in A Minor at the end of his studies in May 1889.

Helsinki Normal Lyceum

Around 1900, the Esplanade was the recreational heart of Helsinki where the young Sibelius too would spend his free time. Some of his favourite cafés and restaurants are still there, albeit much changed over the years. The Opera Cellar that opened in 1866 on the park side of the Svenska teatern is today a bar and nightclub, while König, which opened in 1892 at Mikonkatu 4, is now a disco and karaoke bar. The Esplanade was also lined by many banks that the chronically indebted composer would visit often, such as Wasa Bank (Eteläesplanadi 12) and the old Yhdyspankki (Aleksanterinkatu 36b), as well as the fine Art Nouveau bank halls at Pohjoisesplanadi 15 and 19 that now serve as cafés.

Kappeli, Eteläesplanadi 1
The café and restaurant Kappeli originally opened in 1867, while the current building dates back to 1891. Kappeli was a popular hangout among artists in Helsinki. Sibelius spent a lot of time there around 1900, either partying with his artist friends, sometimes for three or four days at time, dining out or simply enjoying a glass of sherry and a cigar.

He was once phoned by his wife asking him for a forecast of when he might come back home. “My dear, I am a composer. I am involved in the business of composing music, not delivering forecasts,” was the reply.

Kappeli Restaurant and Café
Kappeli Restaurant and Café
Kappeli Café

Kämp, Pohjoisesplanadi 29
Opened in 1887, Hotel Kämp was where Sibelius, together with several other composers and artists comprising the informal Symposium Circle, gathered to discuss art and to get spectacularly drunk.

By the end of the 1880s Sibelius was spending many evenings at Hotel Kämp among the “Leskovites”, a musical group of friends so called after the dog Lesko, who belonged to Ferruccio Busoni, piano teacher at the Music Institute. Between 1892 and 1894 another group, the Symposion, gathered at the Kämp comprising Sibelius, the painter Akseli GallĂ©n-Kallela and the conductor Robert Kajanus. Their spirited art discussions and merrymaking (ie cultured booze-fests) became legendary and were immortalised in the painter Gallen-Kallela’s Symposion.

Symposion, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1894

Sibelius continued to dine and stay at the Kämp into the 1930s.

The hotel eventually fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1967, but a section of the façade was restored for the bank building that was built on the spot in 1969. In 1999 the bank was converted back into a five-star hotel, but the interior does not correspond to the original design.

Lundqvist’s Palace of Commerce, Aleksanterinkatu 13
Radical young cultural intellectuals formed a circle around the Swedish-language literary magazine Euterpe in 1902 and convened at the magazine’s editorial offices in this building. Sibelius spent many long spirited evenings at these gatherings, ultimately leading him to move to the countryside in Tuusula in 1904.

Helsinki, Aleksanterinkatu 13

Svenska teatern (Swedish Theatre)
Completed in 1866, this building became the centre of Swedish-language theatre in Helsinki. Sibelius’ first theatre composition Kristian II debuted here in 1898. In 1899 Svenska teatern presented a tableau depicting episodes from Finnish history to the accompaniment of music by Sibelius. The piece Finland Awakens, meant as a covert protest against Russian oppression, captivated audiences and would evolve to become the symphonic poem Finlandia. The decorative façade of the theatre was simplified in 1935, but the main hall and foyer would still feel familiar to Sibelius.

Svenska Teatern (Swedish Theatre)

Hotel Klaus K, Bulevardi 2–Erottaja 4
In the 1880s there was a wooden building on the corner of the streets, and just up the hill was the brick Paersch building that housed a German school for girls. Founded in 1882, the Helsinki Music Institute originally leased premises in the school, where Sibelius studied from 1885 to 1889. The music institute held exams and concerts in the main hall of the Paersch building, and Sibelius himself often played there and performed his early compositions.

In 1913 an Art Nouveau building was completed on the corner. In 1920 this was joined to the Paersch building to form the Rake hardware store. A hotel opened in the building in 1938, and the hardware store closed in the 1970s. The main hall of the Paersch building was restored in the 1980s and renamed Rake Hall.

Helsinki, Rake Hall at Hotel Klaus K
Helsinki Klaus K Hotel

Old Student House
The Old Student House was built in 1870 as a centre for student parties, organisations and cultural activities. It included a music hall, where student choirs could rehearse, and a banquet hall, where concerts were held. Sibelius attended these concerts, and in 1889 he performed as the violin soloist for the Academic Orchestra. His performance was praised, but thereafter Sibelius buried his childhood dreams of becoming a violin virtuoso. Instead, Sibelius’ male choir pieces would be sung in the music hall from the 1890s onwards.

The banquet hall was damaged by fire in 1978 but fully restored. Choir singing was discontinued in 2013, as the Student Union felt it disrupted the building’s restaurant activities!

Helsinki Old Student House
Helsinki Old Student House Banquet Hall

Fennia, Mikonkatu 17
Sibelius stayed often at the Hotel Fennia (opened in 1898) when visiting Helsinki – sometimes for weeks at a time when he sought peace and quiet in which to compose. On Sibelius’ 70th anniversary 8 December 1935, a banquet was held here. The guests heard his second symphony broadcast live from New York.

Helsinki Hotel Fennia

Finnish National Theatre
Regular theatre productions in Finnish began in Helsinki in 1872, and the long-awaited national theatre building was completed in 1902. The theatre’s inauguration was a national celebration for which Sibelius composed the piece The Origin of Fire (Tulen synty). The most famous of his compositions that was premiered here, however, is Valse triste, which was originally composed in 1903 for the play Death (Kuolema) written by his brother-in-law Arvid Järnefelt.

Finnish National Theatre

Kaisaniemenkatu 1
In the early 1930s Sibelius tried to focus on composing his eighth symphony, and he spent long periods living in the hotel Karelia in this building. However, the composer grew increasingly self-critical and the symphony was never completed.

Helsinki Kaisaniemenkatu 1

Kalevankatu 45
Armas Järnefelt, future conductor and Sibelius’ friend, introduced him in 1888 to his sister Aino Järnefelt (1871–1969), and the two fell in love at first sight. Sibelius became a frequent guest at the Järnefelt’s home, befriending Aino’s brothers and adopting the family’s powerful patriotic sentiments.

Jean and Aino Sibelius married on 10 June 1892. The newlyweds rented an apartment at this address. The couple’s first child Eva was born here, and the first version of En Saga and the choral piece The Boat Journey (Venematka). The family moved out in spring 1893.

Helsinki Kalevankatu 45

Sibelius Academy, Pohjoinen Rautatiekatu 9
In 1924 the Helsinki Music Institute, where Sibelius had studied, became the Helsinki Conservatory. The school finally got its own building in 1931 and was renamed Sibelius Academy with the composer’s consent in 1938. Sibelius conducted for the last time on 1 January 1939 in the academy’s concert hall. The Radio Orchestra performed Andante festivo in a live broadcast for the World’s Fair in New York. The rehearsal for this concert is the only existing recording of music conducted by Sibelius.

Helsinki Music Centre (Musiikkitalo)
The Helsinki Music Centre opened in 2011 and houses the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra. The HPO was founded in 1882 and performed the premieres of many of Sibelius’ main works under his leadership. The Helsinki Music Centre is also home to the Sibelius Academy.

Sibelius Akatemia

Sibelius memorial oak
In 1941 the Helsinki Society and Helsinki’s male choirs planted an oak tree by the City Garden in honour of Sibelius, who had just moved back to the city.

Töölö Sports Hall
In the 1930s Sibelius was at the height of his fame in Scandinavia, the UK and the USA. His 70th birthday was an international media event, and the old composer was inundated by tributes. On his birthday, 8 December 1935, a concert was held in the new Exhibition Hall (now the southern end of Töölö Sports Hall). Sibelius enjoyed the acclaim but afterwards no longer wished to appear in public due to his shaking hands.

Sibeliuksenkatu 11
In 1939 the Sibelius family rented a large apartment at Kammionkatu 11 A where they planned to stay during the winters. Their first stay was cut short by the Winter War, but from autumn 1940 to summer 1941 they lived in Töölö. Aino enjoyed living in the city, Jean less so. With the outbreak of the Continuation War in 1941, they decided to remain in Ainola in the countryside, and they gave up their city apartment in 1942.

Helsinki Sibeliuksenkatu 11

Sibelius Park and Sibeliuksenkatu
Sibelius’ acclaim in Finland was approaching hero worship, and as he grew older his birthdays were celebrated with ever more grandeur. In 1945, when Sibelius turned 80, the City of Helsinki named this park Sibelius Park. In 1965, to mark the 100th anniversary of Sibelius’ birth, Kammionkatu, the street where the composer lived for a short period, was renamed Sibeliuksenkatu.

Helsinki Sibelius Park

Sibelius-monumentti, Sibeliuksen puisto
The Sibelius Society organised a design competition for a memorial to the composer. It was won in 1962 by Eila Hiltunen’s entry Passio Musicae. The abstract design initially provoked a lot of controversy, but the issue was resolved by adding Sibelius’ bust to Hiltunen’s work. The Sibelius Monument was inaugurated in 1967 and soon became one of the most popular tourist attractions in Helsinki.

Helsinki Sibelius Monument
Sibelius Monument
Sibelius Monument

Kallio Cathedral, Itäinen Papinkatu 2
The most played Sibelius’ work, Kellokoraali (bell choral) for seven bells, has rung out for over hundred years daily at 12pm and 6pm from the tower of the Art Nouveau Kallio Cathedral (completed in 1912).

Helsinki Kallio Cathedral

An Alvar Aalto Tour of Helsinki

Anyone who has visited an Apple store will have sat in the sleek High Stool 64 created by Finnish designer Alvar Aalto. His curvaceous Savoy vase is still an icon of Finnish design 81 years after its creation. But these internationally known pieces are not the basis for Aalto’s title as the father of Modernism. His true claim to fame is his architectural prolificacy, and his distinctive Nordic Modernist style is on display throughout Finland, his home country.

During the course of the 20th Century, Aalto’s Modernist style – defined by the concept of functionalism – changed and matured, resulting in experimentation with particular materials like his “red brick period” and other styles such as Monumentalism, which is defined by massive, monumental buildings. In later years, his inclination for functionalism was often tempered with elements of humanism, in particular a softening of corners and an abundant use of wood and other natural materials.

Where Aalto was consistent – and original – was his devotion to the idea of Gensamkunstwerk (“total work of art”), where his buildings incorporated many different art forms, including craftsmanship, interior design and landscape design. He even dabbled in urban planning, lending his artistic vision to designs of university campuses and city centres.

Over the course of his 55-year career, Aalto worked on some 500 building projects, about 400 of which are in Finland.

There was a fortuitous practical side to Aalto’s success; having found favour with a rich industrialist, Harry Gullichsen, and his wife Maire, a series of important commissions suddenly came his way. A new residential area for employees of the Sunila factory was built under his direction in 1936-9, one of Finland’s first housing estates in the modernist context. As such, it could also take its inspiration from such 19th century prototypes as Bourneville, near Birmingham, which the Quaker Cadbury family had constructed for their workers. Like Bourneville, too, it could also be seen to have a social dimension, one in which the well-being of employees could be married to a prosperous democratic vision of the good society.

From the iceberg angles of Finlandia Hall to the ubiquitous curves of his iconic L-leg furniture, Aalto’s presence in Helsinki is inescapable. Visiting the landmarks of Aalto’s life and work is to discover the principles of functionality, a devotion to natural materials and a minimalist beauty that have all helped characterise Scandinavian design since the 1920s, and continued to drive its popularity to this day.

Any tour of Alvar Aalto’s Helsinki ought to begin at The Aalto House, unless you happen to be in Helsinki on the only days when public tours are not available! The Aalto House and Studio are open through guided tours only with days set aside for organised group tours only.

The Aalto House and Studio was the family home and working studio built by Aalto and his first wife, Aino, in 1936. Nestled in the residential neighbourhood of Munkkiniemi, a seaside neighbourhood that was barely developed when Aalto designed and built the home, the house is in largely the same condition as it was when Aalto lived here up until his death in 1976. The very fact that he inhabited this house for over 40 years speaks volumes about the philosophy that informed his attitude towards life and design. Never one for indulgence or over-embellishment, The Aalto House was constructed around ideas of comfortable functionality that would last for years.

Aino Aalto died in 1949, but Aalto continued to live here – later with his second wife, architect and author Elissa Mäkiniemi (1922-1994) – until his own death in 1976. Elissa Mäkiniemi continued to run the practice, and to live in the Aalto House, until she died in 1994.

(L) The Aalto House-studio in the 1930s
(R) Family life at the Aalto House in the 1930s
(L) The fully functioning Studio Aalto in the 1960s
(R) Alvar Aalto at work

Containing distinct studio and living spaces, the home exemplifies the functionalism of Aalto’s early career, with such practical features as a walk-in closet in the bedroom (unusual at that time) and a two-sided china cabinet that is accessible from both the kitchen and the dining room. But the plentiful use of natural materials, including a dining room wall covered in brown suede, hints at the humanist bend his designs would take in the coming years.

The simple appearance of the house masks a complex, even experimental, structural framework that incorporates load-bearing brick walls, timber cladding, steel columns and a concrete structure supporting the ceiling – a mishmash of architectural ideas that is counterbalanced by the stylistic coherence of the building’s interior. As expected, wood dominates inside, from the living room floorboards through to the 1920s Italian dining chairs (purportedly bought on Alvar and Aino’s honeymoon) and the large sliding screen that separates the house’s domestic area from the studio space. The studio was the home of Aalto’s architectural practice from 1936 to 1955, until the gradual growth of the business rendered the space obsolete and the team was forced to move five minutes away to a new location named Studio Aalto.

“Alvar’s idea for a studio at The Aalto House represented an important change in ideas of workspace for an architect in the mid-30s,” explains Malmberg. “This is like an artist’s studio, with a large window facing north providing uniform light, whereas the newer space [at Studio Aalto] has windows on all sides to maximise the sunlight coming in.”

Aalto House exterior today
Aalto House interior today
Aalto House living room

As Aalto’s career progressed, he needed more room to work, and in 1955 he designed a separate atelier nearby, Studio Aalto. The curving walls of this white-washed building arc around a courtyard amphitheatre, a space that was used for client presentations and meetings. Bay windows and skylights allow for plenty of natural light – ideal for examining documents and drawings. Every last detail was designed to enhance the aesthetic and work environment.

Studio Aalto is reminiscent of a modern architectural workspace with large desks, computer screens and scale models. Despite Aalto’s death in 1976, Studio Aalto remained as a working practice until the Alvar Aalto Foundation took over the building in 1994. A small group of architects still work there today maintaining Aalto’s built legacy, which includes nearly 200 major projects.

Studio Aalto today

Like the Aalto House, Studio Aalto is experimental in its form. The only office in the nearby residential area, the building seems to, quite literally, turn its back on the neighbourhood, merely revealing a white wall to the street. Inside, the structure curves around a courtyard and amphitheatre (used for film screenings in Aalto’s day), revealing one of the crucial ideas behind the designer’s architectural practice.

It is from this studio that Aalto designed some of his most celebrated works.

After the Second World War erupted, there were important commissions of a more practical nature to preoccupy the architect. The requirement of providing vital accommodation for those in desperate need of cheap housing came to dominate his work. During the war, Aalto had already come to see standardized housing as the only viable solution to massive displacements. In quest of inspiration, he travelled extensively in the US, seeking efficient prototypes. Thus, when he became involved with the development of the suburb of Haaga, in the hands of a private cooperative association, prefabricated elements played a major role. This approach, with its theoretical background, he was able to popularize through the good offices of the Finnish novelist Mika Waltari, author of the world-famous novel, The Egyptian (1945), who assisted him in the production of a booklet on the subject. A sculpture to the memory of Waltari by Veikko Kirvimäki was erected in 1985 near the Hesperia Hospital, not far from where the novelist lived.

In 1953-5, Aalto built his famous Iron House (Rautatalo) at Keskuskatu 3A. Based upon a simple plan making efficient use of a very constricted site, shops occupy most of the building, in which Artek was formerly situated in the basement, while Marimekko opened, along with other offices, at the top. There is also a spacious interior courtyard on the first floor, containing cafés. In constructional terms, it is the first building in which Aalto made use of marble and travertine for his stepped galleries, incorporated into what is basically a structure of reinforced concrete.

This was followed later in 1955 by the House of Culture, a major concert venue situated at Sturenkatu 4 in the centre of town. A five-story curvaceous building (also containing offices) faced in brick with copper elements, it includes an asymmetrical concert hall accommodating 1,500 people as well as a congress wing. Studio Aalto at Tiilimäki 20 was designed the same year.

House of Culture

His House of Culture in Sturenkatu (Sturegatan), built between 1955 and 1958, was the first great musical venue to appear in the Finnish capital since before the Second World War. Basically composed of two separate units, one side contains the concert hall, with its voluptuous curves and richly textured red brick walls. The other is a five-story office block, adorned by a copper-plated façade, somewhat withdrawn from the street and joined to the other unit by a canopied bridge-like section at the rear.

House of Culture

In 1962, Aalto built the administration building of the pulp and paper company Stora Enso, with its marble cladding, just over the bridge on Katajanokka. This was followed in 1965 by his new plan for the complete redevelopment of Helsinki’s centre. Designed to be carried out in two stages, little of it actually ever came to fruition and his great vision, based upon the purest concepts of modernity, was never fully realized. This had consisted of a fan-shaped square, with terraced buildings, along the western shore of Töölö Bay. Only one component was finally constructed, Finlandia Hall. It provided the city with the most important concert hall since the White Hall was constructed for that purpose on Senate House Square in 1925.

Finlandia Hall

Finlandia Hall is easily Finland’s most recognisable building. Rising up from beautiful Töölönlahti Bay in the middle of the city, this modest white fortress is a breathtaking sight to behold.

While the visual effect is imposing and impressive from the outside, the purpose of the auditorium’s high roof was to enhance the acoustics on the inside (with limited success). and the warm interiors reflect nature’s own hues and forms. Finlandia Hall is stunning at any time of day but come at night and you will see a spectacular display of light as the hall is reflected in the bay.

Finlandia Hall

With a façade decorated by a mĂ©lange of Carrara marble and black granite, it reflects Aalto’s late-career interest in Monumentalism. The main auditorium was built in 1971 and the Congress wing, with a number of conference halls, completed some four years later. As such, it is the only building in Aalto’s great plan for Helsinki of the years 1967-71 to be constructed. The principal auditorium of the concert hall accommodates 1,750 people — a sharp contrast with that of the White Hall, which only holds 400; there is also smaller hall for chamber music, seating 350.

Finlandia Hall – main auditorium
Finlandia Hall – main auditorium

The premises he built in 1969 on the Pohjoisesplanadi, opposite Stockmann’s, for the Academic Bookstore took inspiration from his much earlier work at the Library in Viipuri and has become one of Aalto’s best-loved buildings in the city centre.

Academic Bookstore (Akademiska Bokhandeln) – great selection of books, in all major languages

The Akademiska Bokhandeln (or Academic Bookstore) in the heart of Helsinki’s commercial district is fronted by a rectilinear shell of dark copper – a somewhat austere contrast to the atrium space of the bookshop’s ground floor, which is flanked by white marble staircases and sits below stunning, angular skylights. It is the largest bookshop in Helsinki and features an extensive English language books section, which contains work by Finnish writers.

The Academic Bookstore lies at one end of the Esplanade, which consists of two major shopping strips full of essential Finnish design stores including Marimekko, Iittala and Aalto’s own Artek.

Artek store
Artek – Ball chair by Eero Aarnio
Artek – Cute miniature chairs 🙂

Another pit stop for furniture enthusiasts is Artek 2nd Cycle Store, a veritable Aladdin’s cave of vintage stools and armchairs. The store was set up in 2011 to refurbish and repurpose pre-owned pieces of furniture from Artek and other classic designers besides Aarto, including Ilmari Tapiovaara and Charles and Ray Eames.

On the south side of the Esplanade, Ravintola Savoy (Savoy Restaurant) sits atop the Industrial Palace building, where it has overlooked the city since 1937. The bespoke furniture designed especially for the site by Aalto and his first wife Aino combined with the views over Helsinki make the Savoy a special site in itself. And that’s all before you taste the authentically Finnish menu by head chef Kari Aihinen, whose dishes include octopus carpaccio, fillet of deer and cloudberry pastries.

Chef Kari Aihinen of Ravintola Savoy, Helsinki

Main course – Grilled pike perch and lobster , butternut squash and red wine and orange sauce
Selection of Petit Sevens 🙂 by Savoy’s Pastry Chef – including a cherry macaroon!