Helsinki

Finland’s shape on the map is cut like a dancing woman. The snows of the Arctic are in her hair, her dress swirls with forest and lakeland. On her ankle is fashioned the elegant bracelet of Helsinki. The Finnish capital is relatively new, planned in straight lines yet fitting naturally into its marine setting. Religious temples form an exotic skyline. None more so than Helsinki Cathedral, the white neo-classical confection that is the most usual postcard image of the city. This is where we begin, climbing the dauntingly steep steps of its plinth. The day is appropriately blue and white, up at these latitudes we can almost touch the dome of the sky, see pale stars glimmer behind its glass.

   Helsinki excites the designer’s muse. No surprise that it’s designated the World Design Capital for 2012. That subtly cool skill of the Scandinavian, twisting artistic impulse into  the fashion and fabric of the city itself, is given an added exuberance by the Finns. They are noticeably a different crew than their neighbours, the Russian and the Swedes. They speak a different language, unrelated to the Indo-European of most of us; Hungarian and Estonian its only kin. 

  Like us, the Finns have suffered the overbearing attention of powerful neighbours. The Swedes founded the city as Helsingfors, running the show here until the early nineteenth century. The Swedish Theatre still stands proud on the Esplanadi, catering to the Swedish speaking remnant. It is only a century since Finns first outnumbered Swedes here, now Swedes comprise under ten per cent of the population. 

   The Russians established Helsinki as capital of their Finnish province and initiated its transformation into a city. Styled somewhat along the same neo-classical lines as St Petersburg, architect Carl Engel established the central focus of the city at Senate Square on a hill overlooking the South Harbour. The Cathedral dominates the skyline and provides a superb platform from which to admire the expansive city floating on the blue Baltic. 

   The parallel thoroughfares of the Esplanadi, each side of a slim green park, make for an elegant main street. Bronze dames dance naked in the park but whatever controversy they once aroused has now subsided. It is the place for summer strollers, bandstand music and cafe society. Sidewalk drinkers perch outside elegant establishments, devoting their full attention to people watching. Cafe Kappelli is the popular place, an ornate conservatory blending with the greenery. It is crowded on this hot summer day, but we grab a beer at a nearby kiosk and sit and watch the world go by. Some of it anyway. We are amused at the sight of the worst display of human statuary in the world. A man with a beer crate and a spiderman suit, and a brass neck.  

   The Esplanadi merges into Market Square along the seafront. Small pleasure boats and taxis bring a pleasant maritime flavour into the city’s heart. A lively market is laid out along the quays. Above, standing proud on a crag is a reminder of Russian days. Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral is full of eastern exuberance, sounding a strange, but pleasant note against the more rational symphony of architecture. 

  Nationalist confidence brought creative fervour. The zeitgeist manifested itself in Art Nouveau, Jugendstil in Finnish. The city boasts many fine examples of the style. The Central Railway Station, designed by Eliel Saarinen, is the most striking. The soaring clock tower is its distinctive landmark feature. Up close, we find the entrance guarded by four stone giants, each holding a spherical lamp. The interior doesn’t disappoint either. Coolly elegant, the design lends serenity to what is usually a hectic environment. It must be a pleasure to travel by rail here.

   Helsinki is very modern. A hundred years ago under one hundred thousand people lived here, today it is home to more than a million. Trams speed busily above ground, the metro beavers away below. To the north the extensive Olympic centre hosted the 1952 games. Finns set great store by athletic achievement. Their great Olympian, Paavo Nurmi, merits a statue, though he was hardly a person to encompass stasis. Set amongst the parkland that is such a feature of the city, the stadia and village are a monument to the greatness possible when a small nation believes.

 Alvar Alto, designer and architect, came to define the modern era. A leading figure of functionalist design, Finlandia Hall typifies the inherent style and musicality of the city. Sound and vision combine again at Tempeliaukio, The Church of the Rock is built underground; a hollow of bare rock with light streaming in from above. The design happily encompasses superb acoustics. Infested with tourists, including ourselves, there is still a pervasive hush as a pianist serenades us to the music of Sibelius. 

  We buy a strange, yet appropriate ornament. An old antique shop on an undulating, San Francisco-esque street, provides a magical interlude hinting at olden days. In the palm of your hand, four dancing ladies sashay, white with blue trim. They could be Finnish, or oriental, it is hard to tell. Perhaps they’re Lapp dancers. 

   It is hard to tell, in this imaginative city, which of the orient or the occident prevail. At sixty degrees north, lines of longitude converge and the human experience grows ever more unique and rare. Helsinki, tenuously connected to the past, embraces the present and the future. Confident, creative, individually and collectively; where such virtues pervade, dreams can be made.

 

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