Richelle Sibolboro

My Helsinki Design & Architecture Travel Guide: Top Ten Must-See Places

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Helsinki was never on my list of cities to go to. It was when I was invited to talk in St. Petersburg for a design conference that my friend (who knows my love for design and architecture well) suggested that because I’m so north already, why not go further north to Helsinki. She said, go see all the works by Aalto (see my future blog posts where I visit Aalto’s Studio and Aalto’s House).

I will be honest, I really didn’t do much planning or research about the city. I had known it was designated as a World Design Captial, and several years earlier when I was working for World Design Weeks I knew its headquarters was located in Helsinki and of course Aalto. Luckily I had met a local Finn during my conference and she gave me a list of places to see. It’s also something I’ve learned with my many years of traveling. Sometimes it’s best to just discover as you go.

If you have a limited number of days in Helsinki, you can do the entire city in 3 days. That’s how many I allocated for myself and it was enough. I was also traveling in March so not much to experience with respect to nature because it’s just too damn cold. So for all you design and architecture travel lovers, here are my top places to visit if you ever find yourself in this Nordic capital.

  1. Market Square

From this location, you can take in the majestic sea and get great images of the Supreme Court, the Parliament, the Senate, the Presidental Palace, and the Cathedral. I would take some time to go into the Central Market and try some local delicacies like a Reindeer sandwich.


2. Aalto Library, Artex & Marimekko

Next, if you love modern design, I would make your way to the Aalto Library, Artex, and Marimekoo for some window shopping (and maybe real shopping:). Here you get to see how Scandinavian/Nordic has influenced our modern sensibilities in terms of interior, graphic, fashion, and product design in the west. Oh, one day I will furnish my home will all these beautiful objects.


3. Kamppi Chapel

Next, make your way to Narinkka Square where Kamppi Chapel, designed by K2S Architects Ltd. sits in complete awe. It is also known as the “Chapel of Silence” and intended to be a place to calm down and have a moment of silence in one of the busiest areas in Finland. The chapel is ecumenical and welcomes everyone irrespective of religion, philosophy of life or background. The chapel’s overall design (both on the interior and exterior) is very austere and simplistic, as well as mostly neutral, bearing some semblance to a multi-faith prayer room. The chapel demonstrates how contemporary architecture at its best can fascinate and inspire.


4. Temppeliaukio Church / Church of the Rock / Rock Church

From a contemporary structure located in the middle of the city to one built into solid rock. Built into the bedrock, designed by Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen, is a place of worship is accessed from the street level. The elliptical church hall is bathed in daylight, which passes into the hall from the narrow skylights between the rock wall and the copper ceiling dome. The inner surface of the dome is clad in copper tape requiring a length of 22 km. the diameter of the dome is 24 meters, and the highest point is 13 meters from the floor. The excavation surface of the walls has been left rough for acoustic and aesthetic reasons. Water trickling from cracking in the rock, which is led away along channels proceeding under the floor, adds vibrancy to the stone surfaces. The height of the walls is 5-9 meters. The altar wall of the church hall is split in the rock dating back to the Ice Age. The altar table is granite, the floor of the hall is polished concrete and the pews are made of birch wood. If you appreciate the sheer beauty and materiality of creating a structure like this, I would recommend going to the upper level to get a really breathtaking view of the whole interior in its glory.


5. Oodi Helsinki Central Library

So, when my Finnish friend suggested going to the library. I was a little taken back with her suggestion. Really? A library? But when I got a glimpse of this beauty. I totally understood why. When I asked a local how they get such beautiful buildings built…because, in Canada, anything built for the public is pretty ugly, they said that they pay high taxes.

What blew me away with this space is that Oodi, designed by ALA Architects, is what you want it to be. It’s a library where you can borrow books. It’s a place where you can just chill and read magazines. There’s a cafe inside the library so you can enjoy lunch, work, or hang out. There are meeting rooms, a massive area for 3D printing and gaming. The Finns have really figured out how to create a true cultural hub.

The undulating space continues from the exterior, throughout the interior spaces, connecting the floors with a musical interplay of glass, wood, and majestic views. The volumes although massive in scale create very intimate spaces, almost embracing the visitor to contemplate and stay awhile.


6. Finlandia Hall

From the top floor of the Oodi you can see Finlandia Hall, the next stop on our design and architectural tour of Helsinki. Design by Alvar Aalto, this building, all clad in white marble is a conference and event space. The structure expresses a type of modernism in which form did not necessarily dictate function but small details do play a crucial role in the overall composition and subtle decorative manner of the building. I would recommend taking a walk behind the building where you can capture a magnificent panorama.

7. Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art

It wouldn’t be a proper design and architecture tour without a trip to the museum. Design by Steven Holl, Kiasma comes from the Greek chiasma, meaning “crossing”. The word denotes the crossing of nerves or ligaments, as well as the way chromosomes twist together. The name reflects the museum’s mission: Kiasma is a place for crossings and perspectives of the most varied kind. And what is impressive with this concept of crossing is also expressed in the interior design of the spaces. The angular shapes create a sense of movement that gently cross each other at every level.

8. Amos Rex

From one museum to another, Amos Rex brings us back into the city center, or more specifically beneath. The museum serves as a link between past and present. The area’s oldest stratum is the 19th-century Turku Barracks’ commercial building on the western side of the Square. The Lasipalatsi “glass palace” in Finnish, which represents the last century, houses the new art at the museum’s entrances and foyers, administrative offices, and the Bio Rex cinema. The modern exhibition spaces and work rooms are in the new edifice beneath the Square, their sculptural form brings forth the new century onto the site.

The domes were cast on-site out of steel-reinforced concrete which spans the new exhibition galleries. Their vault shape is structurally optimal and allows for wide, pillar-free spaces, for which flexibility is of crucial importance. The skylights that intentionally open in specific directions look out onto recognizable details of the surroundings, such as the chimney in the middle of the Square. Creating a peek-a-boo concept and link between the subterranean museum and the surrounding city. What I particularly liked about the design was how the repetition of circles was carried throughout the space. Not overly done and yet cleverly positioned. The bathroom is worth taking a peek at.


9. City Center

Now it wouldn’t be a guide if there wasn’t some shopping involved. Head your way back to the City Center where you can see how the Finns have perfectly linked the identity of the center with simple yet clear graphic design work. Within this area you can see the Helsinki Train Station and do some real damage at Stockmann department store.


10. Allas Sea Pool

And, finallu to round out the list, some much-needed R&R at Allas Sea Pool. The Finns are known for having a sauna in almost every household, so it would only be customary to enjoy in their most beloved pastime. What drew me to this location than others was the view of course. Here you get to see and swim in front of the palace…remember stop #1? Now, the Finns like to do the sauna naked, and being a very conservative Canadian there is no obligation to go full monty because you can wear your bathing suit. After spending time in the sauna, you can choose to swim in the pool which is semi-heated, or swim directly in the sea. Don’t worry, the lifeguards come with you to the sea to make sure you don’t have a heart attack because of the cold. And yes, ladies and gentlemen, I did take a dip in the sea, and it was March! After spending a day here, fuel your body at their restaurant, and treat yourself!

All images by Richelle Sibolboro

Richelle Sibolboro

Design strategist and content creator for hire with a passion for arts and culture specifically in design, architecture, and travel. She has produced content for designboom, Azure magazine, Open City Projects, Digifest, and World Design Weeks. Follow her on Instagram and LinkedIn.

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