Helsinki is like Milan, a city that’s infused with both old and new energies. In the monstrous, postmodern urban plaza near our hotel, lined with high-rise apartments and shopping malls, there were stands selling African food and a DJ broadcasting hip hop. And at the other end of the plaza there was Mannerheimintie, the broad, bustling cobblestone avenue that cuts through the city center, anchored by a cluster of impossibly stately nineteenth-century buildings. With dark brick, copper roofs, and cast stone details, they have a consistently fine level of ornament that makes them feel more lively than similar buildings in central Stockholm and Copenhagen. They give the city tremendous gravity, and also a compelling backdrop for contemporary goings-on.
No doubt the jewels of the old buildings, both right on Mannerheimintie, are Helsinki Central Station and The National Museum of Finland. They were designed by Eliel Saarinen, before the great architect left the country to take a teaching residency at Cranbrook Academy in Michigan. While they’re built with the same materials and in the same scale as surrounding buildings, their facades are decorated with a unique theatricality. They’ve got exquisite stone and metal details, and are brought to life with some marvelous figures. There are two giant male caryatids flanking the Station’s front entrance, holding disc-shaped lamps in front like religious offerings, and a proud black bear at the entrance steps to the Museum that roars in welcome. Yet the buildings don’t feel like stage sets; they have the naturalness of mountains.