As I was pacing the sidewalk outside Finlandia Hall, trying to photograph the entire length of its facade, my mother asked why I was so interested in the back of the building. The famous concert hall by Alvar Aalto lies tucked between Mannerheimintie, Helsinki’s handsome main street, and a service road. And one could make a very compelling argument that its back — the side facing the service road — is actually its front. There are balconies there where concertgoers can congregate during intermission and peer north into the pretty park around Töölö Lake. While the street facade is low and plain, its rhythms interrupted by stands of tall trees, the service road facade features runs of stairs breaking through and hanging below the interminably long wall like notes on a staff. Yet there you are, standing by the service road, while you’re taking it all in. Perhaps the healthiest position to take is that the building has no front at all.
What’s amazing is how sprawling the hall is, like a cake that didn’t set properly. I wanted very badly for the building to be a heroic, mountain-like, sculpted mass. But it looks, from the outside, almost like a student project, where that student has diagrammed each item in the client’s program (entrance lobby, ticket booth, hallway, small auditorium, large auditorium…) and strung them together. The concert hall in Oslo is also low and long, but it’s unified; one senses the heart within. Finlandia Hall remains an enigma. This is not a building that was made to be looked at.
How is a contemporary art museum different from any other kind of art museum? And how is a museum different from any other kind of building? Kiasma, the contemporary art gallery in Helsinki designed by Steven Holl, might be the perfect showcase for contemporary art. Museums with similar programs, like PS1 and Mass MoCA, both adaptations of existing buildings, seem to have been designed primarily to accommodate the humongous scale of so much contemporary work, as well as an increased focus on sculpture and installations. Kiasma has been designed to house the art, and delight visitors, in an array of galleries that are diverse in size, proportion and character. The result is a warm, welcoming gallery for a kind of art that is, oftentimes, not.
The most surprising thing about the building is its gentleness. Kiasma, which Holl won in a design competition, opened in 2008, at at time when he was regarded as a rock star in the United States. Publicity photos showing the building’s sweeping interior ramp made the museum seem highly expressive, sculptural, and idiosyncratic — another signature work from another over-regarded post-postmodern architect. But the building is astoundingly fluid; one moves through it effortlessly. A great deal of this is due to the careful composition, scaled beautifully for the moving body and alert to the picturesque. And a great deal of it is due to the judicious use of daylight, which is carried into the galleries through concealed windows and skylights. It’s a wonderful place to see contemporary art and, probably, just about anything.
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.