The Building of Finland

Finland's architectural heritage before the 20th century incorporates Swedish, Russian, and Viking motifs into buildings that often seem to arise from the human subconscious as interpreted by Scandinavian mythology. More than in any other nation, Finland's identity is intimately associated with its postwar architecture.

The architectural landscape of Finland is relatively young -- more than 90% of the country's structures were built after 1920. Part of this is because of Finland's ongoing struggle to survive during the many years it swung back and forth between the orbits of the often-violent regimes of Sweden and Russia. Much of the destruction during the 20th century was initiated by Nazi Germany, to a somewhat lesser degree by the Soviet Union. In some cases, however (as occurred in such "lost" provinces as Karelia, which was painfully ceded to the Soviets after World War II), it was the Finns who burned their buildings.


At least some of the impetus for postwar rebuilding came from the government's passage of the "Arava System," which, in an attempt to honor the sacrifices of Finns during the war, offered state-subsidized loans to construct houses. So many utilitarian objects were created and so many homes were built between 1940 and 1958 that Finns refer to this period as "The Age of Heroic Materialism." Everything from armaments to medicine were marshaled into programs designed for the good (and the survival) of the Finnish nation.

In many cases, the signature of the individual architect could rarely be discerned in the typical private home. Throughout Finland, many dwellings were designed as a simple cube, warmed with a centrally located stove (often wood-burning) and capped with a steeply pitched roof that sheltered a high attic suitable for conversion into additional bedrooms.

Alvar Aalto (1898-1976), an architect whose comfortably minimalist and sometimes eccentric designs are now intertwined with the Finnish aesthetic, became an important visionary in the postwar rebuilding of Finland. His work was already known to connoisseurs, thanks to his designs for the Finnish Pavilions at the Paris World's Fair of 1937 and the New York World's Fair of 1939.


A noteworthy (and pragmatic) moment in Aalto's career included designing a series of standardized wood-sided homes partially prefabricated in a Finnish lumber yard. By 1943, during an unexpected lull in the hostilities of World War II, 14 two-family homes designed by Aalto were completed, launching him into a postwar career that shifted his focus from classicism to functionalism and that continued at a fast pace throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

Since then, Aalto has been referred to as "a vitalist to whom nothing human was alien." Bold but tasteful, he developed the Finnish preference for exposed wood and free forms into undemonstrative, functional, and nurturing buildings that are noteworthy for their cost-effectiveness, comfort, and sense of style. Important commissions often incorporated fieldstone and red brick, poured concrete and, later, large expanses of white stone, marble, or plaster. Noteworthy buildings include such monuments as the Säynätsalo Town Hall (completed in 1952); the Sunila pulp mill, which included a new town (Kotka) to house its workers; some of the buildings on the campus of the University of Jyväskylä (completed in 1966); the main building of Helsinki University in Otaniemi (built between 1955 and 1964); and Finlandia Hall, Helsinki's main symphonic concert hall, completed in 1971. Other commissions included hospitals, libraries (such as the one at Viipuri), and private homes, some filled with the distinctive laminated wood furniture for which he and his wife, Aino (who died in 1949), eventually became world famous.

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