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Helsinki Journal

Helsinki, Finland's biggest city and its capital since 1917, is a breezy, fresh city surrounded on three sides by water and small islands. It was founded in the mid-16th century by Sweden's King Gustav Vasa as a bridge between Stockholm and St. Peterburg when Finland was owned by Sweden. Finland's language is derived from slavic roots and is actually closer to Hungarian. But the forested countryside surrounding the city, and Helsinki's's citizens' love of nature and modern design are very much in common with its neighbors to the west. The city's compact venue makes it an ideal city to explore. We visited Helsinki in July, when the days were 20 hours long, with no perceptible darkness at night. We were especially interested in visiting the homes and studios of Finland's best known architects, Eliel Saarinen and Alvar Aalto. We were not disappointed. Both sites were filled with the masters' original furnishings that gave us insight as to what it was like to live in their world. And wherever we went, we were welcomed by Helsinki's friendly people, proud of their beautiful city.

Helsinki's Lutheran Cathedral - One of Helsinki's iconic most landmarks, the Lutheran Cathedral, was designed by German architect Carl Ludvig Engel in the neo-classic style popular in the early 19th century.

Aall Aabout Aalto: Alvar Aalto's Home - Alvar Aalto (b 1898) is Finland's 'Father of Modernist Architecture". Born only 20 years after Saarinen, his work looks to the future, while Saarinen celebrated the past. Most of his early works were commercial buildings in Finland, but he gained international recognition when he designed the Finnish Pavilion for the 1937 New York World's Fair. Frank Lloyd Wright himself described the the undulating wood space as a 'work of genius'. Interestingly, the word aalto means 'wave' in Finnish. The wavy line became Aalto's trademark, and we see it not only in his buildings but in everything he invented, including his world famous Savoy vase and modern bent wood furniture. We were able to visit his house which he built in 1935 and lived in his entire life. It originally was also his office/studio, but he moved that to a larger space in 1955. While we were touring the house we couldn't help but notice how small the house was, and quite unassuming. You can see how he used his own furniture designs through out the house, adapting the placement for every need. Virtually everything in the house is original.

Helsinki Central Railroad Station by Eliel Saarinen - Eliel Saarinen (b. 1873) is one of Finland's best known architects who help create the National (Art Nouveau) Romantic movement inspired by the Seurasaari outdoor park . The Helsinki Railroad Station is one of his most famous buildings.

The Open Air Market - Helsinki has a great open air market right on the harbor. At 6:30 in the morning it is already full daylight and the vegetables and berries looked beautiful.

Aall Aabout Aalto: Alvar Aalto's Home - Alvar Aalto (b 1898) is Finland's 'Father of Modernist Architecture". Born only 20 years after Saarinen, his work looks to the future, while Saarinen celebrated the past. Most of his early works were commercial buildings in Finland, but he gained international recognition when he designed the Finnish Pavilion for the 1937 New York World's Fair. Frank Lloyd Wright himself described the the undulating wood space as a 'work of genius'. Interestingly, the word aalto means 'wave' in Finnish. The wavy line became Aalto's trademark, and we see it not only in his buildings but in everything he invented, including his world famous Savoy vase and modern bent wood furniture. We were able to visit his house which he built in 1935 and lived in his entire life. It originally was also his office/studio, but he moved that to a larger space in 1955. While we were touring the house we couldn't help but notice how small the house was, and quite unassuming. You can see how he used his own furniture designs through out the house, adapting the placement for every need. Virtually everything in the house is original.

Energy Efficient Washing Machines - While on our visit to Aalto's house and studio we walked over to a nearby lake. This area is only 20 minutes from the center of town, and the modern houses nearby are lovely. On this day, as always, we found people enjoying the weather, picnicing on the grass and the beach. Then we saw a curious sight. When I walked over to investigate, we saw how the Finnish people save on energy costs: they were vigorously scrubbing their handwoven or polypropylene rugs on a specially built dock (with a wringer as well), using biodegradable soap. The ladies were very friendly and explained (in Finnish, of course) that this made perfect sense. There's no way to get the rugs cleaner than washing them in clean lake and letting them dry in the sun, plus it's good exercise and a chance to catch up on the news. Everyone does it and it's a great way to keep the community close. This is the epitome of Finland: traditions that make sense are part of the modern life.

Suomenlinna - We took a ferry to one of the nearby islands to visit Suomenlinna. Here one can find a fortress and accompanying buildings built in the mid 18th c. when Finland was owned by Sweden. The site now serves as a pleasant escape from the city and Helsinki's citizens can enjoy a stroll though the fields of flowers and views of the harbor. As throughout Finland, the buildings are painted in traditional warm gold and ochre tones.

Inside Helsinki's Kiasma Museum - Designers and architects come to Helsinki to see the great architecture of Saarinen and Aalto but they enjoy the new as well. The Finns embrace modern architecture and show their appreciation for it throughout the city. One fine example is the new Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by American Stephen Holl in 1998. Absolutely beautiful and inspiring.

A Visit to Eliel Saarinen's Home Hvittrask - Eliel Saarinen (b. 1873) is one of Finland's best known architects who help create the National (Art Nouveau) Romantic movement inspired by the Seurasaari outdoor park. After graduating from university, Saarinen and two friends purchased land about 25 miles outside of Helsinki overlooking a lake. There they built "Hvittrask," a group of buildings for their homes and offices, and until 1923 worked a on a variety of public works projects in Finland and Hungary. Two questions we could not find the answers for: How did the three students afford the land and building costs at such a young age, and how did they communicate on a regular basis with clients, being isolated in the countryside of Finland. In any case, Saarinen was clearly successful, because in 1923 he moved to the US after winning second place in the Chicago Tribune Tower competition. In 1925 he was hired to design the campus of Cranbrook Educational Community, which was to be the American equivalent to the Bauhaus. He taught there and was made President of the Academy of Art in 1932. Two of his students were Charles and Rae Eames. I was lucky enough to also have lived and studied at Cranbrook. We worked in the original studios designed by Saarinen, and were guests in his and Carl Milles' house (occupied by successive Department head of the school). When I saw Hvittrask, it was a little like coming home. The interiors of both houses had these amazing seating areas situated next to the fireplaces. His son Eero(13 yrs old when he moved to Cranbrook) later became famous for his iconic pedestal table for Knoll, the TWA terminal at JFK airport and the St. Louis Arch.

A Day Trip to Porvoo - Thirty one miles east of Helsinki lies Porvoo, Finland's second oldest town. The riverside houses were all painted in the iron ore reds and and along the cobblestone streets were buildings painted in a traditional 'Scandinavian" color palette of pale grays, greens, golds and rose. Very inspiring!

Helsinki Design - It's easy to find traditional Finnish crafts and design objects in the small stores on side streets near the harbor. Even something for your sauna back home.

Helsinki's Esplanadi Park - In the middle of the city we found Esplanadi Park, a broad tree-lined avenue with plenty of places to sit and enjoy the sun during summer's 20 hour days.

Aalto's Savoy Restaurant - One of Aalto's most important projects was the Savoy Restaurant on Helsinki's main street, the Esplandi. The exterior entrance is elegant and timeless. Aalto designed the renowned curvy glass vase for that space. Inside, the hayloft detail on the right wall was criticized for being too rustic and looking like a horse feeding trough, but it didn't seem to bother Finland's first President. He had a special table and menu there for his daily visits. We got a private tour by the very proud maitre d' before the lunch crowds arrived. Definitely a big thrill.

Helsinki Design - Who goes to Helsinki without being wowed by Finnish textiles, glass and furniture? Everywhere you turn are examples of the best of Scandinavian design. The bright colors of the market square are found in Marimekko fabrics.

Helsinki Living - Designers and architects come to Helsinki to see the architecture of the masters (Saarinen and Aalto) but they enjoy the new as well. The Finns embrace modern architecture and show their appreciation for it throughout the city. The postwar apartment buildings had bright awnings and vibrant flower boxes while newer construction offered closed in balconies and sun porches for year round access to the sun.

Surasaari Outdoor Museum - Not far from Helsinki's center is this outdoor museum featuring old buildings brought in from the countryside. The island location makes for a quiet setting for locals and tourists alike to reconnect with the past. It was amazing how many of the visitors were Finns themselves, out for an afternoon walk or jog through the grounds. The earliest buildings were from the 17th c. and later (red) ones up through the 1800's. The museum was opened in 1909 and inspired the architects of the national revivalist movement in Finland. I especially love the red paint color made from iron ore. Once again, a color found in virtually all cultures.

Helsinki's Kiasma Museum - Designers and architects come to Helsinki to see the great architecture of Saarinen and Aalto but they enjoy the new as well. The Finns embrace modern architecture and show their appreciation for it throughout the city. One fine example is the new Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by American Stephen Holl in 1998. Absolutely beautiful and inspiring.

The Colors of Helsinki - Finland only became an independent country in 1917. Before that it was ruled by Sweden for 600 years and Russia for 100 years. The historic buildings have a Swedish influence (especially the colors,) but the Russian czar also contributed into making Helsinki the beautiful city it is today. Helsinki was often used as a filming location for movies set in Russia (Reds, for instance, in 1981) because of its similarity to St Petersburg. Like Sweden and Denmark, the prevailing color of the stucco and wooden buildings is a warm saffron gold.

Aal Aabout Aalto: Inside The Savoy Restaurant - One of Aalto's most important projects was the Savoy Restaurant on Helsinki's main street, the Esplandi. He designed the renowned curvy glass vase for that space. The hayloft detail on the right wall was criticized for being too rustic and looking like a horse feeding trough, but it didn't seem to bother Finland's first President. He dined there every day and had a special table and menu there for his daily visits. We got a private tour by the very proud maitre d' before the lunch crowds arrived. Definitely a big thrill.

Energy Efficient Washing Machines - While on our visit to Aalto's house and studio we walked over to a nearby lake. This area is only 20 minutes from the center of town, and the modern houses nearby are lovely. On this day, as always, we found people enjoying the weather, picnicing on the grass and the beach. Then we saw a curious sight. When I walked over to investigate, we saw how the Finnish people save on energy costs: they were vigorously scrubbing their rugs on a specially built dock (with a wringer as well), using biodegradable soap. The ladies were very friendly and explained (in Finnish, of course) that this made perfect sense. There's no way to get the rugs cleaner than washing them in clean lake and letting them dry in the sun, plus it's good exercise and a chance to catch up on the news. Everyone does it, even the little kids were learning this task, and this young man pictured had just finished. A great way to keep the community close. This is the epitome of Finland: traditions that make sense are part of the modern life.

A Visit to Eliel Saarinen's Home Hvittrask - Eliel Saarinen (b. 1873) is one of Finland's best known architects who help create the National (Art Nouveau) Romantic movement inspired by the Seurasaari outdoor park. After graduating from university, Saarinen and two friends purchased land about 25 miles outside of Helsinki overlooking a lake. There they built "Hvittrask," a group of buildings for their homes and offices, and until 1923 worked a on a variety of public works projects in Finland and Hungary. Two questions we could not find the answers for: How did the three students afford the land and building costs at such a young age, and how did they communicate on a regular basis with clients, being isolated in the countryside of Finland. In any case, Saarinen was clearly successful, because in 1923 he moved to the US after winning second place in the Chicago Tribune Tower competition. In 1925 he was hired to design the campus of Cranbrook Educational Community, which was to be the American equivalent to the Bauhaus. He taught there and was made President of the Academy of Art in 1932. Two of his students were Charles and Rae Eames. I was lucky enough to also have lived and studied at Cranbrook. We worked in the original studios designed by Saarinen, and were guests in his and Carl Milles' house (occupied by successive Department head of the school). When I saw Hvittrask, it was a little like coming home. Cranbrook buildings share many of the architectural details found at Hvittrask.

Sauna - There are more than 1.5 million saunas in Finland, and a summer house would not be complete without one situated next to a lake. Most often built of wood, they can be rustic or modern. We saw an exhibit of new sauna architecture at Helsinki's Design Museum which would inspire anyone to build one themselves.

A Day Trip to Porvoo - Thirty one miles east of Helsinki lies Porvoo, Finland's second oldest town. The riverside houses were all painted in the iron ore reds and and along the cobblestone streets were buildings painted in a traditional 'Scandinavian" color palette of pale grays, greens, golds and rose. Very inspiring!

Inside Helsinki's Kiasma Museum - Designers and architects come to Helsinki to see the great architecture of Saarinen and Aalto but they enjoy the new as well. The Finns embrace modern architecture and show their appreciation for it throughout the city. One fine example is the new Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, designed by American Stephen Holl in 1998. Absolutely beautiful and inspiring.

Helsinki's Outdoor Market - Helsinki has a great open air market right on the harbor. At 6:30 in the morning it is already full daylight and the vegetables and berries looked beautiful. And where else but in Finland would they have Alvar Aalto stools (or IKEA versions?) for outdoor cafe customers.

A Visit to Eliel Saarinen House Hvittrask - The grounds of Hvittrask, as expected, were stunning. The house sits high above a lake, and one must walk down a steep trail to get to the tiny beach and sauna. The sauna was built of logs, again very much inspired by the primitive houses of Seurasaari. You can imagine the beauty of this land in winter as well. Even while living at Cranbrook, Saarinen returned to Hvittrask every year for summer vacation.

Alvar Aalto's Studio - In 1955 Alvar Aalto built his studio about a 10 minute walk from his home. We got a tour of the space and were able to see all the original furniture, exactly as it was when he was working there until his death in 1976. Like his house, he wanted the light to fill the space.

A Day Trip to Porvoo - Thirty one miles east of Helsinki lies Porvoo, Finland's second oldest town. The riverside houses were all painted in the iron ore reds and and along the cobblestone streets were buildings painted in a traditional 'Scandinavian" color palette of pale grays, greens, golds and rose. Very inspiring!

Close to Nature in Helsinki - While on our visit to Aalto's house and studio we walked over to a nearby lake. This area is only 20 minutes from the center of town, and the modern houses and apartment buildings nearby are lovely. On this day, as always, we found people enjoying the weather, picnicing on the grass and the beach. The Finns treasure every minute of their short summer and wherever we went we saw people sitting in parks, next to a lake or beach enjoying the sun.

Helsinki Living - Designers and architects come to Helsinki to see the architecture of the masters (Saarinen and Aalto) but they enjoy the new as well. The Finns embrace modern architecture and show their appreciation for it throughout the city. The postwar apartment buildings had bright awnings and vibrant flower boxes while newer construction offered closed in balconies and sun porches for year round access to the sun.

Alvar Aalto's Studio and Drafting Room - In 1955 Alvar Aalto built his studio about a 10 minute walk from his home. We got a tour of the space and were able to see all the original furniture, exactly as it was when he was working there until his death in 1976. Like his house, he wanted the light to fill the space.

An Effective Way to Keep Food Safe From Animals - Not far from Helsinki's center is this outdoor museum featuring old buildings brought in from the countryside. The island location makes for a quiet setting for locals and tourists alike to reconnect with the past. It was amazing how many of the visitors were Finns themselves, out for an afternoon walk or jog through the grounds. The earliest buildings were from the 17th c. and later ones up through the 1800's. The museum was opened in 1909 and inspired the architects of the national revivalist movement in Finland. This structure was raised above ground to prevent animals from accessing the valuable foodstuffs stored there.

The Children's Playroom at Eliel Saarinen's Home Hvittrask - Eliel Saarinen (b. 1873) is one of Finland's best known architects who help create the National (Art Nouveau) Romantic movement inspired by the Seurasaari outdoor park. After graduating from university, Saarinen and two friends purchased land about 25 miles outside of Helsinki overlooking a lake. There they built "Hvittrask," a group of buildings for their homes and offices, and until 1923 worked a on a variety of public works projects in Finland and Hungary. Two questions we could not find the answers for: How did the three students afford the land and building costs at such a young age, and how did they communicate on a regular basis with clients, being isolated in the countryside of Finland. In any case, Saarinen was clearly successful, because in 1923 he moved to the US after winning second place in the Chicago Tribune Tower competition. In 1925 he was hired to design the campus of Cranbrook Educational Community, which was to be the American equivalent to the Bauhaus. He taught there and was made President of the Academy of Art in 1932. Two of his students were Charles and Rae Eames. I was lucky enough to also have lived and studied at Cranbrook. We worked in the original studios designed by Saarinen, and were guests in his and Carl Milles' house (occupied by successive Department head of the school). When I saw Hvittrask, it was a little like coming home. I loved seeing his children's playroom at Hvittrask. His son Eero(13 yrs old when he moved to Cranbrook) later became famous for his iconic pedestal table for Knoll, the TWA terminal at JFK airport and the St Louis Arch. Even famous people start out as little kids.