Blog post: New Eliel architectural competition – historical and cultural perspectives
Elielinaukio Square as cultural environment
Elielinaukio Square plays an integral role in the architectural history of Töölönlahti Bay. Töölönlahti Bay is widely regarded as the heart of modern Helsinki, and expectations of the area’s development have been exceptionally high ever since Finland became independent. Elielinaukio Square marks the border between the historic city centre and Töölönlahti Bay, which was heavily developed in the 1990s and 2000s. Elielinaukio Square is also connected Eliel Saarinen’s design for Helsinki Railway Station. The station building itself is an internationally recognised architectural and cultural landmark.
Töölönlahti Bay has a varied and multi-layered architectural history. It was the first extension area of Helsinki to be developed almost 200 years ago. Plans for the area’s expansion are still debated today. Previous stages of the area’s development have been driven by a range of visions, competitions, new buildings and decisions on projects, some of which have gone ahead while others have been abandoned. Professor Riitta Nikula has described the area as ‘a graveyard of heroic town plans’ due to the long chain of visionary designs for a modern city centre that have not been followed through.
The many stages of development and countless disjointed projects have turned the area around Elielinaukio Square into a confused mosaic. An analysis of the historical and cultural value of the area requires taking into account the entire spectrum from the oldest to the newest layers of design. The area’s natural environment is dominated by Töölönlahti Bay, which plays a central role in the city today.
The first local detailed plan for the area dates from the 1830s and involved filling the increasingly marshy Kluuvinlahti Bay to make way for four large blocks of buildings to the north of Aleksanterinkatu. The project took a long time to get going, however, and only really got off the ground when the railway became a catalyst for construction. The plan was to run the railway across land reclaimed from water bodies or uncovered by reliction along the northern edge of the city. The construction of the line began in the 1860s: the route crossed what had been Töölönjärvi Lake and then followed the lake’s outlet towards the new blocks of buildings on the dried Kluuvinlahti Bay. Several other public and governmental buildings were also being constructed in the newly claimed area at that time, including a theatre, a museum, a volunteer fire station and a student union building.
The potential of the city-centre water body as an area of natural beauty was first recognised in the early 19th century. A green zone was established along the scenic shores of Töölönlahti Bay and Kluuvinlahti Bay. The new green zone, which runs around the whole water body, was quickly converted into small plantations and, more importantly, public parks and gardens for local residents and visitors to enjoy. This inspired the building of the first villas around the bay and the opening of Hesperia pleasure garden, Kaisaniemi Park and the Töölö Park Company, which laid the foundations for what are now Central Park and Eläintarha Sports Park. The railway line was not seen as a nuisance either but rather a scenic element that added to the picturesque image of the area, despite the industrial infrastructure that it had already begun to bring along with it. The line to Helsinki was designed so as to cause as little disruption as possible in the Töölönlahti Bay area.
Reconciling these two objectives – urban infrastructure development and preservation of the natural environment – became a balancing act that shows throughout the history of Töölönlahti Bay. The bay was like a transition zone between the landscape and the city, a conquered resource for urban development. On the other hand, the natural beauty of the area was also considered important and worth preserving. The difference in perspectives can be seen, for example, in the objectives of Saarinen’s vision for the city centre (1917) and Aalto’s design for the cultural center at Töölönlahti (1964). (The architectural preferences of the two were naturally also influenced by historical differences.) There is an inherent conflict between dense urban development and the preservation of an area’s natural characteristics, which has shaped debates, plans and critiques throughout history. Töölönlahti Bay has always retained its image as an area for site-specfivic urban development, despite the strong influence of industry and railway infrastructure.
Modern local planning in the area began in the mid-1980s, when it became evident that the old rail yard would be freed up for development. A Nordic ideas competition organised in 1986 saw visionary innovation supplanted by more prosaic design objectives for the area around Töölönlahti Bay. The development of Töölönlahti Park coincided with plans to build up the southern and eastern parts of the area, and it made sense to pursue the two projects together. Vast gardens were planted around the new buildings to give the old rail yard a cohesive look.
Further planning resulted in the finalisation of a local detailed plan for an area to the south of the bay in 1996. Elielinaukio Square is part of this concept. The local detailed plan also gave rise to the Sanomatalo commercial complex and a hotel serving the railway station. The construction of the contemporary art museum Kiasma, which preceded these projects, was a momentous milestone in the development of the Töölönlahti Bay area; the groundbreaking design was born out of an international architectural competition held in 1993 amid a deep recession and historic transformations, and the museum opened to the public in 1998. Kiasma, Sanomatalo (1999), the Helsinki Music Centre (which was the result of an international competition held in 1999/2000 and completed in 2011) and the Helsinki Central Library Oodi (international design competition in 2012; completed in 2018) are all wonderful examples of independent cultural venues that complement the public spaces around Töölönlahti Bay. Sanomatalo, although praised for its architectural design, has also been criticised for its bulky size and height, which some people consider incongruous with the ethos and feel of Töölönlahti Bay.
An esteemed international landscape architecture competition was held in 1997 to develop the natural environment around the bay, which also emphasised the importance of cohesive urban design. The competition ultimately resulted in the design of a row of residential and office buildings along the railway line in 2002, which had already been discussed during earlier stages of the area’s development. The ambitious proposal that won the international landscape architecture competition was never followed through, however, and a smaller temporary park of a significantly cheaper design was built instead in 2016. Much criticism has been levelled at public spaces not having been given the attention they deserve in the development of Töölönlahti Bay. Buildings have been prioritised over public spaces.
The cultural heritage of Töölönlahti Bay lies in the creation of a modern urban space at the heart of the city, in a natural setting that provides a unique opportunity for harnessing the power of the city’s historical character. From the perspective of the area’s long architectural history, it is the precarious balance between these factors that mostly defines Töölönlahti Bay as a cultural environment.
Plans for Helsinki New City Centre
Most of the urban plans drawn up for the Töölönlahti Bay area have focused on the south side of the bay where the area borders the historic city centre. The railway station designed by Eliel Saarinen set the starting point for expanding the city northwards. Saarinen’s Greater Helsinki vision of a new central road (“King’s Avenue”) leading north from Asema-aukio Square was never realised, and instead it was (what is now) Mannerheimintie that ultimately became the backbone of the city’s northward expansion. Mannerheimintie’s central role in the monumental visions of the early years of Finland’s independence was largely down to the location chosen for Parliament House, which was built in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Mannerheimintie was never upgraded to a ‘street’ but remains a ‘road’ to this day, in keeping with the same polarities as Töölönlahti Bay.
Oiva Kallio’s 1920s plan for the city centre gave Mannerheimintie an integral role in the development of the Töölönlahti Bay area. Its alignment with the aspect of Töölönlahti Bay gave the area a fan-shaped layout that emphasised the urban perspective and also became a dominant feature in Alvar Aalto’s subsequent local detailed plan for the city centre. Asema-aukio Square gradually grew to its current proportions as buildings – the railway station, warehouses, Postitalo (1934–1938) and Valtakulma (1939–1952) – rose around it one by one. The north–south orientation of the Postitalo and Valtakulma buildings was based on Kallio’s fan-shaped street layout. Postitalo’s bulk made it a natural end point for Mannerheimintie and the aspect of Töölönlahti Bay. The main body of Postitalo retained its role even in Aalto’s plan for the city centre, which incorporated it into a group of office buildings in Kamppi to create a strong vertical backdrop for the fan-shaped design of Aalto’s horizontal Terassitori Square.
The modern-day geometry of Elielinaukio Square still pays homage to the otherwise forsaken fan-shaped design, which maintains an important symbolic place in the architectural history of the area. Basing the building height of the New Eliel competition entries on the main body of Postitalo at +44, however, is a misinterpretation of the relationship between the architecture of the Postitalo building and Elielinaukio Square and the rest of the Töölönlahti Bay area. It undermines Postitalo’s dominance in the cityscape and the urban infrastructure of Töölönlahti Bay and is in clear conflict with the aesthetics of the surrounding area. There is a risk that the designs based on the competition will be oversized. The volume and height of the buildings must fit in with the surrounding infrastructure and the landscape around Töölönlahti Bay, which is why it would be better to base the maximum building height on, for example, the lower wings of the Postitalo building of the eaves of the hotel serving the railway station.
Asema-aukio Square and Elielinaukio Square
Asema-aukio Square and Elielinaukio Square form a visually and functionally cohesive whole. Asema-aukio Square has in the past been developed hand in hand with the railway station and the surrounding buildings, and the area is already a complete urban space in its own right. All the competition entries acknowledge the integrity of the square, and Helsinki City Museum would like to further reiterate that Asema-aukio Square is not to be built on.
Elielinaukio Square is often portrayed in a negative light in the media, and this is also reflected in the objectives of the architectural competition. The square is described as a cut-through, not a destination. It is unlikely for an transport hub immediately outside a railway station and a hotel to ever become a place where people choose to congregate and spend time, but there is no reason why it could not be made more desirable. The areas to the west of the railway station were originally designed to serve cars and traffic, and all development there has continued in the same vein. The 1996 local detailed plan factored in a projected increase in passenger volumes by allocating space for new platforms outside of the existing rail yard. Elielinaukio Square became a flexible middle ground between the extended platform area and the surrounding city, similar to the rest of the infrastructure around the railway station.
Elielinaukio Square is not devoid of historical significance either. The west wing of the station building with its space-creating and monumental architecture served as a busy freight terminal for several decades. The rail yard housed a number of platforms where various categories of bulk were handled and sorted. The east wing of the Postitalo building was also part of the railway station’s loading and transport infrastructure, and its architecture still carries this stamp. The history of the area as a loading and bulk handling environment is reflected in the surrounding architecture, which should also be taken into account in future designs.
The area was incorporated into a railway terminal in 1996, and Elielinaukio Square along with other public spaces and roads around the station became property of the City of Helsinki pursuant to an agreement between the City and the Finnish Government. The Vltava warehouse was given protected status in the local detailed plan, based on a council initiative. With Elielinaukio Square no longer being needed for the operation of the railway, the area should be turned into an attractive public space in keeping with the local detailed plan. The station building must be surrounded on all sides by vibrant urban spaces, and these include Elielinaukio Square and Töölönlahti Bay. Elielinaukio Square should not be filled with buildings.
Eliel Saarinen’s architectural legacy
Eliel Saarinen is a central figure in the architectural and urban history of Helsinki. The Tallberg building, designed by Saarinen and his partners for an architectural competition in 1898, was the starting point for the development of Katajanokka into a globally fascinating Art Nouveau district, which is also home to some of Saarinen’s most iconic designs of the late national romantic style. Among the best examples of his use of natural stone is the Pohjola Insurance building (1901), which is one of the few buildings of the national romantic style that survive on Aleksanterinkatu, which has otherwise been transformed since the road gradually grew into a commercial district. The National Museum of Finland (1902–1916) and Helsinki Railway Station (1903–1919) are two public buildings that have helped both to shape the county’s national and historical identity and to set a course for Helsinki’s future development. The ideals of the harmonious cityscape envisaged for the Töölö neighbourhood in the 1920s and 1930s and the post-war local suburban planning of Helsinki’s can both be traced back to Saarinen’s Greater Helsinki vision (1917) of a metropolitan city.
Saarinen continued to work as an urban development expert and advisor for the City of Helsinki while he lived in America in the 1920s and 1930s. Saarinen’s contribution to international urban planning in the 20th century was based on a holistic approach to town design, which translated into modern concepts of total works of art, ranging from city-plans to detailed designs and artworks. Saarinen’s influence on the American architectural culture of his day was considerable.
It is important that the area around Helsinki Railway Station be developed respecting Saarinen’s legacy. The tradition Saarinen’s own work promoted was of town design, creating harmonious and quality urban spaces of the right scale. These ideals of Saarinen are the foundation on which designs fit for this cultural environment should be built.
Establishing a firm dialogue with Saarinen’s architecture in Elielinaukio Square is a challenging and delicate task. The area’s architectural and cultural history combined with its physical and functional characteristics and building traditions are important standards to bear in mind.
Helsinki City Museum, Cultural Environment Unit
Image: Yehia Eweis / Helsinki City Museum