On this page you can explore our selection through different thematic periods of modern Finnish architectural history.
Constructing the identity of a newly independent nation
Finland became an independent nation in 1917 in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. It was after the civil war the following year that the construction of the basic needs of society, industry and new residential areas could begin. An antagonism ensued between Functionalism and traditionalism, that is, between the new architectural concepts from central Europe and those based on traditional classicism. The new generation of architects who were trained mainly in the 1920s – under the classical sphere of influence – made their breakthrough, along with the new architecture, at the turn of the 1930s.
The city of Turku became the wellspring of the new architecture in Finland, as the capital at that time was architecturally more conservative. Even the symbol of the young nation, the new Parliament House completed in 1931, represented Art Deco influenced classicism, but Functionalism was soon harnessed as the marketing tool in the creation of the nation’s image. In this regard, the most important projects were those connected to the 1940 Olympic Games. Other important entities were the projects for the Finnish Tourist Association, the Functionalist buildings of the Central Finnish Cooperative Society, hospital buildings and tuberculosis sanatoriums, as well as the new architecture of the Finnish defence forces. The modernism conveyed by these spread throughout the entire country, but its effect nationwide on residential architecture was initially very limited.
The post-war reconstruction era
Building construction came to a halt with the outbreak of the Winter War in November 1939. In the turmoil of the Second World War, part of the country’s building stock was destroyed or situated in areas that were ceded to the Soviet Union. After the war building projects were characterized by the objective of getting society working again. It was of central importance to secure the energy supply and promote industrialization. The harnessing of the rivers and surrounding communities in northern Finland as well as the construction of new industrial zones were realised, as indeed was the custom in the 1930s, with high standards, both architecturally and socially. The architectural form language was softer than it had been during the pre-war period due to both material shortages and aesthetic objectives.
Under the post-war conditions, small-hold farming was a viable solution, in both resettling the evacuated population and increasing the food supply. The so-called “war veteran’s house”, a small standardised detached house, as a symbol of the reconstruction period, was an interesting combination of traditional vernacular architecture and very modern design features. The floor plans of the “war veteran’s houses” followed the modernist principle of the Functionalist differentiation of space. In addition, standard drawings and industrial prefabrication – for example, in the production of the companies Puutalo and Ahlström – are instances of pure modernism.
After the war Finland managed relatively quickly to get back on its feet; the period of shortages and rationing gradually came to an end. The Helsinki Olympic Games, which were first cancelled due to the war and then rescheduled for 1952, as well as the fulfilment of the payments of war reparations were both signs of a new era marked by optimism and the construction of a welfare society. Linked to this period were many of Alvar Aalto’s red-brick buildings, such as the National Pensions Institute, Säynätsalo Town Hall, the University of Jyväskylä and the later realized Helsinki University of Technology.
In retrospect, it seems that at that time there was a general consensus about what constituted good architecture, and there was even an effort to initiate exporting it. Emphasis was given to the construction of schools due to the needs of the baby-boomer generation. The new architectural and pedagogical goals were represented by, for instance, Meilahti Primary School, designed by Viljo Revell and Osmo Sipari, which was placed amidst the surrounding nature in an innovative way, as well as Jorma Järvi’s spatially innovative Rovaniemi Comprehensive School.
In the wake of the Tapiola garden city, which had even achieved international renown, the “forest city” ideology led to the renewal of residential architecture, which was reflected in numerous suburbs. In terms of building technology, experimentation began with techniques involving prefabricated elements.
The rise of the welfare state
The construction of the welfare state continued apace: for the post-war generations this included the construction of new colleges and universities, as well as sports facilities and military garrisons. Architecturally ambitious industrial buildings and offices as well as training centres were built for the needs of commerce. At this same time, the structure of society was beginning to change at an ever-increasing pace, as the unprofitability of small farmsteads drove people to the cities and even abroad. Urban housing shortages were countered through regional building projects that employed large-scale prefabrication methods. This led to the birth of large residential suburbs with their own shopping centres.
In town planning the “forest city” met with criticism and there was a return to the grid plan and a more urban compactness than previously: in the spirit of the slogan “a compact city is a contact city” city districts such as Kortepohja, Olari and Siltamäki were built. On the other hand, the existing housing in the city centres gave way to new large office buildings, which in turn led to new urban residential areas such as Merihaka in Helsinki.
Particularly in church building, a new era began when many innovative winning proposals in architecture competitions held in the 1950s were eventually built: thus, for instance, the potential of the technical and aesthetic qualities of concrete were harnessed in architecture. Also new materials and utopian projects gave rise to interesting experiments, such as the plastic Futuro house, which its manufacturers marketed globally.
The architectural profession no longer seemed united to the same extent as it had been in the 1950s, and architectural issues ignited increasingly intense debates. The new systems architecture and modular thinking challenged the individual, organic and expressive expression.
The changing welfare society
The Finland that relied on a strong state and welfare-state ideology was searching for its place in a increasingly international world, between the East and West. Great prosperity could be seen in Finnish society, and the nation experienced a period of robust economic growth throughout the 1980s. The unprecedented vigorous period of building construction, which had continued already for several decades, abruptly came to an end in the early 1990s with an exceptionally deep economic recession that was further intensified by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
As modernism collapsed, postmodernism introduced new international ideas into Finnish architecture. Consumerism was highlighted in certain aspects of building; for instance, spas and new types of shopping centres were built, including Itäkeskus, BePop, Forum, Koskikeskus and Zeppelin.
A particular northern interpretation of postmodernism, inspired by Reima Pietilä, was the so-called “Oulu School”, which sought inspiration for a new architecture from vernacular characteristics and tradition, rather than from international themes.
The focus in public building was on cultural centres, which were built in numerous cities around the country. At the same time, as a result of new legislation, there was a great need for children’s daycare centres. The response was one of intensive building in which experimentation with architectural themes was carried out, favouring individuality and human experience. The products of these included the Taikurinhattu daycare centre in Pori, the Sinikello daycare centre in Kuopio and the daycare centre in Länsi-Säkylä.