Porthania Building

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Photo: Mari Makio / MFA
  • PlaceHelsinki
  • Completion 1957
  • Decade1950s
  • PeriodPost-war modernism
  • Year of selection1993


Education was seen as having an important role in Finland during the post-war reconstruction period. Educational institutes of different academic levels were built in abundance. The University of Helsinki’s Porthania building was built to serve the diverse needs of teaching and students. An architectural competition for the building was held in 1949, which was won by Aarne Ervi, who was interested in developing concrete construction and the use of new materials. Porthania is a significant example of early industrialised building construction, and was the first public building in Finland to be constructed mainly from prefabricated elements. The construction, which began in 1950, took a long time because the first half of the 1950s was still marred by the post-war rationing of building materials. The building was eventually inaugurated in 1957.

Ervi’s objective was to create a building that would be filled with an abundance of natural light and  offer ample space within the compact urban block structure and possess an architecture that would lessen the students’ learning effort. The small forecourt in front of the building helps welcome visitors. The brightness and transparency in the interior were achieved through large windows, as well as the use of glass in the stairwells and upper parts of the partition walls in the corridors. Adjacent to the main staircase is a glass brick wall the height of the entire eight floors of the building.

A distinct characteristic of Porthania is the integration of architecture, construction and technical installations. The concrete pillars and beams, visible in the brightly lit foyer and corridors, reveal the anatomy of the building. Long spans and minimising load-bearing structures allow for an open floor plan, where on the office floors only the rows of pillars, the lift shafts and staircases are fixed. Another special feature of the building is the partition wall structure, which was designed to be flexible, though has never actually been altered.

The large lecture halls, cafeteria facilities, and gym were placed on the lower levels of the building, close to the main entrance hall. Other teaching facilities and offices were placed on the upper floors. Ervi’s special interest in new materials can be seen in Porthania in the use of plastic in many details. Alongside light-coloured concrete surfaces and industrially-produced gypsum board, the hardwood veneer surfaces bring warmth to the interior. Porthania is also a total work of art; a large number of the non-fixed furniture and lighting fixtures were designed in Ervi’s office by the interior designer Lassi Ollinkari. The structural engineer Matti Janhunen, who designed the concrete structures, also contributed significantly to the character of the building.

An extensive renovation of Porthania was carried out in 2004-2006 (Architects Nurmela-Raimoranta-Tasa). The renovation successfully preserved the spirit of the building and adapted the new parts as well as the increased technical requirements to a rather demanding starting point. The renovation was awarded the Europa Nostra medal in 2007. Porthania still operates both functionally and in terms of the cityscape as one of the core buildings of the University of Helsinki’s city centre campus.


Sirkkaliisa Jetsonen

Ervi, Aarne (1960). ”Porthania, Helsingin yliopiston instituuttirakennus”, Arkkitehti 1/1960.
Johansson, Eriika; Lahti, Juhana & Paatero, Kristiina (toim/eds.) (2010). Aarne Ervi – Tilaa ihmiselle / Architect Aarne Ervi 1910-1977. Helsinki: Suomen rakennustaiteen museo.
Nurmela, Matti & Remes, Tuomo (2006). ”Porthanian restaurointi” / ”Restoration of the Porthania”, Arkkitehti 6/2006.


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