gray but grand helsinki weekend.

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It’s been a while since I did something quite so frivolous, but I made a spontaneous trip to another country this weekend. I was in Stockholm for three days between when my mother left (thanks for visiting, mom! highlight of my spring!) and when I’m heading to Canada for my grad school visit. Instead of flying back to Visby or taking the ferry, at not insignificant cost and only to be home for one working day, I figured I’d go see one of the nordic cities that was still on my list of to-visits. The flight to Helsinki was only $100. I bought the ticket.

Unfortunately, as my friend Aino said when I asked her what I should make sure to see in Helsinki, “It’s definitely not the best time of year there.” I think it was sunny for a grand total of about two hours during my entire visit. But that didn’t make it bad. Far from it. I think that Helsinki is one of my favorite cities I have visited so far: it’s very alive, and has a fascinating and beautiful mix of classic style, art deco architecture, and modern design. I loved it.

Right off the plane I took the bus to the city and walked to the design museum. On the way there, I was serenaded by a string quartet. They were pretty good, and it was a lovely omen for my visit.

The design museum was great. I can’t say I know a lot about design, and tend to be pretty ignorant of modernism – I had to take art history in middle school, but we never got past the 1920’s and didn’t cover architecture at all. Sure, I’d heard of Alvar Aalto and seen Marimekko prints everywhere. Other than that, I was pretty ignorant of Scandinavian design, other than knowing that it was based in simplicity and functionality. I remember staying in Aino’s flat in Davos in December, and being amazed at how sparse it was. Yet every single item in that flat was beautiful.

The design museum took me through how such an aesthetic emerged. I admired the handcrafts that were the pride of Finland in the late 1800s and early 1900s; saw a video of the amazing Finnish pavilion at the 1900 World Fair; watched the shift from classic European and Russian elements to art deco; and then, suddenly, the emphasis on functionality of the mid-century postwar years, where Finland became the most acclaimed country in Europe in terms of design. Tableware, art pieces, everything was beautiful. Glass in particular. Then plastic. Cute pop clothes. Finally, angry birds.

I understood how my grandfather, an ad exec in 1970’s Atlanta who had traveled the world as an officer in the navy, would have admired and coveted Scandinavian glassware.

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There was also an exhibit featuring Danish artist and fashion designer Henrik Vibskov, who I had never heard of before. It was pretty fun!

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I spent much of the rest of the trip exploring the city on foot. I’ve been very busy recently and so I couldn’t spend all day every day having fun – I had to stay in my (lovely) hotel room and do some work, too. I tried to schedule those times for when it was raining. The rest of the time, I walked and enjoyed all of the details of Helsinki’s landmarks.

Poor Finland: it was part of first the Swedish empire, then given up to Russia in the early 1800s. There was a famine, then a declaration of independence in 1917 and a civil war. The country fought hard during World War II and bore the weight of rationing and deprivation. Throughout all of this, they maintained a sense of national identity. The street signs may still be in both Finnish and Swedish, but this sure as heck does not feel like Sweden. Based on my limited experience in Russia, it doesn’t feel much like there, either.

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I was impressed with the mixing of styles, which somehow felt very right. Two Lutheran churches, a few blocks away from each other, are quite famous: the cathedral, built in the mid-1800s, and the Temppeliaukion, built in 1969 (more on that later). The two buildings couldn’t be more different in many ways, but it didn’t seem strange that they should exist in the same city fabric. Plus, while the Temppeliaukion is very modern, the other churches in the city also feel quite unlike the cathedrals I have visited in the rest of Europe. Finland is strongly Lutheran and as a result the interiors generally lack ornamentation. There’s not much stained glass, no gargoyles, no paintings on the walls like in the Uppsala cathedral. The interiors are light and leave a lot of room for thought. Finland loved white colors and clean lines far before Alvar Aalto.

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One of the most amazing places was the Temppeliaukion church, a Lutheran temple designed by the Suomalainen brothers and built in 1969. Another church was planned to be built on the site in the late 1930’s, but with the breakout of war, it never happened. 30 years later, the Suomalainen brothers took over and built something completely different. It had no tall spire, like the original, more traditional plan; it was round; it was partly underground. From the outside, the church doesn’t look like much.

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Inside, though? yeah.

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The space was completely amazing. It wasn’t that big, actually, and being drilled in the rock could have made it feel dark and damp. Instead, I felt the expansiveness of the space around me. It was one of the most intense sensations of atmosphere I have ever felt. The light streamed in from the upper walls, and strips of copper coiled around and around on the ceiling, creating a sense of infinity. Without a single illustration from the Bible, I could understand how you could feel God in this space.

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On Aino’s recommendation, I also went to the Ateneum museum, Finland’s national art museum. The first floor housed some amazing paintings and sculpture which helped me understand the Finnish perspective. The Kalevala, Finland’s national epic poem, has been on my reading list for months, and my interest has only been renewed. The art was beautiful, and among the works there was mysticism as well as realism about the challenges of agrarian living and poverty. Beautiful, beautiful pieces.

The reason Aino had mentioned the Ateneum, though, is that it had an exhibition celebrating Tove Jansson’s 100th birthday! I was so excited when I learned this. I read the Muumin books growing up and absolutely loved them. In fact, the last time I went to Finland (back in 2010, when I was skiing way up north and didn’t get to see the city), I took this picture in a souvenir shop with some Muumin goods:

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Picture me equally excited as I spent an hour perusing Jansson’s work. The exhibit was quite incredible. It included a lot of original artwork from the books, as well as sketches where she developed the final form of the illustrations. There would be the same general picture as a rough line drawing, a fully articulated pen-and-ink, and in paint, for instance. I didn’t realize that the stories had also been a comic strip, so that was cool. One of her friends also built elaborate dioramas of Muumin scenes! What fun. It made me want to go find and read all of the old Muumin books in my grandparents’ house, and then buy all the ones they didn’t have. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, start here).

Jansson didn’t just make the Muumin books, though, she was also a “prolific” artist and writer, as Aino said. Many works of different types, from drawings to paintings (among my favorites: an early one called “Mysterious City“, and a series of more abstract paintings of sea waves from the 1970s) and even huge frescoes.

Another highlight were prints that she made for the left-wing satire magazine Garm. Many of her messages were perfectly easy to understand even if you don’t know Finnish or Swedish. They were remarkably pointed, including during the war years. Here is a good example. This made me even more convinced that Jansson was a pretty remarkable lady. Big thank you to Aino for pointing out this exhibition!

Besides the architecture, art, and design, Helsinki was just a nice city to be in. There is lots of outdoor space, green lawns, and the port. Because of the weather I skipped going to Suomenlinna, the island fortress that is a must-visit. So I guess I have to come back another time. But it was a really delightful city to be outside in. (click to enlarge)

I’m really glad I made this weekend trip and can’t wait to come back to Helsinki in the future! I didn’t even sample the food or music scenes, both of which are fairly legendary at this point. Helsinki is becoming a more and more hip city. I hope that by the time I come back, it hasn’t gotten to hip for me.

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