Sat on fourteen stories of 1928 pre-modernist loveliness, In the tiny rooftop bar of the Hotel Torni, we make plans. This is a weekend break after all, and there’s too much to see to try and squeeze in everything. But one name is foremost in our mind, Alvar Aalto. His deft fingerprints are all around us, on the small things like stools, shelves and glassware and, on the horizon, all over the massive white rectangle of the Finlandia Hall that looks like a spaceship landed by the frozen bay in the middle of the city. We’re here to check out Aalto’s work, nothing else matters, to see his house and studio and, like the people who go to Stratford-Upon Avon for Shakespeare, to pay homage to the master, the hallowed King of Scandi-design. First though, we must pay for our drinks, an alarming experience in any Nordic country.
It costs nothing to walk from the city centre, past the lalipalatsi, a glass palace of functionalism with a delicious mid century interior, the looming Post Office, featuring some fine neon-steel signage and Helsinki’s astonishing railway station which has the soaring magnificence of Grand Central in Manhattan but with a brooding Nordic austerity. There’s a lot of this kind of thing in Helsinki. Buildings that pre-date but anticipate modernity embrace the city in a big hug of glass, steel and stone. I would gladly spend the day in the train station, imagine an art-nouveau version of Chartres cathedral that sells beer, but right now we’re on a mission and it’s Aalto-shaped.
We pause briefly to consider Finlandia Hall (closed at the weekend), admiring not just the white bulk but also the seriously cool space age standard lamps that light our way around the exterior. Circumventing the expanse of water, we stop for a short but speedy vertical ride up the space rocket tower in the 1952 Olympic Stadium. It’s not Aalto, but high enough to make the knees weak. It screams modernity like Dan Dare’s spacecraft. Taking a stroll through some pleasant gardens takes us into the Helsinki ‘burbs’ and the main reason we have come here, Alvar Aalto’s house and studio, where architecture and design (much of it completed by wife Aino) coalesce into a museum of all things bright, beautiful and achingly modern.
The exterior ticks as many modernist boxes as you would care to mention. Irregular flat roof structures, mixed man-made and natural materials, supporting columns and seriously large windows all make this, if not an archetype, certainly a fine example of what can be achieved in domestic architecture. It’s not a mansion by any means and the relatively modest scale is really pleasing because you’re looking at a house that anyone can live in, not the dream of some rich person with more bathrooms than you can shake a loofah at. A terribly handsome young man appears, as if from nowhere, to invite us in. It’s like the coolest ever episode of Mr Benn.
Looking at the bent wood, zebra upholstery and flying saucer lightshades I have to remind myself that this house was built in 1936, a good stretch before what one might call mid-century but so much of the interior looks anything but dated. The other guests on the tour whisper words like supplicants in church, intoning the names of deities: Poulsen, Calder, Le Corbusier. The only thing that looks old-fashioned is the Metropolis-style space-age ashtray, now an unused relic of forgotten, unhealthier times. I want to live here ensconced and never go out again but in a far too short hour we are ushered out, replete with good feelings.
We take the tram back to Helsinki city centre, in time to visit the Academic Bookstore, a different kettle of Aalto altogether that includes a breathtaking set of intruding angular skylights, followed by coffee and cake at Fazer, which has a shop front that wouldn’t look wrong in 1950’s film noir and an array of pastries that would make Mary Berry put on weight. Pausing for breath (prices again) we look at our map of modernist treasures, created at home and realise that we have not even started on the city proper and have to wend our way home in less than twenty four hours. There is still the Design district, an array of mid-century shops that is as fine as in Palm Springs, the Arabia Ceramics, The Palace Hotel and much more Aalto to entice us back another time. Helsinki, the pearl of the Baltic, demands an awful lot more than one happily hectic weekend.
Matthew Loukes flew to Helsinki with the fabulously efficient Norwegian Airways http://www.norwegian.com/uk . Matthew is the author of the Slim Gunter detective novels, published by Soul Bay Press http://soulbaypress.com/
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