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Nordic by Nature

Issue 04/2007


Text Ilona Marx Photos Kai von Rabenau Illustration Roman Klonek

On first sight, Helsinki may appear to be a bit of a Cinderella compared to its beautiful Scandinavian sisters, Stockholm and Copenhagen. You can spend all day looking for stately homes and baroque wedding cake architecture, but you won't find them. It's more the building boom of the thirties and the 1952 Olympics that has left its mark on the metropolis here on the Baltic coast. Yet Helsinki has something that by comparison eclipses the more favoured family members: a rather coy charm and a wayward beauty that soon captivates the newcomer. The Finnish capital only really reveals its true character to those prepared to look for it, and this heightens the pleasure of discovering the city yourself and is another positive factor that says more about its profound character than anything else.

The reasons for Helsinki's singular quality are self-evident: no other Nordic country has been so influenced by its Russian neighbours. During the 'Cold War' the city was the 'gateway to the east' and both, the Soviet Union and Finland, were so economically enmeshed that after the former's disintegration Finland slid into an economic crisis. But at the same time its Swedish neighbours have influenced Finnish culture as well, visible in the bilingual street signs.

You get a lively impression of the changeable and varied history of the 500,000 inhabitants when you take a look at the imposing buildings: Uspenski Cathedral in the Russian Orthodox style demonstrates the extent of the influence of mother Russia. Bombastic and ornate, it is a product of the 19th century, built at a time when Helsinki was still a part of the Russian Empire. The great Orthodox cathedral is the largest in all of Western Europe – even though a mere 1.1 percent of Finns belong to that denomination. So it's not surprising that the building seems to be gazing longingly out over the harbour to the Baltic States. Unlike the Tuomiokirkko; as an expression of European sobriety, this classical structure provides the counterpart to Russian pomp. This mighty, white cathedral, designed by the German architect C.L. Engel in 1852, captivates with its sober grandeur.

The rock church Temppeliaukio, built in 1969 by Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen, communicates the Finnish affinity to nature, which is what defines its Nordic design. They used the raw materials the country had to offer and transposed them into a functional modern context – a concept that looks back to the 30s of the last century, and to Alvar Aalto, the pioneer of this process. Aalto pursued his vision of combining the ideals of romantic naturalism with the modern 'form-follows-function' of the Constructivists. For this purpose, in 1935, he developed a method of moulding birch wood and consequently became one of the most influential designers of the Nordic countries.

Purely from a visual point of view, Helsinki is very inspiring, but what about the climate? After all, the city is on the same latitude as southern Greenland or Anchorage in Alaska! It's time to face the truth: even the inhabitants of Helsinki find the cold period pretty gruesome sometimes. The long dark nights plunge the whole city into a kind of hibernation that is less restorative than simply bleak, even though that means the long days of summer are appreciated much more. Because of the proximity of the Gulf Stream Helsinki often has temperatures of between 25 and 30 degrees Celsius. At times when the mercury has sunk to the lower range of the thermometer, hardfacts help to comfort: In Lapland the sun doesn’t set for 84 days of the year; in comparison there are only 53 days of winter in which the sun doesn’t rise, as the Finns like to emphasize.

Making the best of the situation is a natural talent of the Finns. That means that this relatively small nation really sticks together. In Helsinki even competitors recommend each other passionately. Because in the end it’s about one thing: the homeland. The national pride that binds the Finns can be felt in other areas as well. Their folklore is a topic they can actually get excited about, and they cultivate their traditions. Saunas, summer houses, crabmeat eating and curling – even Helsinki’s younger generation go for all that. In summer and winter alike, weekend trips to the country are the order of the day.

Sadly, the Berlin-based photographer Kai von Rabenau and J’N‘C editor-in- chief Ilona Marx didn’t have time for that. There was just too much to see and do in the Finnish metropolis.

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