Thursday, September 15th, 2005
Architecture In Helsinki
Finlandia! Today’s excursion was a somewhat short (three hour) bus tour that hit a lot of the key tourist-y spots with great efficiency. We first toured around the harbour area and then headed up into the downtown area to see Senate Square and the adjacent cathedrals, university and open-air marketplace. Then up past the new Opera House, Olympic Stadium, up and around the Meilahdenpuisto region (where the President lives) and down to Sibellius Park, dedicated in honour of Finland’s favourite composer whom I’d never, ever heard of before setting out on this trip (not that I’d claim to be an expert on 19th century Finnish composers). I really liked the monument there, which is a fascinating sculpture composed of hollow steel tubes meant to represent music (as well as a bust/sculpture of the composer to appease the less imaginative). Unfortunately, it had started raining just then, so my photos have a little bit of water blotching to them. It wasn’t raining hard enough to actually get me wet, just enough to muck up the camera.
The next stop was Temppelaikukio, or the “Church in the Rock”, which was quite accurately a church built into a huge chunk of granite. Located mostly underground, the round Lutheran church was built around three decades ago and is quite stunning inside, with it’s large copper dome ceiling and stone walls. The acoustics are also supposed to be superb, making it a popular venue for concerts. The tour bus then swung through the more modern, commercial part of downtown en route back to the ship where I grabbed a quick lunch and then caught a shuttle back into the city. I then engaged in some general wandering and photography. A stop in a record store gave proof to the rumour that metal is still very big in Scandanavia, with Iron Maiden sharing feature rack space with Sigur Ros. Unfortunately, the intermittent rain was getting more mittent and heavier so after a couple hours it was time to duck back on a bus and retreat to the cozy confines of the Star Princess.
So what about the architecture? Everything has a very clean, classical look which is pretty remarkable considering that most of the city’s buildings are less than 200 years old (the country in its current incarnation hasn’t even been around for a century yet). It helps that much of the city’s public buildings were laid out to a master aesthetic plan by the architect Carl Engels and the rest of the city seemed to follow along, stylistically. I didn’t get to see too many of the modern buildings (Temppelaikukio notwithstanding) except from the bus, so most of my up-close-and-personal experience is from the older-styled building around Senate Square and the downtown commercial area. As I wandered, I couldn’t help thinking how drab and uninspired Toronto is in comparison to here (and everywhere in the world, it seems). It’s like that almost every building there is remarkable in some fashion, and there’s so many of them that rather than being made heritage buildings and tourist destinations the way they would at home, they’re turned into retail shops, drug stores, etc. And even with the bar set that high, buildings like the train station or Museum of Modern Art are as simply made even more spectacular. I can understand why Helsinki’s buildings have such an excellent reputation.
Like Stockholm, I found Helsinki wonderfully understated and charming. Even the Presidential palace was impressively subtle. Despite the somewhat dodgy weather, I found the whole place to have a real nice feel, like a perfect blend of modern and classic influences. I also liked that I was able to spend more time in the less tourist-y part of town than I did in Stockholm and I daresay the women here are better looking than in Sweden…
Tomorrow we hit Russia, which necessitates turning the clocks ahead yet another hour. Just when I get adjusted to one time zone, we go to another. Overcoming jet lag is like a moving target. What’s most nuts is that by the time my day is almost over, most people back home are just getting started. It’s like I’m in the future.