City Guide

Four Hours in Helsinki

20 Mar 2012

Alisha Haridasani discovers a fascinating conglomeration of distinctive designs and delectable treats in 2012’s World Design Capital

Temppeliaukio Church

The 1960s was a time of great change for Finnish design. Kaj Franck, one of Finland’s most noted designers, was in the midst of revolutionising the field by pioneering simple and elegant designs that stripped away any unnecessary clutter in order to maximise the utility of any given object. In fact, he famously said that “complexity is rarely wise, and it takes bravery and spirit to be simple”.

The phenomenal Temppeliaukio Church or Rock Church echoes exactly that spirit, being simple in design but beautiful and intelligent nonetheless, capturing the essence of the era perfectly. The church, which opened in 1969, was designed by two brothers – Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen – and is carved straight into a giant slab of naturally exposed granite, hence the name. If cavemen had had churches, this would have been one – though this institution looks and feels more sophisticated than a Neanderthal site ever could.

It focuses on the sole purpose of a church, ridding the space of all the extraneous bells and whistles usually found in Christian places of worship: there are no mosaics, no paintings and no gilded interiors. Instead, the church is only furnished with the basics – an altar, a church organ and pews, topped off with a dizzying UFO-shaped copper-wire roof. Where else can you find such a raw and funky religious experience? Open daily; entry is free.

Senate Square

Take a bus or tram (Helsinki’s citywide tram network is very convenient) down to the city’s Senate Square and it’s as if you’ve travelled back in time. Contrasting drastically with the uncomplicated but surprisingly contemporary design of the Rock Church, the Senate Square looks more romantic and grandiose due to the Russian influences at the time it was built.

The open plaza, which was designed by Carl Ludvig Engel in gilded neoclassical style, is comprised of the striking Helsinki Cathedral at its northern edge, Finland’s Palace of the Council of State building on the eastern side and the University of Helsinki. It was built when the country was part of the Russian Empire – the intention was to upgrade Helsinki as the capital of Finland instead of Turku. At its centre stands a formidable statue of Emperor Alexander the Second, who eventually reformed the country in a way that helped liberate it from Russian rule. Open daily; free entry.

Salutorget and the Market Square

Head south from Senate Square and you’ll end up at the city’s South Harbour, where the Market Square is located. The market sells all kinds of knick-knacks, from quirky souvenirs to fresh fruit, all enhanced by the picturesque backdrop of yachts and small boats lazily floating around the pier under – if you’re lucky – clear, crisp blue skies. You’ll also come across an interesting statue of a naked mermaid – the Havis Amanda – standing in the middle of water-spewing sea lions. The statue was introduced after women got the right to vote back in 1906, drawing heavy controversy not only because it was seen as inappropriate, but also because it seemed to objectify women at a time when they were seeking equality. The market is open from Monday to Saturday from 6.30am to 3pm as well as on the first Sunday of every month.

At one corner of the Market Square, directly behind the naked lady, lies the elegant Salutorget restaurant that has been around since 1830. The building first housed regular stores before becoming a bank, then eventually transforming into its current form.

The restaurant not only serves excellent international cuisine but is decked out with incredible décor and art, such as the large glass mural of two peacocks that greets customers from the far end of the interior. The restaurant and bar are open from Monday to Friday between 11am and midnight, between 12pm and midnight on Saturdays, and on Sundays between 12pm and 5.30pm. www.salutorget.fi

Esplanadi

After a delightful lunch at Salutorget a little shopping might be appropriate, and coincidentally the restaurant lies at the end of Esplanadi – the city’s major shopping artery. Not only will you find the flagship stores of major shopping brands lining the entire street –  think Louis Vuitton and Chanel – but also several renowned local brands such as Iittala and Meri Mekko. Esplanadi is also dotted with several alfresco cafés and, on sunny days, rocking with talented buskers. The parallel street is also great for shopping, with more local stores and shopping malls.

Karl Fazer Café

No trip down Esplanadi would be complete without a stop at the Karl Fazer Café – the flagship café, founded in 1891, of Finland’s most famous chocolatier. Located just off Esplanadi on Kluuvikatu Street, the café’s vintage décor and feel have been retained with an interesting display of all the chocolate wrappings and candy boxes used in the past. The amount of chocolates and candies in-store astonishes, leaving anyone in awe whether or not you have a sweet tooth.

It also serves coffee and lunch items and is equipped with free wifi internet access – all you need is a password, which appears on the receipt. The café is open Monday to Friday from 7.30am to 10pm; 9am to 10pm on Saturday and 10am to 6pm on Sunday. www.fazer.com

Design Museum

From here, take a short walk down to the city’s Design Museum to top off your tour. A trip to this museum will bring you full circle back into the realm of Kaj Franck since it has a permanent exhibition on the story of Finnish design, which of course features Franck’s work, philosophies and lasting influence. The exhibition walks you through the changes in design from the 19th century to the present day, covering everything from furniture design to Nokia.

Tickets for adults cost €8 (US$10) and €3 (US$4) for children. The museum is closed on Monday; it is open on Tuesday from 11am to 8pm and on Wednesday through Sunday from 11am to 6pm. www.designmuseum.fi/en

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