Declared “World Design Capital” for 2012, architecture, covering a wide range from neo-classical to functionalist to art nouveau buildings, is an important aspect of the experience of Helsinki…

Arriving on a winter day at the Vantaa airport in Helsinki, capital of Finland, the cold hit me though it was brightly sunny outside. Well, March can still be very chilly for us though the Gulf Stream on the Baltic Sea keeps the place quite warm by Scandinavian standards.

I hopped into a bus to go to the city centre. The travel card sold by the transport department here is pretty convenient. With it you can travel in all modes of transport and is valid for 48 hours from the time it's first used.

The hotel gave a front view of the central railway station (Rautatieasema). It is a grand building and its tall clock tower can be spotted from afar. The huge façade with two pairs of statues holding the spherical lamps somehow remind me of Soviet-era buildings though the designer was Finnish.

Finland was under Russian rule for a long time. In 12th century, it became a part of Sweden. Historians say that the Swedish royalty created Helsinki in the 16th century to compete with Tallinn, the Estonian capital which was a flourishing port at that time and was under Danish rule. In 1809, Sweden lost Finland to Russia in a war that had continued for many years and it remained so until the Russian revolution in 1917.

A variety of styles

Helsinki is famous for its architectural beauty. Its central area is beautifully situated on a peninsula surrounded by the sea. On the evening of our arrival we had an introduction to this as we set out to have dinner at the Kappeli restaurant on the Esplanade. Lights from inside blinked through the stained glass walls. The main building has continued its tradition of hospitality from 1864. All around were imposing buildings whose beauty I discovered only the next day in the morning light. Dinner at Kappeli was substantial: reindeer roast with Hapan Korppu cracker and rye bread. The dessert was yummy, a speciality of the region, Sea Buckthorn berry pudding.

Driving around near Kauppatori (the Market Square and Market Hall) I saw a beautiful fountain with a woman's figure. Helsinki is often called “the daughter of the Baltic” and this fountain is the city's symbol.

The main square of Helsinki, called Senate Square, is vast and located near the waterfront. Built in the fashion of St. Petersburg Square and designed by Carl Ludvig Engel, a gifted Russian architect of German descent, in summer it holds musical concerts etc.

At the centre of the Square is a monument to Emperor Alexander II created by the famous Finnish sculptor Walter Runeberg. The statue is surrounded by four allegoric sculptures — Law, Peace, Light and Labour. The University Library next to the University on one side was built in 1844 and is considered one of the most beautiful of Engel's buildings.

For me, however, the building that immediately drew attention was the white Empire style 19th century Lutheran church to the north of the Senate Square, another of Engel's creations. Its facade is held up by Corinthian columns. The building was completed only after his death and was consecrated in 1852.

The other church I remember, in a completely different style, was the ornate Russian Orthodox Church — the Uspenski Cathedral (1868) in the Katajanokka district, which is an island actually.

Locals often refer to it as the Onion Church due to the shape of the golden domes. Built in Byzantine style and made of red-brick. It is the largest functioning Russian Orthodox cathedral in Western Europe. The interior is richly decorated and full of valuable icons.

It was a Sunday when I visited it and the service was on. The service is, however, held in Finnish language. It was a moving experience to watch the rituals and the faithful dipping their fingers in a bowl of water kept at the entrance before going forward to light a candle or pray.

Indeed, Helsinki has some of the most interesting churches. How about a Rock Church, a more contemporary addition?

When I heard that church is made from one granite slab it was hard to believe. Seeing is believing. So I trooped into this 1969 construction at Töölö. It was actually built as a result of competition which was won by two architect brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen. They wanted to do something “unusual” and unusual it is. People first thought it was sheer madness, but they did it.

Striking structure

In local lingo it is Temppeliaukio Church, but Stone Church or Rock Church is the popular name. The unique architecture, the entrance is almost underground, lends the church great acoustics and it is a popular venue for concerts. In fact, a rehearsal was going on when I visited the church and it was the most unusual concert hall I had ever experienced — in a church ensconced in a rock enclave with a roof like a copper dome which spans 70 feet.

Music and Finnish identity

Recently Helsinki was declared as the ‘European Capital of Culture'. Music, art, and architecture are woven deeply into Finish culture. Visiting the Sibelius monument convinced me of that. It had snowed the previous night and the ground at the park was pristine white and a little slippery. In this background, edged by woods and rugged rocks, a very unusual construction shone in the sunlight. It is in memory of Finnish composer Sibelius whose music played a significant role in the formation of the Finnish identity. This projection is a visual expression of the way Sibelius' music depicts nature. A competition was organised by the Sibelius society (they love architectural competitions, don't they?) and it generated tremendous interest and there was even a debate between supporters of abstract and figurative art. The present work seems a happy combination of both. The memorial resembles organ pipes and welded together from 600 pipes and weighs over 24 metric tons. A viewer can even enter inside and the echoes and sounds generated by the structure are really something.

Kiasma, the contemporary art museum, is another interesting, if controversial, building.

In Helsinki, the other landmark building, of course, belongs to Nokia, the ubiquitous handset. Any Finn will show it off proudly. It is a lifeline in these hard times of recession and ensures employment for a large section of the people.

On the way back from the outskirts of the city, I saw a few men sitting patiently on a frozen sea. Meditating? No, they were ice-fishing, a favourite winter sport. Finns are fish-lovers and crayfish, pickled herring and roe salmon are some of their gourmet choices.

Back in the hotel, the most welcome thought after the day out was relaxing in a Finnish sauna, famous all over the world.

On that relaxing note I drowsily said goodbye to Helsinki.