Historic Wooden Neighbourhoods of Helsinki 2/3 – Käpylä
Guest Blogger April 2, 2016

Walking through historic wooden Käpylä is like entering a living time capsule into Helsinki’s past, where original houses and street layouts reveal the life of a hundred years ago, that still exists today.

After the turn of the 20th century Helsinki suffered from overcrowding and lack of housing due to industrial growth. Unsanitary shanty towns of workers were popping up all around the city, so satellite neighbourhoods such as Käpylä were built to provide the labourers with cheap and clean living.

This suburb in particular was designed to follow a trend in neighbourhood layout coming from England called the ‘garden city movement’, which was based on self-contained communities with lots of open spaces, trees, parks and private garden plots. It was linked to the city by road and tram, and was built entirely of wood.

“Being that Finland is essentially all forest, wood was always the choice building material, as it was much less costly than stone. The slow growth of the trees in the far northern climate gave the wood a special density making it the ideal long lasting and insulating material for housing.” – Elina Standertskjold – Head of Archives at the Museum of Finnish Architecture

Pohjolankatu, the main street of Käpylä where the tram tracks still run. Photo: Andy Kruse
Pohjolankatu, the main street of Käpylä where the tram tracks still run. Photo: Andy Kruse

A stroll down the main street of wooden Käpylä is like walking through a movie set where one might really see a film crew rolling down the sidewalks capturing a classic background or a tour bus let out travellers getting a snapshot of this timeless neighbourhood. Being five kilometres north of Helsinki city center, it was originally built in the 1920’s as a low-cost housing area for Helsinki’s industrial workers. Now it has become a much sought after place to live for the bohemian types such as artists, actors, writers, and musicians.

“The purpose behind these areas in Helsinki was to improve mental and physical health among the people with better living, especially for the workers, in a time of recovery from WWI and the recently ended Finnish civil war.” – Elina Standertskjold – Head of Archives at the Museum of Finnish Architecture

Nordic Classicism style multi-family houses with backyard garden plots for all tenants. Photo: Andy Kruse
Nordic Classicism style multi-family houses with backyard garden plots for all tenants. Photo: Andy Kruse

The neighbourhood was built of timber with Nordic Classicism style multi-family houses surrounding garden plots for each of the tenants. The structures followed a standardised method of square log construction and weatherboarding that was prefabricated for speedy, low-cost construction. The red and yellow buildings of today emulate the original colours coming from the past use of ochre as protection from weathering.

Communal laundry building where today's tenants do laundry free of charge. Photo: Andy Kruse
Communal laundry building where today’s tenants do laundry free of charge. Photo: Andy Kruse

You can still see the original buildings in the courtyards that were used as communal outhouses or saunas and wash rooms. The outhouses have now been replaced by indoor plumbing, but these same structures are still in use today as neighbourhood saunas and laundry rooms. Käpylä was slotted for demolition in the 1960’s, but the people banned together in a campaign to save it until the city agreed to preserve and renovate the area.

Käpylä sports field/ice skating rink. Photo: Andy Kruse
Käpylä sports field/ice skating rink. Photo: Andy Kruse
Impressive old private home in Käpylä. Photo: Andy Kruse
Impressive old private home in Käpylä. Photo: Andy Kruse

Today the simplicity of the past still exists with just the basic necessities completing the area. A local grocery store lies in one corner of the neighbourhood, a cafe and local pub in another, and a library and school in another. In the centre lies a field which was originally the site of a sawmill during the neighbourhood’s construction, and since has served as a sports field turned ice skating rink in the winter.

“The town has a very easy looking design, but its not so easy to make it this way. It’s like someone playing the violin very good and easily, you don’t see the sweat it took to get there.” – Ero Haikala – Local interior designer and Käpylä resident of 30 years

Written by Andy Kruse.

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