The neoclassical centre of Helsinki
Guest Blogger January 29, 2016

The layers of history can be seen in the buildings of Helsinki – if you know where to look. Unlike Tallinn or Stockholm with their medieval parts, Helsinki has a unique Empire style centre. Here’s some tips where to go spot the most beautiful neoclassical buildings.

Senaatintorin ympäristö on Helsingin empirekeskustan helmi. Kuva: Ilmar Metsalo
The Senate Square is a great example of Empire style architecture in Helsinki. Photo: Ilmar Metsalo
Carl Ludwig Engel piti Senaatintaloa mestariteoksenaan. Nykyisin rakennus toimii valtioneuvoston kansliana. Kuva: Ilmar Metsalo
Carl Ludwig Engel referred to the Senate building as his masterpiece. Nowadays it serves as the office of the Government of Finland. Photo: Ilmar Metsalo

When Finland became part of the Russian Empire in 1809 Helsinki was rather a small town. Even the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress on islands outside of the city centre had a bigger population. By order of tsar Alexander I Helsinki was made capital of the Grand Duchy of Finland in 1812. The city needed new buildings to live up to new imperial standards. New buildings represented the popular Empire style with influences from the ancient Greece and Rome.

Aleksanterinkatua reunustaa rivistö empirerakennuksia. Keisari Aleksanteri I ei olisi halunnut mukaansa nimettyä katua pikkuruiseen Helsinkiin, mutta paikalliset nimesivät kadun hänen kuolemansa jälkeen kuitenkin. Kuva: Ilmar Metsalo
Empire style buildings on Aleksanterinkatu street. Tsar Alexander I did not want a street with his name to such an insignificant town as Helsinki but the residents named a street after him anyway. Photo: Ilmar Metsalo
Helsingin yliopiston päärakennuksen uusklassinen aula. Kuva: Ilmar Metsalo
Neoclassical interiors of the University of Helsinki. Photo: Ilmar Metsalo

The two most important gentlemen of the new city centre were designer of city plan Johan Albrecht Ehrenström and German-born architect Carl Ludwig Engel. Their most famous work is the Senate Square area. Facades of old stone houses from the Swedish period on the southern side of the square were rebuilt to match the neoclassical houses of the Senate and the University of Helsinki. Only the small and gray Sederholm house with mansard roof shows what the square looked like on the 18th century. The Helsinki Cathedral is the centrepiece of the square but some changes were made to Engel’s original plans after his death in 1840.

Senaatintorin ympäristön lisäksi Engelin suunnittelemia suuria kokonaisuuksia Helsingissä ovat Merikasarmi ja Kaartin kasarmi. Merikasarmin tiloissa Katajanokalla toimii nykyisin Suomen ulkoasiainministeriö. Kuva: Ilmar Metsalo
Engel designed big barracks for the Russian army. Sea Barracks on Katajanokka now serves as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Photo: Ilmar Metsalo
Antiikin vaikutteet näkyvät empiretyylisten rakennusten julkisivuissa. Kuva: Ilmar Metsalo
The influences from ancient Greece and Rome can be seen on the neoclassical facades of Helsinki. Photo: Ilmar Metsalo

During the first half of the 19th century Helsinki had a brand new Empire style centre with influences from St. Petersburg. When looking at Empire style buildings one can also get an idea how small the city was back in the early 19th century. Most buildings were wooden houses with no more than two floors.

Written by Ilmar Metsalo.

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