Senate Square, Helsinki

by Johnny Lucas

See What the Czar Saw

In 1815, when Carl Engel was dispatched by Czar Alexander I to be the architect and planner of Helsinki, Finland was not yet an independent country. The Grand Duchy of Finland was one of the Czar's favourite parts of the Russian Empire, and the small town of Helsinki had just been designated the Duchy's capital.

The administrative centre of Finland had been Turku, some 166 kilometres to the West of Helsinki and therefore 166 kilometres further from the real seat of power in St. Petersburg.

When Engel arrived, Helsinki was not nearly ready to accommodate a capital. The Helsinki of 1815 had 4,000 inhabitants, there were only 11 houses of stone construction. Almost all the architectural heritage from before 1815 has been lost.

Engel's "new" capital now forms the centre of "old" Helsinki. Unlike the wooden buildings they replaced, Engel's buildings were built to stand the tests of time.

The czar took a personal interest in his Imperial architecture especially Engel's work to make Helsinki a conspicuous representation of Russia's power.

When he did travel the 400K from St. Petersburg to Helsinki, Alexander was pleased with what he saw: pastel yellow walls, clean white trim, solid columns supporting solid buildings. The colours, as in St. Petersburg, made the most of the clear winter sunshine and ensured that the buildings looked as bright as in the sunshine of the summer days during which the sun did not set on Senate Square and its buildings.

The weather has not changed since the days of the czar, today the buildings of Senate square and surrounding area look as good as the day Engel completed them.

St. Petersburg itself suffered badly in wartime and has been restored, but the restoration has not been as extensive as what has been afforded the Imperial buildings of Helsinki. The Finns have the money, and the taste, to do things right.

Finns are known for their sense of design, they are famous for their exports of fine china and glassware, and for their architects (such as Viljo Revell who designed Toronto's New City Hall).

Just to the East of Senate Square, past the Orthodox Basilica, is a large complex, also designed by Engel which housed the Russian military presence in Finland. During the difficult times of World War II, and shortly afterwards, these buildings were in disrepair and at risk of being torn down.

Today the complex that once garrisonned the Czar's army is the home of Finland's Ministry of External Affairs. The classic lines of the buildings, their white columns and cheerful yellow walls look ready for an inspection by Alexander I.

The Czar would be pleased, but he might be shocked to see his disciplined troops replaced by Finnish bureaucrats administering their country's non aligned foreign policy.

Engel's military buildings, the Senate and the University library (also on Senate Square) might look at home in any Northern part of the Czarist Empire. The Cathedral, the building which dominates Senate Square, is unique. Engel was involved in the planning of Helsinki Cathedral for more than 30 years considered Helsinki Cathedral, he considered it to be his masterwork.

Because the Cathedral towers up from one of the granite outcroppings on which Helsinki is built, it can be seen from miles at sea. Its external grandeur, its columnated exterior and its role at the most important Lutheran church building in Finland, a county in which 90% of the people are Lutherans, almost puts Helsinki Cathedral in the same league as St. Peter's in Rome, or St. Paul's in London.

The interior of the Cathedral reflects the stoicism of the Lutheran faith. Peace and simplicity reign inside, white walls give little hint of their age and but do give the church a bright and joyful appeal. The great domed ceiling creates great acoustics so this Cathedral is a favourite venue for concerts.

The Czar thought so highly of Senate Square that when shown Engel's drawings, he could imagine no improvements and simply wrote on them "approved". This royal sentiment kept alive by the today's Finns.

In the city blocks surrounding Senate Square, modern buildings mix with other fine examples of Czarist architecture. While standing on the square itself, it is possible to look around and see the city as Engel would have presented it to the Czar.

720 words

Page maintained by Johnny Lucas, . © J.P.Lucas. Created: July 11, 1996 Updated: February 1, 1997