Satamakatu 7, Helsinki’s First Art Nouveau Building

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This is a guestblog by Jesse Karjalainen, from helsinkijugendstil.com

Satamakatu 7, Helsinki

The building at Satamakatu 7, in Katajanokka, was the first fully Art Nouveau building in Finland. This was the first of 550 Jugendstil buildings in Helsinki.

On Saturday, 30 October 1897, a celebratory party took place in the up-and-coming district of Katajanokka (Juniper Point) in Helsinki. The occasion was a so-called taklagsöl (or taklagsfest), the Swedish name for celebrating when the final layer of roof tiles is completed on a new building construction. The workers still had all winter and spring to finish the interiors, fittings and final finishes by the planned unveiling on June 1 the following year. But the main work of building at Satamakatu 7 was complete.

According to tradition, it was the landlord’s responsibility to provide a party for all involved in putting up his (or her) new building to thank for the hard work. Failure to do so often meant being outed by the workers as a cheap and miserly employer.

There was no risk of Julius Tallberg coming across as a stingy man though – celebration or no celebration. He was a merchant and entrepreneur of high reputation and standing. As well as extreme wealth. Tallberg enjoyed the status of being one of the leading industrialists in the land. He was businessman with irons in every fire of commerce. He dealt in everything from commercial goods to dynamite.

As he celebrated, Julius thought about the new electric tram line he was planning to announce in the new year. He was also in the middle of negotiating approval for his next architectural venture: a grand commercial palace in the heart of the business district. But tonight’s cause for celebration was cheering that the cap had just been put atop his latest commission: a luxurious new four-storey building that boasted just one residence per floor. Each comprised eight main rooms in addition to the hall, kitchen, bathroom, utility rooms, etc. The water-closets (WCs) even featured the latest in plumbing technology!

Satamakatu 7, Helsinki

Helsinki, and Finland’s Golden Age

Helsinki had once been a sleepy fishing village but was thrust into the limelight when Russia took possession of Finland from Sweden in the early 1800s. The Russians moved the capital from Turku/Åbo to Helsinki to be closer to St. Petersburg and the city experienced a great deal of investment. It’s expansion was guided by leading architect Carl Ludwig Engel and the dominant architectural trend was Neo-Classical. A taste for Gothic Revival came later.

The Industrial Revolution came to Finland in the 1860s and 1870s, mostly in paper and timber, which were in great demand across Europe. Until then, some 90% of Finns lived a rural, agricultural existence. But now Finland experienced significant economic and technological progress. At the same time, there was a growing interest in Finnish national sentiment. Along with this came the emergence of formalised revivals in traditional handicrafts, arts & crafts and decorations. Similar revivalist movements were flourishing across parts of Europe. The mood was ripe – as a new century loomed – for a radical change in artistic direction.

It was now four years since Victor Horta unveiled his famous Hotel Tassel (1893) in Brussels and almost two years since Siegfried Bing opened his famous gallery of modern art in Paris, L’Art Nouveau (1895). Helsinki might have been on the periphery of Europe – a region of the Russian Empire, a Grandy Duchy no less – but its young generation of artists and architects had taken note of the new movement quietly sweeping Europe. In Finland this coincided with an atmosphere of growing Finnish nationalism and talk of independence.

The 1880s saw a new generation of young “home grown” architects. They were the first to graduate from professional courses at the Helsinki Polytechnic Institute – reformed and formalised in 1879. Finnish architects previously had to complete their studies in Sweden or Germany. Now they studied at home.

The year 1880 marked the beginning of La Belle Époque. It was a time of great energy, creation and industrious excitement across much of Europe. Helsinki, too, was booming. The population grew from 32,000 in 1870 to 43,000 by 1880. The building industry was red-hot. Industry, too, was booming. There were now close to 200 factories in the city and almost a tenth of the population worked in them. Helsinki already had five hotels and plenty of restaurants and cafes.

The 1880s also saw a new generation of Finnish artists and architects increasingly gravitate towards artistic circles in Paris and Brussels – rather than the traditional influential spheres of Germany and Sweden. While the trend in, say Dusseldorf, was for Realism, the younger artists of Paris were exploring Naturalism and Impressionism, which was far more exciting. And new. The Finnish artists who studied in Paris include Maria Wiik, Helene Schjerfbeck, Ville Vallgren, Robert Stigell, Emil Wikström, Pekka Halonen and Aleksi Gallen-Kallela, to name a few. This was a generational shift in direction.

In terms of Finnish architecture, the leading architects of the 1880s were Carl Theodor Höijer (1843-1910) and Gustaf Nyström (1856- 1917). Nyström was known for a style that combined Neo-Renaissance idiom with modern structural methods. Although cast-iron structures were becoming more common, there was no change to the outward styling of Finnish buildings. The dominant styles throughout Finland in the 1880s and early 1890s remained Classical, Neo-Classical and Neo-Renaissance.

But signs of modernisation were slowly creeping in. For example, the Swedish-speaking national newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet began to switch the typesetting of its newspaper articles in Roman lettering in June 1886, replacing the standard of using Gothic script.

Hufvudstadsbladet_june_1886

In a small step towards modernity, the Hufvudstadsbladet newspaper began switching from typesetting articles in Gothic script (right) to modern Roman lettering (left) in June 1886. The image shows two columns with separate styles side by side on the same page.

In 1889, Finnish Arts & Crafts, and design appeared at the Paris World Fair. This was the first time that Finland had ever stepped out on the international stage on its own by taking a pavilion at such an event. It was still, of course, a province of Russia. That same year, a young Finnish artist called Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931) returned from Paris to spend the summer with a friend researching “Finnishness” in the rural regions of Finland. He was one of the first to successfully combine the Finnish patriotic mood with the new emerging international arts movement that was appearing around Europe. Finnish and Swedish-speaking people of the Grand Duchy turned to art as a broad medium to express nationalistic sentiment.

By 1890, there were 27 buildings of five storeys in Helsinki and one reaching six storeys. For young architects, this was a new era. The 1890s mark the beginning of what has been described as Finland’s Golden Age. Romanticism and interest in Finland’s past reached a climax during this final decade of the 1800s. Akseli Gallen-Kallela would become the central figure of the golden Fin de Siècle period in Finland. He has been described “a portrayer of the Finnish soul”.

Russia (this included Finland), too, was seeing its commercial activities booming, thanks to a large domestic market and trade with European neighbours. For Finland, a period of unprecedented economic growth began in 1885. These were good economic times across Europe, and this also meant there was more money available to fund the arts. It was in this context that that magnate Julius Tallberg built his fortune.

Julius Tallberg (1857 – 1921)

Julius Tallberg 1898Julius Tallberg’s father died when Julius was 13. The resulting financial difficulties meant that he had been forced to quit school and start working. He got his first job at an ironmonger’s, where he showed great promise. By age 20 he had progressed to settling accounts for the shop owner and was studying on the side. He gained a bookkeeper’s degree and in June 1878, Julius moved to Helsinki from Turku to become a bookkeeper at the renowned Stockmann trading firm.

One summer morning, Julius had come to work late after taking an early swim. He was dismissed from Stockmann and forced to look for work elsewhere. He turned to friends in the building industry and managed to secure finance for his own venture. By March 1880, he had his own building-materials trading business – just before he turned 23. He had started out by selling nails at the market square. Seven years later, he bought out the shares from his business associates before he turned 30. He expanded rapidly after that and pushed into wholesaling. He later diversified into concrete prefabrication, wallpaper manufacture and then a brick works. By 1888 he was on the committee of Helsinki’s planning authority.

Julius Tallberg was in every sense a leading industrial figure in Finland and certainly an influential person in Helsinki.

Katajanokka

Katajanokka would become the first fully modern district in Helsinki. Just two decades earlier it had been a barren slum area for the city’s down-and-outs. The new town plan of 1895 was published, and the development boom began. The planning rules stated that buildings were to be made from stone and brick, and construction completed within 5 years of the land being purchased. This ensured rapid development of the island, which is what public authorities wanted. (Today there are 52 Art Nouveau Jugendstil buildings in Katajanokka.)

The upper-middle classes were making money in construction, industrialisation, trade and banking. Katajanokka would quickly become a distinct area for the newly minted upper-middle classes – setting themselves apart from the city’s ‘old money’ establishment. A new generation of moneyed people set out to be apart from ‘old money’. What better place than an island connected by a bridge?

News of the planned works for a new building had appeared in the newspapers in January 1895. The location that interested Julius Tallberg was plot number 7 – a triangular plot on the corner of West Satamakatu and Luotsikatu – in block 147 of the small peninsula of Katajanokka. The calculated value of the land was 14,500 Finnish Marks. Although only a stone’s throw from Uspenski Cathedral, the peninsula had until recently been a ramshackle of shacks and slums. But the growing city desperately needed modern port and customs facilities, so authorities had now earmarked the island for rapid development.

Built in 1898 in the National Romantic style

Built in 1898 in the National Romantic style, it was part châteaux, part castle.

The Magnate and Three Young Architects

Julius Tallberg announced the commission for a new building on his new plot in 1897. There had been 17 submissions, and both first and second prize had gone to an unknown trio of young architects.

Armas Lindgren, Eliel Saarinen and Herman Gesellius in the late 1890s (with Albertina Östman)

Armas Lindgren, Eliel Saarinen & Herman Gesellius, late 1890s (with Albertina Östman)

The recently graduated architect students Herman Gesellius, Armas Lindgren and Eliel Saarinen ventured out into the world and had just opened the doors to their new joint-practice – Architect-Bureau Gesellius, Lindgren & Saarinen – on the busy thoroughfare of West Henrikinkatu (today, Mannerheimintie) in Helsinki. Although they recently graduated from Helsinki’s four-year Polytechnic, they were not unproven. Herman Gesellius had – while still a student actually – won a project for a villa commissioned by wealthy merchants Pihlgren and Kröger. Planning authorities approved his plans in 1895. He gained valuable experience working a stint at the office of Gustaf Nystrom while still a student. And he continued working with Nyström until he graduated in 1897. Lindgren and Saarinen also worked as draftsmen in Nyström’s office. The young trio then submitted two plans to Tallberg’s commission with a daring building in the “new style” that was emerging in central Europe.

Plaque for Architects Gesellius, Lindgren & Saarinen

The building today features a metal plaque stating that this was the first Art Nouveau/Jugendstil building in Helsinki. It was designed by the architects Gesellius, Lindgren & Saarinen and built for wealthy magnate Julius Tallberg.

Then the announcement came that the young firm of Gesellius, Lindgren & Saarinen had won the competition. This new construction was a radical departure from traditional architectural styles and Julius Tallberg was drawn to the novelty of building it in this thriving new commercial district. He snapped up the bold new plans and awarded the contract for his building on plot number 7 to the young men.

This contract had been a lucky break for the trio, who were now aged 23 and 24. The portly Julius Tallberg, age 40, understood the importance of this first break for the young men. He had been there himself. He, too, had been given a first break.

The final plans had been agreed and signed off in July (and announced in the newspapers) 1895 and work got underway immediately. This was a watershed for a major generational shift in the direction of architecture in the country. This marked the first Art Nouveau/Jugendstil building in Finland – even if then that description was not being used.

To date there had only been a few hints of this new “modern” style appearing in a handful of buildings in Helsinki. The building that appeared at Satamakatu 7 was different. It was truly magnificent. And it was following a new European trend, with strong echoes of Finland’s past.

Satamakatu 7, Helsinki

The quirky building’s two facades were of a revivalist medieval style that had not been seen before. This showcase building at West Satamakatu 7 had a steep, narrow roof that culminated in a corner tower with wrought-iron gating and a pointed spire. It featured prominent projections, marble from Norway, angular leadlight mosaic windows from England and neat little towers with slate tiles imported from Sweden. The wallpaper was already ordered from England, home to the decorative print designs of William Morris (1834-1896).

Satamakatu 7, Helsinki

But luxuries were not what made the new building remarkable. Its external appearance and novel forms were unlike anything Helsinki had ever seen before. It looked more like a castle than anything that had been built in the autonomous Grand Dutchy of Finland in more than a century. National Romanticism was the early expression of nationalism. And in Finland, National Romanticism took its lead from Karelianism. Helsinki’s National Romantic period in architecture was brief: although it can be traced in the period 1894 to 1907, the height of concentration occurred in the years 1901-1904.

It is the National Romantic influence that gave Helsinki its turrets, spires, projections and heavy-set doorways. The added element of National Romantic styles unique to Finland is the influence of the national epic, the Kalevala.

On Saturday, 30 October 1897, there were many who were celebrating. But for the young trio of architects, this was the start of their careers. In many respects, here one leading figure unknowingly passed the baton to the next generation. Over the next three years, the wealthy magnate Julius Tallberg would watch Gesellius, Lindgren & Saarinen become international superstars and build some of Finland’s most famous buildings. And over the next 25 years the young trio would lead Finland through the Jugendstil era into the age of modernity.

The building at Satamakatu 7 as it stands today.

The building at Satamakatu 7 as it stands today.


This article is an exclusive extract from the upcoming book “Helsinki Art Nouveau Jugendstil – an illustrated guide” and published with permission on the About Art Nouveau blog. Text and images: copyright Jesse Karjalainen 2020.

Jesse Karjalainen is a Finnish-British author and illustrator. He runs the helsinkijugendstil.com website, which aims to showcase all 550 Art Nouveau Jugendstil buildings in Finland’s capital, Helsinki. Jesse will publish “Helsinki Art Nouveau Jugendstil – an illustrated guide” in late 2020.

You can also find Jesse on Twitter @jugendstilHEL & Insta @jugendstilhelsinki


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