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Just for a change, I planned to show you a building today that is not located in my hometown Dordrecht. I picked one of my favorite buildings: the Old Customs Warehouse in Helsinki. From the moment I saw this building, it was love at first sight!

Old Customs Warehouse, Katajanokka, Helsinki

Old Customs Warehouse, Katajanokka, Helsinki

The Old Customs Warehouse located in Katajanokka slept like Sleeping Beauty for some forty years, only occasionally used as storage space by the city. The time of awakening came a few years ago when Kari Korkman, the founder and producer of Helsinki Design Week, noticed the potential of the building as an arena for design and arts. For forty years, the building designed by architect Gustav Nyström remained rarely used until it was found for exhibition, concert, seminar and party purposes. (We are Helsinki)

Last year I was very fortunate as I got to visit Helsinki in May. My partner had a conference at the Hilton Hotel, and I got to wander around the city with my camera all week. (How lucky can one be?) Of course I had gathered some factual guide-books before I got on the plane, but the atmosphere of a destination to me always remains a surprise until I really get there. Well, having been there, now I can say: I love Helsinki. It’s streets have the ‘grandness’ of the old Eastern European capitals, but they also have that ‘orderly tidiness’ of Western European capitals. Buildings don’t look dirty and damaged like in Eastern European cities, but well restored, cleaned and painted! It was a refreshing combination.

My favourite guide-book turned out to be a free copy from the Helsinki Tourist Information rather than one of those expensive books from a bookstore. “Helsinki on foot” had five walking tours, and of course I picked the one leading me through the Art Nouveau streets first! I just loved walking around in Katajanokka. The buildings in this area of Helsinki are characterised as Art Nouveau buildings, just wonderful, but they also had something fairylike, with those dreamy turrets, something I could not put my finger on just yet. Therefore, I wanted to read more about the subject. Why does this Art Nouveau appear so different than the Art Nouveau I know?

Old Customs Warehouse, Katajanokka, HelsinkiReading all sorts of information on the 1895-1910 Finnish (Scandinavian) architecture then got me confused, as some publications called the architecture Art Nouveau, when others called the same architecture National Romanticism. It is very difficult to find a good explanation for this, but I think it basically comes down to this: from about 1895 Art Nouveau became the new architectural standard all over Europe, thus also in Finland. The Finnish architects however insisted on integrating this New Style with their Scandinavian heritage as to express the same “dream of the North” nationalism that stimulated a renewed interest in the eddas and sagas. National Romantic architecture expressed progressive social and political ideals, through reformed domestic architecture. (source: wiki)
The following quote comes from a paper by Erik Gunnar Asplund about Swedish National Romantic architecture, and basically states the same: “The industrialisation and rapid urbanisation that took place in Sweden in the early 20th century created the conditions that produced a new architecture. This new architecture, commonly called National Romanticism, insisted on genuine materials and national character while integrating national heritage with international patterns…”

…and those international patterns are, around 1900, of course the ones we know as Art Nouveau.

Niclas Fogwall states in his article about Swedish national romantic architecture that “at the beginning of the 20th century the new generation architects had enough of the eclecticism – the copying of older styles – and were eagerly searching for what they called “a modern style”. Despite the flourishing Art Nouveau style on the European continent that partly affected the Swedish architects, the new generation of Swedish architects wanted to create a style of their own as they saw Art Nouveau too international for their taste. Similar to the Art Nouveau architects, they were looking for old handicraftship but with a genuine national style, influenced by the buildings from the renassaince period of the 16th century. The result of their achievements became what we today call “Swedish national romantic architecture”, which had its era of prosperity around 1910.”

Map of Europe around 1900

Map of Europe around 1900

He continues his story about the origins of National Romantic architecture by pointing out the turbulent political circumstances in the 19th century. England was, for a long time, one of the greatest powers. But now, Germany was also becoming a stong power, and smaller countries were forming alliances to strengthen their position. Borders were closed and the atmosphere was getting grim. For Scandinavian people, the loss of Finland to the Russians in 1809 was probably the biggest shock, but also the international competition due to the rapid industrialisation in the mid 1900s and the fact that Norway simply withdrew from the union with Sweden in 1905 made people more protective of their own country’s production, and of their cultural heritage. Inspired by the ideals of the Arts & Crafts movement as well as by their own legends and natural mysticism Scandinavian architects turned to honest, natural materials and craftsmanship with fairylike turrets and ethnographical ornaments on castle-shaped apartment buildings. It really is a shame that all this political “quarreling” of the 19th century ultimately led to WWI and the termination of our beloved Art Nouveau era.

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Not knowing if I will ever get a chance to return to Helsinki, I took dozens of pictures of Helsinki’s National Romantic Art Nouveau:

The Wilkman House by Vilho Penttilä in 1904 The Wilkman House by Vilho Penttilä in 1904
The Wilkman House, by architect Vilho Penttilä, in 1904

Central Railway Station, by architect Eliel Saarinen, in 1914 Central Railway Station, by architect Eliel Saarinen, in 1914
Central Railway Station, by architect Eliel Saarinen, in 1914National Theatre, by architect Onni Tarjanne, in 1902

National Theatre, by architect Onni Tarjanne, in 1902 National Theatre, by architect Onni Tarjanne, in 1902
National Theatre, by architect Onni Tarjanne, in 1902

Art Nouveau Helsinki Art Nouveau Helsinki

Art Nouveau Helsinki

Art Nouveau Helsinki Art Nouveau Helsinki Art Nouveau Helsinki

Art Nouveau Helsinki Art Nouveau in Helsinki

Sources:

Helsinki on Foot
Art Nouveau in Helsinki
Helsinki – Art Nouveau Tram Tour
Helsinki – Art Nouveau Walking Tour
Jugendstil in Finnland (German)
National Romanticism Apartment Buildings in Riga
Art Nouveau Architecture in Finland

Old Customs Warehouse, Katajanokanlaituri 5, 00160 Helsinki, Finland.

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