Architecture, Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts Movement, Erik Gunnar Asplund, ethnographical, Gustav Nyström, Helsinki, Jugendstil, Katajanokka, National Romanticism, Niclas Fogwall, Old Customs Warehouse, ornaments, political, Scandinavia
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!
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?
Reading 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.”
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.
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 architect Vilho Penttilä, in 1904
Central Railway Station, by architect Eliel Saarinen, in 1914
National Theatre, by architect Onni Tarjanne, in 1902
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.
Very interesting! Thanks for sharing!
Reblogged this on falling in love….with art nouveau.
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Maria-Bettina Eich said:
Having just discovered your blog, I’ll certainly come back regularly. A huge fan of Helsinki and Finland in general and having asked myself often about the relationship between Art nouveau and National romanticism in Finland, I started with your Helsinki blog post. Thanks for the in-depth Information! If you ever have the opportunity to travel to Finland again, you absolutely have to go to Hvitträsk. It’s in the countryside, not too far from Helsinki, and it is a home built by several of the leading architects of National romanticism for themselves. It’s truly enchanting.
Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to read my blog on Helsinki. If I ever get to Finland again, I will make sure to visit Hvitträsk as you suggest.
Janne Nokelainen said:
Thank you for an interesting post. However, I would like to correct one rather major thing: Finland is not Scandinavia. Scandinavia is a mountain range between Sweden and Norway. The Finnish language is not in any way related to Scandinavian languages. It’s true there has been a lot of cultural exchange between Finnic and Scandinavian peoples which has made these cultures also similar in many ways. However, a lot of Finnish history is also about being ruled by the Swedish empire. So this relationship is kind of a double edged sword as is our love-hate relationship to our Swedish neighbors. Finnish culture is not based in the Eddas or Sagas in any way. Our cultural heritage is Finno-Ugric and we have a completely distinct (non Germanic, non Slavic and also non Indo-European) mythology connected to North Western Eurasia. I’m not an expert on architecture but my impression has been that Finnish National Romanticism adopted a lot of the language of the Germanic peoples of Scandinavia and Germany but the motifs, themes and subject matter were derived from our Finnic (Finno-Ugrian) cultural heritage. So Art Nouveau or is sort of like the dressing for a peculiar kind of salad – Finnish National Romanticism.
Dear Janne, I guess that depends on where you live. According to what I learned in school and what is also confirmed on wikipedia “The term Scandinavia in local usage covers the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. HOWEVER, in English usage, the term also sometimes refers to the Scandinavian Peninsula, or to the broader region including Finland and Iceland, which is always known locally as the Nordic countries.” So, it is of course not my intention to hurt anyones feelings, but that is just how we call the Nordic Countries in English, outside of Finland…
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