Facing the Monument: Facing the Future

11 March 2015 | By Bazarov

'Bolt' and the problem of Soviet ballet, 1931

16 February 2015 | By Ivan Sollertinsky

Some Thoughts on the Ballets Russes Abroad

16 December 2014 | By Isabel Stockholm

Last Orders for the Grand Duchy

11 December 2014 | By Bazarov

Rozanova and Malevich – Racing Towards Abstraction?

15 October 2014 | By Mollie Arbuthnot

Walter Spies, Moscow 1895 – Indonesia 1942

13 August 2014 | By Bazarov

The Genius of Erte

28 April 2014 | By Rachel Hajek

Solidarity, people!

24 March 2014 | By Renée-Claude Landry

Guest Blog | Pulsating Crystals

17 February 2014 | By Robert Chandler Chandler

Guest Blog | Stenbergs' Faces

03 February 2014 | By Paul Rennie

Shostakovich: A Russian Composer?

05 December 2013 | By Bazarov

Travelling with intourist

31 July 2013 | By Richard Barling

Last Orders for the Grand Duchy

11 December 2014 | By Bazarov

Helsinki Jugendstijl. Photograph by Bazarov

When Tsar Alexander 1 sat down with Napoleon in Tilsit in 1809 to divide up their respective spheres of influence, the territory of present day Finland was detached from Sweden, its rulers for the previous 600 years. Following the annexation and subsequent conquest of the Finnish territories by Russia, Alexander proclaimed himself ruler of a new Grand Duchy, and set about creating a fitting capital, selecting for its site in 1812 the small town of Helsinki, population 4000, which had been badly damaged by fire a few years before. The brief given to the head of the reconstruction committee was for a city grand enough to serve as ‘the symbolic heart of the Grand Duchy of Finland, where all the main institutions had an exact place dictated by their function in the hierarchy’. Russian administrative bureaucracy was to be turned into stone at the western end of the Gulf of Finland, opposite Peter the Great’s Baltic retreat at Tallinn, and close enough to the Imperial capital St Petersburg.

Bazarov 3.jpg  Bazarov 4.jpg
Helsinki vignettes. Memorial to the visit of the Empress Alexandra (left), Lutheran Cathedral by C. L. Engel, consecrated 1852 (right). Photographs by Bazarov

The chosen architect, Carl Ludwig Engel (1778–1840), was born, raised and trained in Berlin and earned something of a reputation for designing dams, mills and water pumps, before being awarded the post of municipal architect in Tallinn.

Carl Ludwig Engel (courtesy: Biografiakeskus, Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura)

Having slipped away for three weeks to St Petersburg he next appears in Turku, the former Swedish administrative capital of Finland, working on a sugar factory for a Petersburg industrialist. Here he also designed an observatory, but his big opportunity came when he was proposed as architect for the rebuilding committee for Helsinki. He drew up plans in the St Petersburg Empire Style, itself based on European Palladianism, and these having been approved by the Tsar, Engel received his contract in 1816.

Senate Square, Helsinki, 1822-1844 courtesy: this is Finland

Among a wealth of buildings designed by Engel the length and breadth of the Grand Duchy, his masterpiece is Senate Square in Helsinki. He was a wizard with classical column orders, the use of which entailed an internal hierachy which must have appealed to the imperial bureaucrats. He followed the approved Palladian rules in selecting different orders for different functions, so that the Senate, for example, deploys Corinthian columns  to suggest the power of its incumbents, with the Ionic order  for the street façade to tie in with the surrounding municipal and domestic scene. His brilliance was to follow the rules meticulously but nevertheless devise ensembles of great harmony and a freshness appropriate to a young Baltic state. By mid-century a new city graced the Gulf of Finland, gateway to St Petersburg, Russia’s window on the west. ‘It was a city of light colours – mainly yellow and grey – in which every building was in the same style, with the same kinds of cornices, window surroundings, pilasters and pediments…’ (Nils Erik Wickberg). A triumph of order, and a small reflection of the great imperial capital itself.

Bazarov 2.jpg  bazarov.jpg
Cathedral, Oulu, 1832. Photographs by Bazarov

Engel’s work is to be found in many towns and cities, introducing a note of elegance to places otherwise often disfigured by fire or war.       

bazarov 7.jpg
Town Hall, Kajaani, 1831. Photograph by Bazarov

The traditional timber houses of old Finland are now few and far between, and within 50 year of Engel’s death, new styles emerged such as Jugendstijl of which Helsinki has a very rich selection. The pioneering modernism of Alva Aalto may indeed be thought of as arising from the neoclassical purism of Engel as well as the traditional forms of Finnish architecture. Tsar Alexander 1 and his officials were in this sense the midwives of a distinctive and enduring architectural tradition at the top of the Baltic.

Bazarov 8.jpg Laapia House, Rovaniemi, Aalvar Aalto, 1965. Photograph by Bazarov