04/2018: In the shadow of Eliel Saarinen (book review)

Kaupungin piirteet / Stadens prägel / Outlining a city, toim. / red. / ed. Juha Ilonen. Stiftelsen Pro Helsingfors, Pro Helsinki -säätiö, 2017, 240 s./p. 

In the early 20th century, Helsinki was transforming into a modern European big city, Grossstadt. International trends were closely followed in Finland, which was also visible in the urban plans prepared by leading architects such as Eliel Saarinen, Bertel Jung, Lars Sonck, Birger Brunila and Otto-I. Meurman. In terms of visions, the boldest was Saarinen who, inspired by the results of the Greater Berlin Competition of 1910 and financed by the businessman Julius Tallberg, prepared the Greater Helsinki Plan in collaboration with Jung. The plan was published by the Foundation Pro Helsingfors (“For Helsinki”) established by Tallberg in 1917.

To celebrate its centennial year, the foundation has published the book “Outlining a city” in which the “city” is Helsinki. Its beautification has been one of the foundation’s objectives from the beginning. Juha Ilonen is the editor, photographer and graphic designer of the book, which includes contributions by 22 authors.

The book is a collection of articles, historical maps, old and new photographs as well as about twenty vignette-like texts. The combination is unusual. For whom the book is intended is unclear. The imposing visual outlook and large size imply that it is a gift book not meant to be read closely. At the same time, the references used in some of the articles suggest a research-based study. However, scientific criteria are not followed in all of the writings. Or is it an art book? No doubt readers who follow urban planning in Helsinki will find a lot of interesting topics in the work.

The range of subjects covered in the articles is extensive. Besides Saarinen’s Greater Helsinki Plan, the authors discuss the Suomenlinna Fortress, manors, park plans, seafronts, plans for new tower blocks, the transport network and the Helsinki portrayed in documentary films. Evidently urban features do not include the city center and its changes, commerce, work (except factory work), housing areas, or urban life in general.

The importance of history to the building of a city is addressed in several articles. A little gem among the texts is Rainer Knapas’ study of 19th-century parks and unrealized park plans. Towards the end of the book, the authors offer personal impressions called “essays” but without developing their ideas or connecting them to the themes of the book. They appear random and, in places, repetitive.

The illustrations are the strength of the book. The large format is particularly gratifying for the presentations of old maps and drawings. Historical photographs illustrate the huge changes. The photos taken by Juha Ilonen for the book reveal poetic characteristics of present-day Helsinki. Double pages with a single large photograph on one page and texts on the opposite page in a small font size are graphically unbalanced. Could the dominance of the images over texts be more clearly demonstrated?

The totality has remained fragmentary. The train of thought of the authors is difficult to follow due to recurring breaks, as each page contains texts in three languages. The comprehensive vision of the features of the city is not conveyed to the reader.

The many parts of the book are not connected by the historically formed city or today’s Helsinki, but by the 100-year-old Greater Helsinki Plan, and even then only weakly. Eliel Saarinen casts a long shadow.
*Published in the Finnish Architectural Review, vol. 114, 4/2017.   

Kirjan monia osia ei yhdistä historiallisesti rakentunut kaupunki eikä nykyinen Helsinki, vaan satavuotias Suur-Helsinki-suunnitelma, sekin vain ohuesti. Eliel Saarisen varjo on pitkä. *Kirjoitus on julkaistu hieman tiivistetyssä muodossa Arkkitehti-lehdessä vol. 114, 4/2017.


Anja Kervanto Nevanlinna