No matter where I went in Finland, from Oulu in the north to Helsinki in the south, I was attracted by so many beautiful buildings, in between all those lakes and forests. I soon learned that many of my favorites had a common denominator: Carl Ludvig Engel, the prolific architect who left an indelible mark on this Nordic country. He wasn’t Finnish, though; Engel was born in Germany in 1778 and started his architectural career in Estonia in 1809. He didn’t head north to Finland until 1816, engaged in what he thought would be a temporary job. As it turned out, the temp job became his full-time employment and constituted the bulk of his life’s work of creating fantastic buildings in his adoptive country until his death in 1840. These are my favorites.
#1 Helsinki Cathedral (Helsinki)
Atop an exceptionally broad staircase of nearly four dozen steep steps in Senate Square, Helsinki Cathedral towers over its neighbors, making a particularly impressive site when viewed from a boat sailing into one of the nearby harbors. Begun in 1830 and completed in 1852 as a tribute to Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, the grand duke of Finland, Engel’s masterpiece was known as St. Nicholas’ Church until Finland achieved independence in 1917. With the exception of its doors and its green roofs and domes topped with gold crosses, the entire structure is white—one of the world’s best things that are white, in fact. And that means it easily adopts different moods and vibes depending on the time of day or year. During sunny summer days, the columns, pediments, statues, and towers of this neoclassical Lutheran church stand blindingly bright against a blue sky; at night, lights bathe the effulgent structure against a cobalt sky like a welcoming beacon. In winter, it’s like an enticingly mysterious ice castle. Inside, white reigns supreme, too. Designed in a Greek cross plan, symmetrical in each direction, the cathedral is sparsely decorated. With a few exceptions, like the organ and the wood pews, you’re surrounded by white—keeping you cool in the summer but always reminding you of cold Finnish winters. The cathedral seats 1,300 people, so I found it astonishingly lucky to be the only person there, save for a few transient stragglers just popping in for a look, for a 30-minute organ concert, surrounded by the purity of white.
#2 National Library of Finland (Helsinki)
The handsome main building of the National Library of Finland stands just a block north of Helsinki Cathedral and Senate Square. The foremost research library in the country is part of the University of Helsinki and is responsible for storing Finnish cultural heritage. By law, it receives copies of all printed materials produced, or for circulation, in Finland, which it then retains for itself and also distributes to five other university libraries. Such a repository, now totaling three million items, deserved a monumental home, and Engel created just that. The library’s main branch building was completed in 1844. Emperor Nicholas I of Russia personally selected the design from three that Engel drafted. With its pale yellow façade, the building is boldly Classical, from its symmetry to the Corinthian columns and pilasters along the front entrance, suggesting a Classical temple. Although the rotunda was added by a different architect in 1906, Engel’s original structure remains largely untouched, and you may want to step inside to wander around the three grand halls as well as the underground bunker, nearly 60’ below the library, where the bulk of the library’s collection is stored in a two-million-cubic-foot space drilled into solid rock called Kirjaluola (“book cave”).
#3 Oulu Cathedral (Oulu)
In one of my favorite small cities, which also boasts one of the world’s best urban parks, I found another Engel work. The present Oulu Cathedral, in the city of the same name that rests just 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle, is the third version; the first, a wooden church from the 1610s that had become too small and rundown, was razed, and the second, from 1777, mostly burned down in 1822. The latter’s stone walls survived, however, and Engel incorporated them into the current cathedral, a neoclassical structure completed in 1832. He created a new central dome, a tower with four clocks topped with a gold ball and cross, and roof structures that terminate in arches filled in with rays of light shooting out of a pyramid (akin to what appears on a U.S. dollar, but without the Eye of Providence). Early morning sunshine (4.30 a.m., in my case, when I was already out and on my way to the train station) makes the yellow façade glow. Inside, the white austerity is tampered by some wonderful details. Among the dignified straight lines and pale surfaces, there’s the beautiful marble circular pulpit and the organ case, both with gilded trim. Four charcoal-gray medallions of angels (with golden halos) take up the pendentives of the rotunda. Some stained-glass windows add the greatest splashes of color, including the Burning Bush Window, added only in 1977. Chandeliers and sconces from the 18th century, paintings, and other valuable artworks provide plenty of things to admire, whether you’re visiting by yourself in an otherwise empty church, like I was, or you’re one of the more than 1,500 people the church can accommodate at one time.
#4 Esplanadi (Helsinki)
Engel took a break from designing buildings when he created Esplanadi, the most beloved and frequented park in Helsinki. Dropped right in the heart of the Finnish capital, this esplanade has plenty to see and enjoy as well as the opportunity to just relax and see nothing in particular, and I usually found myself there at some point of every day. Opened in 1818, the rectangular park was originally intended as a space for Finns in which to promenade (and spent some time as a vegetable garden during the rough years of World War II). Flanked by restaurants, shops, cafés (including Kappeli Café, one of the world’s best cafés), and hotels (among them, the fantastic Hotel Kämp, where I had the good fortune to spend quite a few nights) in an impressive swath of some of the city’s most beautiful buildings, Esplanadi seduces Finns and visitors alike. Laburnum hedges, lampposts, benches, and linden, horse chestnut, and aspen trees frame the main pedestrian promenade through the center of the park and the alleys that branch off from it. Throughout the park, you’ll find public art, like the statues of Finland’s national poets, an irresistible fairy-tale snack kiosk from 1893, playful fountains and pools (one with a small boy frolicking with a fish), and an outdoor stage for live performances that range from a particularly talented jazz trio to a female soloist who sounded like a cat being tortured. The western end of the park terminates at the Swedish Theatre, approached through the greenhouse-like structure of its restaurant. Changing seasons bring shorter-term attractions to the park’s permanence: In spring and summer, trees bloom and colorful rhododendrons and hydrangeas blossom in carefully tended flowerbeds; in winter, little blue lights snaking around trees add romance to the park as you crunch on the snow beneath your feet. No matter what time of year you’re here, you’re bound to fall in love with Engel’s great outdoor public space.
#5 Swedish Theater (Turku)
When most of the southern Finnish city of Turku was wiped out by a massive conflagration in 1827, Engel was brought in to create a new city plan. One element of that was the Swedish Theater (Åbo Svenska Teater), opened in 1839. Finland’s oldest theater (and the oldest theater building still in use for its original purpose) houses three separate stages with a total of about 600 seats. The bold yellow façade of the three-story building is trimmed with white—door frames, dentils, brackets, and pilasters with identical panels with a theater mask between them. Subsequent renovations and a fire did away with some of Engel’s touches, but you can still appreciate many of the theater’s treasures inside: the canopy, the beautiful ceiling of cherubs with songbooks and instruments, rich curtain, and impressive chandelier.
- Main Building, University of Helsinki (Helsinki, 1832)
- Pulpit, Turku Cathedral (Turku, 1834)
- Government Palace (Helsinki, 1822)
- City Hall (Helsinki, 1833)
- Franzén House (Oulu, 1829)
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