Art historian, Chief Curator, Alvar Aalto Archives,
Tel: 358 –(0)9 480 123
Mobile: 050-366 1501
UNIVERSAL VERSUS INDIVIDUAL
Plans for Helsinki City Centre by Alvar Aalto.
The general plan for Helsinki city centre has been acute for about one hundred years. There has been many alternative plans, numerous competitions as well as a lot of discussion and arguing about them. And yet the area in the heart of the city is still waiting for a final acceptable plan. At the moment the area between the bus station, railway station and Töölönlahti bay is being developed without a master plan, which would give relevant and realistic possibilities towards the future use of the area.
In this paper I briefly introduce Alvar Aalto's plans for the centre of Helsinki dating from the end of the 1950s and 1960s. However, none of these plans were ever carried out in their entirety. My paper concentrates on the final City Councils record from 1966. The plans and drawings for that proposal were made in 1961-1965.
In 1958 (17.04.1958) a committee was appointed under the chairmanship of the Lord Mayor of Helsinki, with members representing the city, the state and the state railways, together with the associations of Finnish architects and engineers. In 1959 this committee entrusted Alvar Aalto with the task of formulating a central plan for Helsinki.1 There are six clearly separate geographical or functional areas he concentrated on:
1. Töölönlahti bay area and Hesperia Park
Public buildings (opera house, concert and conference house (realised as the Finlandia Hall), Finnish Academy House, Museum of Architecture and Design, etc. The proposed buildings are placed on pillars partly on ground and partly on water, so that from the park there is an open view through the buildings. This area continues the view from the terraced square to the north. The Concert Hall (120,000m) was absolutely the largest single building in the group, while the others were low and relatively small (c.190,000m33 in total).
The area in front of the Finnish House of Parliament, Piazza Triangolo as Aalto called it, is an open central area (in total 94,500m2) which combined the old centre and the Töölönlahti bay district. This part allowed open views between the eastern and western parts of the city. Aalto's idea was to arrange a new active area which would gather and concentrate the cultural and economic needs of the progressive and democratic state. Included in the proposal was a large underground parking facility placed below the terraces. The committee agreed that this area was the most significant one. However, it was also the most criticised part of the whole plan.
3. Kamppi and the bus station
In Aalto’s plan the eastern part of the Kamppi area was meant for active commercial purposes. The buildings facing Mannerheimintie road were to be 6-8 storeys high. The bus station was to be pushed to the west (approximately the present-day buss platforms for Espoo buses). The bus station was planned to be built on three levels, with the cargo traffic placed underneath. There was also a need for parking for 5000 - 8000 cars in Kamppi. The estimated number of buses was as much as 600 buses per hour. Traffic, parking and pedestrian access were each divided into separate levels. When reviewing Aalto’s plans, the building committee demanded that the building volume should be reduced.
Pasila is situated immediately north of the city centre, a complicated area between the main railway lines and the old residential area of Käpylä. In the plan it was proposed as a reserve area for city expansion and the railways. According to Aalto, the area was suitable for office buildings but not for residential use. Helsinki City Council announced that Pasila would become a new city centre in the future, or at least a starting point for it. The committee proposed that at least some of the goods traffic should be moved north of Pasila, away from the city centre. That fits in with Aalto's central idea of building a new main road (Vapaudenkatu street), from the railway area northwards, and at the same time to reduce the pressure at the main railway station area. The City Council also agreed (1961) that the Pasila area was not suitable for residential purposes.
5. The Katajanokka canal and main market square.
This area was not officially included in Aalto's central plan, yet he made plans for that area at the same time. It played an important role in the traffic plans.
6. The railway station and rail traffic.
The Finnish State Railways and Helsinki City negotiated about land changes in the vicinity of the railway station. The newly proposed Vapaudenkatu street, the main route into the city, was to run above the rails (level +10.00). The intention was to keep the passenger railway traffic in the centre of city. The planned new urban centre would be traffic-wise crowded and Aalto paid a lot of attention to the various traffic lines. The railway station was (and still is) located in the very centre of the city, and the land around it is owned by the state. New traffic arrangements, including a new metro line, were to complement existing tram lines and busses. A new bus station was needed for traffic northwards and eastwards but there was no obvious location for it.
Aalto wanted to keep open the view eastwards from the Parliament House towards Kallio. In particular, he pointed out the fine perspective towards the hilly natural landscape and the Kallio Church silhouette above the roofs. He also tried to combine the traditionally separate parts of the city: Töölö and the city centre in the west and the Kallio workers’ neighbourhoods.
The proposed new main road (Vapaudenkatu street) would go along the eastern shore of Töölö bay, and the public buildings on the opposite side would form a solid view for people arriving into the city. The traffic would be led beneath the terrace square, while the ground level was reserved for pedestrians.
The planning work began in 1959 and was completed in 1964. A large number of architects took part in the work in Aalto's architectural office: the leading architect during years 1959-1961 was Erkki Luoma and during the years 1961-1964 Paavo Mänttäri.2 Aalto's own description gives the best impression of his own objectives and the expectations, and it is worth quoting at length:
"The central plan for Helsinki consists of the following sections: the Central Square, Hesperia Park with public buildings, the Töölö inlet, preserved and exploited as an accompaniment to the park and buildings, the Kamppi area, which continues and brings to an end the present city, along with some smaller parts adjacent to the main areas. Regarding the proposal for the city, the plan has been supplemented by the Pasila area, which constitutes a centre in itself.
The main entry road into the city, with four of five traffic lanes in each direction, is located above the railway, so that it provides those arriving with a general view of the town. The proposer has regarded it as important that this main artery be so placed that the western and eastern sections of the town can be seen at one and the same time. The Kallio area is thus not separated architectonically from the other parts of the town, but forms, together with the Töölö district of the city, a so-called "internal crater" in the city. The entry road lies so high that Kaisaniemi Park and the areas north of this are introduced into the perspective at the correct height. The public buildings are so located that, seen from the entry road, they give the town its facial appearance, and the new Helsinki its character.
The distribution of traffic in different directions is arranged by means of overpasses and tunnels, which eliminate the inconveniences of large traffic roundabouts. At the point at which the traffic is split up there lies a terraced square on three levels, which, like the Kamppi area, functions internally as a large-scale parking lot. The main principle has been that of locating the parking areas so that they are concentrated at the point where the entry road traffic meets the Helsinki city quarter, that is to say, where they are needed most and where they contribute to the prevention of parking congestion in the traffic running out into the Helsinki promontory.
In the uppermost terraces of the Central Square are shops, and immediately below them is a parking house, that is to say, the same combination is realised in central Helsinki as in provincial shopping centres where parking facilities are directly connected to sales points. The square itself has been thought of as a meeting place for people which is completely free from vehicular traffic. Of course, it can in the future be extended as development dictates.
The public buildings on the outskirts of Hesperia Park are partly placed in the water, and constitute, along with the park and reflections in the water, a unit in themselves. This result could not have been achieved if the public buildings had been located, say, along Mannerheimintie road. In that case, a large proportion of the park would have been destroyed. By means of the proposed siting, the park areas have been preserved. They have not been cut down, but rather enlarged, so that the area exploitable for pedestrian traffic is bigger than before. Pedestrians are thus led away from the narrow pavements of Mannerheimintie road.
The concert hall, along with the conference hall connected to it, lies by the triangular open area, and constitutes its end-point proper and its culmination. At the request of the City of Helsinki, this building has already been studied in detail. In the northward direction from the concert hall, the proposer has envisaged an opera house, an art museum and a library, together with some public buildings as a reserve for future needs. In the plan, all buildings are given maximum dimensions.
These public buildings stand in part on pillars, and beneath them, along the shoreline, there is formed a running colonnade. The relationship between the buildings and the surrounding terrain makes the water reflections visible from the park both through the colonnade and between the buildings.
When it comes to a question of urban centres, there exist two kinds of natural landscape – "town-building nature" and undisturbed nature. The former constitutes the backbone proper in classic town-building, whereas the latter is a half-sentimental product of the nineteenth century, which has not contributed to firm town solutions. In the case of Helsinki, for instance, it could not be a happy solution to form the Töölö inlet and Hesperia Park into an idyll in miniature: rather, the impression would be comical, if right in the heart of a metropolis there were to be created an unsuccessful copy of a Karelian forest lake.
The Kamppi area, already built-up to some extent, makes in this plan an end-point for Helsinki city, so far uncontrolled. Here also, pedestrian movement is freed from disturbing vehicular traffic. The uppermost deck has been accorded a shape like a square: it is reserved for pedestrian traffic, and in its entirety serves commercial life and its customers. The underlying deck is reserved for vehicles. The upper floors of the Kamppi area are reserved for parking, with ingress and egress in the direction of the traffic. At the eastern end of the area there lies the central bus station for long-distance traffic, directly connected with the pedestrian square mentioned above.
The building height in this area has been so calculated that the Kamppi area as a whole really constitutes a termination of the "city": the heights harmonise with existing buildings, the post office, and so on.
The Pasila area and the central swathes of lines to the present railway station in the centre of Helsinki will later be added to the plan. The major part of the Pasila area consists of a railway yard, which lies almost exactly at the point where the local traffic from the triangular promontory of Helsinki can be evenly distributed in eastern, western and northern directions. Local traffic to the parts of Helsinki which consist of garden city districts will accordingly acquire a fan shape, and to this traffic there can be joined the local express services to the more remote satellite towns. It is clear that the advantageous situation of the railway yard area can to a substantial extent facilitate the necessary collective traffic in a large town, and furthermore that the present railway station, used exclusively for passenger traffic, must have tracks which make it capable for use as a departure for local traffic. When at a later date the rail network to Helsinki is electrified, a significant part of this railway yard area can be planted out and become a green section of the town.
The premises are not such that there exists any need to look in a pessimistic vein at the case of Helsinki as regards a Greater Helsinki and all its traffic problems. On the other hand, the starting situation is favourable in comparison with other corresponding cases, as the necessary reforms can be put into effect."3
Aalto was more or less involved in the plans for the centre of Helsinki until his death in 1976. After all, the whole project was supposed to be all too huge and large-scaled. Helsinki City Council accepted Aalto's plan with some criticism.
In 1985 a Nordic planning competition for the centre of Helsinki was arranged, although the planning area was much more limited than the plans covered by Aalto’s plans. The organisers wished for general ideas capable of further development. Anyway it is interesting to notice that some of Aalto's then too utopian basic ideas will now be realised – 25 years after his death.
1 Helsinki City Council record no.18-1966.
2 Arkkitehti 3-1965; special edition devoted to "Helsinki Central Plan". Architects who participated in the project in Aalto's office according to the working hour lists at the Alvar Aalto Archives: Erik Adlercreutz, Jonas Cedercreutz, Jean-Pierre Cousin, Donald Crowley, Atindra Datta, Klaus Dunker, Leif Englund, Veli-Pekka Erpo, Sverker Gardberg, Maija-Liisa Hakala, Matti Heikkinen, Kalevi Hietanen, Peter Hofmann, Juhani Hyvärinen, Sven Hägerström, Juhani Jauhiainen, Mikko Järvi (model making 1963-64), Marjatta Kivijärvi, Jaakko Kontio, Juhani Kulovesi, Tapani Launis, Sakari Laitinen, Markku Leskinen, Mauri Liedenpohja, Kai Liestalo, Erkki Luoma, Federico Marconi, Kristina Mattson, John Methuen, Walter Moser, Paavo Mänttäri, Vezio Nava, Aulikki Nurminen, Lars Nygren, Leonhard Ott, Rainer Ott, Heimo Paanajärvi, Matti Porkka, Jussi Rautsi, Jorma Salmenkivi, Teofilo Senn, Arto Sipinen, Jaakko Suihkonen, Hans Slangus, Hasse Stenius, Jan Söderlund, Kimmo Söderholm, Georg Schwalm-Theis , Aarne Tarumaa, Erik Vartiainen, Marjaleena Vatara, Walter Ziebold, and Per-Mauritz Ålander.