Architecture in Helsinki: Places Like This

CRANBROOK SIGHTING #9
Sighter: Shelley Selim
Sighted: Eliel Saarinen, Helsinki Central Railway Station
Location: Helsinki, Finland
Date: July 4, 2012

There was a two week block of last summer when at any given moment I could be found clapping, beaming, and prancing with merriment; arms open to our joyous earth’s embrace. No, I hadn’t finally completed my master’s degree (that would come later—with commensurate celebrating in its own right), but rather had landed on Nordic soil, where I completed the remainder of my graduate coursework studying Scandinavian design amidst the incredible apples and countrysides of Sweden and Finland.

How befitting that on our American day of independence, I disembarked in Finland, a country that was also shaped by the struggle for its own autonomy (a struggle which persisted for centuries longer than that of the Tories and the Patriots, I might add). That morning I launched my tour-laden itinerary with a walk to the hub of public transit: the Helsinki Central Railway Station. Conceived by Cranbrook mahatma Eliel Saarinen in 1904, it underwent myriad design revisions before reaching its completed form in 1919. While technological modernization has necessitated considerable renovations to the building’s interior over the years, the external structure remains largely in its original, magnificent state.

Please excuse my blatant Hockney expropriation here. Armed with only an iPhone and a cheap point-and-shoot camera, in my travels I’m often forced to “assemblage” my fractured photographs in a sad attempt to capture the visage of any large building situated on a narrow street (read: most of metropolitan Europe).

Like much of Saarinen’s oeuvre, the Helsinki Central Railway Station is widely celebrated as an architectural masterpiece. Personally, it most appeals to me both as a signifier of the growth of the twentieth-century urban landscape as well as Eliel’s own transition toward a more rationalist approach to design. His original elevation aligned closely with the turn-of-the-century National Romantic style he championed in Finland, most notably the National Museum of Finland (1902-1912) and the Finnish Pavilion at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, both efforts of the Gesellius, Lindgren, and Saarinen architectural firm.

But in the early 1910s, at this point fully abreast of the appeals for modern architecture radiating from Germany, Saarinen eschewed the spired tower and carved granite bears of his initial design, replacing them with Olbrich-esque vaults, sweeping vertical lines, and an arresting quad of proto-deco Emil Wikström “Stone Men” sculptures. With arms extended, presenting lantern globes to railway visitors, the brawny figures can be seen as symbols of a newly empowered and independent Finland, or perhaps a nod to the increasing accessibility of once distant lands at the dawn of the 1920s vogue for travel.

Left: Window detail from the Helsinki Central Railway Station. Right: Saarinen House (completed 1930), photo courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The stepped masonry and geometric patterning in the leaded windows would also become Saarinen trademarks, visible on many of the buildings throughout the Cranbrook campus, including the architect’s own home.

Posted by Shelley Selim
2013-14 Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow

A Road Trip by Design, Part 2

CRANBROOK SIGHTING #6
Sighter: Chad Alligood
Sighted: Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church, 1940-42; Eero Saarinen’s North Christian Church, 1964; Harry Weese’s Cummins Engine Company Tech Center, 1968
Location: Columbus, IN
Date:  February 22, 2013

Part one of my road trip from Michigan to Kentucky brought me to the doorstep of Eero Saarinen’s Miller House in Columbus, IN. Here, then, I submit for your consideration part two: the rapid-fire highlights of my whirlwind, self-cobbled tour of Cranbrook in Columbus.

3:02 PM, Friday afternoon: I need to be in Louisville, KY—about 75 miles away—by 5 PM. Short on time but long on curiosity, I decide to hit as many of the Cranbrook-related local gems of modern architecture as possible before I hit I-65 South.

3:04 PM: I wander out of the Columbus Area Visitor’s Center, map in hand, attempting to plot an architecturally significant route while walking. As I ponder which cool building is closest, I look up from my map to be confronted with the answer:

Crisp lines, modern geometry and repetition, minimal ornament: the soaring tower of Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church breaks my nerd-alert map concentration. It’s difficult even now to imagine how such a monumental reduction of form emerges so early in the century: Eliel begins work on this project in 1940 (at the same time as he develops the design for Cranbrook Art Museum, with which the church shares numerous stylistic attributes). Composed of three rectangular wings surrounding a sunken garden, First Christian Church comprises an essay in clarity of thought and unity of overall form. Taking cues from the earlier models of his Finnish countrymen Alvar Aalto and Erik Bryggmann, Eliel—in concert with his son Eero—imbued the rational, linear form with the tactile material warmth of buff stone panels and tan brick. Bonus vintage shot of the church under construction on March 19, 1941, courtesy of Cranbrook Archives:

3:19 PM: I try to enter several locked doors of the church. I fail. I curse.

3:21 PM: With no time to linger, I hop into Celeste, my beloved ’91 Camry, bound for yet another Saarinen church—but this one is Eero’s. As I drive up the winding path, North Christian Church looks as if it could lift off at any moment. In his architectural vocabulary of simplified forms, Eero sought a language that would “clearly and logically express the form and character of the church.” Hexagonal in plan with a 192-foot spire, the building cuts a knifelike silhouette through the high cloudbank of a February storm:

Given the chilly drizzle and the fact that it’s early Friday afternoon, I have the place to myself. I steal a moment of quiet under the curved awning, reveling in Eero’s visionary forms and sensitive materials.

3:30 PM: I try to enter several locked doors of the church. I fail. I curse.

3:36 PM: With only time for one final drive-by, I plot my next move on the way to the I-65. I settle on the quirky, proto-Brutalist Cummins Engine Company Tech Center designed by Cranbrook alum Harry Weese in 1968. I’m always drawn to the concrete construction and repetitive form of American architecture of the late 1960s and 1970s—it’s often so withholding, so dutiful in its drilled-down muscularity. Weese enlivens the façade with idiosyncratic pre-cast concrete sun shades over each of the glass exterior windows. I find a certain awkward charm in this strange detail, so I snap a photo through the fence:

3:45 PM: Kentucky beckons. With Weese’s blocky concrete in my rearview mirror, I hit the highway headed south—with Cranbrook Sighting #7 no doubt just around the corner.

 

Posted by Chad Alligood
2012-13 Jeanne and Ralph Graham Collections Fellow