Building conservation

In the 1960s, the population of Helsinki grew rapidly, and the city was modernised. However, the population growth was focused in suburbs in the city’s periphery, and Helsinki’s historic centre became isolated as a place for only administrative activities. Post-war reconstruction and a buoyant hope for the future culminated in numerous large demolition projects to make way for new construction in the city. This in turn led to the birth of a building conservation ethos.
The old buildings in the centre of Helsinki were being knocked down rapidly in order to make room for new modernist architecture. In the 1960s, the historical value of the built environment did not carry much weight: a will to renew and a brisk construction pace characterised the values of the fast-growing municipality and its modernising movers and shakers. Urban planning at first had a rather indifferent approach to the historical and aesthetical importance of older buildings in the city centre.

 

The renovation of the Helsinki City Hall in 1965–1970 engendered a great deal of public discussion. Just before the renovation was finished, two architecture students, Vilhelm Helander and Mikael Sundman, published a pamphlet Kenen Helsinki – raportti kantakaupungista 1970 (Whose Helsinki – A report on the city centre 1970). The pamphlet and their articles in newspapers scrutinised the pricey City Hall renovation that destroyed a historic icon. The writers also criticised Helsinki’s modern urban planning, saying that the city centre “died at night”.

They thought the City Hall’s historical layers had intrinsic value and felt they should have been preserved. In 1971, Kenen Helsinki was awarded the Eino Leino Prize for literature. The public also wondered why City Hall was not built from scratch, as that would have been much cheaper for the city. City Hall’s stark general appearance compared to its high price tag also caused astonishment. On the other hand, Ruusuvuori’s philosophy of preserving the most important parts of the building was viewed in a positive light.

Ruusuvuori’s renovation of City Hall is an excellent example of the method of his time: only the original façade was left, whilst practically everything inside was renewed. Ruusuvuori carried out a similar façade-focused renovation in the Uschakoff House, located nearby on Pohjoisesplanadi. Ruusuvuori also kept this building’s façade and historically significant Jugendsali, but renewed the rest of the interior in his conversion of the property to the Kluuvi office building.

Ruusuvuori’s City Hall renovation marked the beginning of the important discussion on how buildings should be preserved in Finland. Subsequent restoration work in the Lion Block buildings was much gentler and preserved the old architecture.

The cityscape of Helsinki uniquely combines the new and old, and this combination is interesting in itself. Buildings are preserved so that we can see the values and ideas of the times reflected in them. Many buildings that were at first thought strange have since become an important part of the city. Building conservation is not only a matter of cherishing the cityscape, but also a philosophy of construction and the area as a whole.

These days, Helsinki has over 4,000 protected buildings in the town plan, and the Helsinki City Hall is one of them. The conservation does not only concern historical buildings, but also, for example, suburbs from the 1950s as well as newer individual buildings and complexes. The purpose of conservation is to preserve the cultural-historical value of the building. Any alterations or renovations must be made with respect for the environment and the building itself. Building conservation in Helsinki is overseen by the Helsinki City Museum.

Sources:
Mikko Lindqvist, architect. Helsinki City Museum
Vilhelm Helander and Mikael Sundman: Kenen Helsinki – raportti kantakaupungista 1970. WSOY 1970