By Ron Bernthal
The non-profit International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (www.icsid.org), representing 50 countries, has designated Helsinki, Finland as the 2012 World Design Capital. Four other Finnish cities and towns – Espoo, Vantaa, Kauniainen and Lahti – have been selected to participate in a year-long series of exhibitions, films, seminars, and other public events to mark Finland’s contribution to the world of design.
Today, glass and wood are dominant materials in Finnish design, from Ittala drinking glasses to Alvar Aaalto’s iconic birch furniture. Wood was used in all of Finland’s original structures, of course, owing to the country’s vast expanse of pine, spruce and birch forests. After World War II, however, designers and architects in Finland turned to cement and stone for many post-WWII urban projects.
In the late 1990’s the Finnish government, in an attempt to boost the country’s timber industry, declared the Era of Wood, encouraging residential and commercial architects and builders to use Finland’s ample supply of beautiful hardwoods as a recognized building material for the 21st century.
The first major Finnish project to use wood construction exclusively was built in the city of Lahti, located on the southern shore of Lake Vesijärvi, about one hour north of Helsinki. In 2000 the innovative Sibelius Hall became the world’s first concert hall constructed almost entirely of wood, with only its foundation, elevator shafts and stairs containing concrete. To obtain additional space, the new hall was integrated into a 1908 red brick carpentry factory, which has been rehabilitated into rehearsal space for musicians, dressing rooms, and offices.
The concert hall’s unique timber construction, much of it protected by an exterior envelope of clear glass, overlooks the lake, and the visual result is nothing less than spectacular. The Lahti Symphony Orchestra, best known for its performances of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, is the hall’s resident orchestra.
“There are many special things in Sebelius hall,” said Anu Kärkkäinen, the hall’s congress manager, as she escorted a visitor through the stunning interior of the building. “Notice how the summer sunlight, and reflections from the lake stream into the windows above the lobby area. In winter, when it is dark outside, the lights from inside the hall are reflected onto the snowy landscape outside. Within the concert hall itself we use wood as an insulating material as well, along with reverberance chamber doors, which can open and close at will. The acoustics in the hall are so wonderful that the music surrounds you all over, it is fantastic.” Ms. Kärkkäinen said that “even for our washrooms, a local family-owned carpentry workshop created four solid-wood benches, one from alder wood, one from aspen, one from spruce, and one from pine.”
The city of Lahti, which is one of five Finnish cities participating in the year-long World Design Capital Helsinki exhibitions and events, is filled with wonderful examples of Nordic design. Eliel Saarien designed the Lahti Town Hall in 1912, and Alvar Aaalto’s modern Church of the Cross was built in 1978. The Swedish designer Gert Wingårdh created the outdoor Pavilion which faces the lake adjacent to Sibelius Hall. This lovely, one story, glass and wood restaurant, café and bar opened in 2008 and is a popular summer venue for both visitors and city residents.
After summer concerts at Sebelius Hall audience members will stroll to the Pavilion, where they linger with other residents over a coffee or beer. The indigo night sky above the lake will never turn to black, not during Lahti’s long summer anyway, and when the Finns finally call it a night, many of them will be humming Sebelius on their way home.
World Design Capital Helsinki 2012