Photographs and captions by George P. Landow and Jacqueline Banerjee, with thanks to Sarah Sullivan for suggesting this topic. [You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite it in a print one.]

Left to right: (a) Townsend's Horniman Museum (1898-1901). (b) Helsinki Central Railway Station, by Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950), built 1911-14. [Click on these and subsequent thumbnails for larger images.]

Seen from this angle, Helsinki Central Railway Station bears a broad resemblance to the work of Charles Harrison Townsend, namely in the juxtaposition of a great arch over a main vaulted building, and a tall tower to the side. There is, in fact, an indirect connection between the two buildings.

A sampling of nineteenth-century neo-classical Russo-Finnish architecture

A sampling of nineteenth-century Finnish architecture in Helsinki. Left to right: (a and b) Helsinki Cathedral on the north side of Senate Square, by Carl Ludwig Engel (1778-1840), 1830-50 [the photograph at right was taken in 1969]. (c) Another neo-classical work on Senate Square by Engel: the main building of Helsinki University, completed 1832.

(a) The more fanciful, fashionable Kappeli Restaurant in the South Esplanade (1867), once a meeting-place of the cultural élite. (b) The Library at the University of Helsinki; (c) The Lyceo in Jyväskylä, the high school for those heading to University, adorned in the Finnish-Russian classical style — here with Gothic Revival windows — and painted the traditional yellow and white.

For the most part, the nineteenth century in Finland was the age of (Russian) government architecture. When Czar Alexander I moved the capital to Helsinki at the beginning of the period, he appointed the German-born neo-classical architect Carl Ludwig Engel (1778-1840) to construct the grand heart of the new capital, Senate Square. The "centre piece of [Engel's] vision for Imperial Helsinki" was the cathedral (Kent 91); but he also designed the impressive Government Palace, the main university building and the National Library there. With its monumental statue of Czar Alexander II in the middle, this square could indeed be somewhere in St Petersburg. But the assassination of the Fins' "good Czar" was followed by the rise of what is often called "national romanticism," and new idioms began to appear. For example, the influence of the English Arts and Crafts movement can be traced in Saarinen's own house, built 1901-4, as well as in some of the buildings shown above. These new idioms spread far beyond Helsinki itself.

A sampling of nineteenth-century Finnish vernacular architecture in Helsinki and Jyväskylä

(a) On the Esplanade in Helsinki: hints of Finland's rural past, and Arts and Crafts influence, in a picturesque wooden kiosk of 1893. Three right: A sampling of nineteenth-century Finnish architecture in Jyväskylä, a university city about three hours north of Helsinki. Left to right: (b) A nineteenth-century building in the traditional style, one of the few remaining in the center. (c) The house of Wivi Lönn, the woman who was Jyväskylä's most famous architect. Her home sits in the middle of the University campus.

Amongst the other architects (besides Saarinen) who submitted designs for Helsinki's new railway station at the end of the century was Sigurd Frosterus (1876-1956). He had expected to submit a joint design with his contemporary and associate Gustaf Strengell (1878-1937). However, like many ambitious young architects of the time, both were working abroad, Frosterus in the cultural hub of Weimar in Germany, and Strengell in another cultural hub — London. Here, Strengell had joined Townsend's office (see Sarje 94). Strengell missed the deadline for the competition. But he was already an influential figure, having been elected secretary of the Finnish Society for Crafts and Design in 1901 (Sarje 101; a position that he held until 1918). On his return he spoke out publicly and vehemently in support of Frosterus's entry and against Saarinen's, to the extent that Saarinen was compelled to alter his original "rusticated, medieval-referenced national romantic design," to a "composition incorporating delicate concrete vaulted interior spaces" and something of the "volumetric massing articulated by strong vertical accents, which often included a dominant tower element" that continued to characterize his work up to World War I ("Eliel Saarinen, Architect Biography"). In fact, the final design was remarkably similar to Frosterus's proposed design, over which he and Stregell had certainly exchanged views (in fact, Kimmo Sarje, who reproduces the design, ascribes it to both of them — see Sarje's fig. 3, p. 97).

The station is a landmark building, and Saarinen's very substantial revision represented an important milestone in the development both of his own highly influential career and of modern architecture in Finland, exemplified later in the work of the equally influential Alvar Aalto (1898-1976). Townsend's influence could only have been one link in the chain, and he himself was clearly influenced by architectural developments in America — where Saarinen finally made his home. But there was a connection, reminding us of the extraordinarily complex and sometimes quite unexpected ways in which new architectural movements develop and spread.


"Eliel Saarinen, Architect Biography." Web. 28 October 2014.

Kent, Neil. Helsinki: A Cultural and Literary History. Oxford: Signal Books, 2004.

Sarje, Kimmo. Gustaf Strengell and Nordic Modernism." The Nordic Journal of Aesthetics, No. 35 (2008): 93-120. Web. 28 October 2014.

Villa Hvittrask (Saarinen's house). Cupola Gallery. Web. 28 October 2014.

Last modified 8 January 2024