"Dangerous liaisons. Preserving post-war modernism in city centers".
Conference,15-17 February 2001, Helsinki, Finland

The restauration of the City Hall- a paradox

Aino Niskanen, Senior Lecturer, Helsinki University of Technology

History of the Lion block; the Senate square side Helsinki City hall is part of the so called Lion block. It is located in the old centre of Helsinki between the Senate Square and the Market Square. The buildings of the block have developed in more than two centuries. The oldest preserved buildings, three merchants´s houses (Bock, Burtz and Hellenius) on the Alexander street were built after 1761.The Bock House was converted 1816-19 into the general governeur´s palace in 1818 and into the town hall in 1837. Its renewed architecture by C.L. Engel formed a part of the new majestic empire-style centre. (Finland had been annexed to the Russian Empire in 1809, Helsinki had been elevated to a capital city and had got a new town plan in 1812.) The other stone houses continued to serve as dwellings until the end of 1800´s. The block was divided into two parts by a narrow street until c. 1840´s. Now the hole block is occupied by Helsinki city.

The Market square side :Seurahuone ("Society Building") the present City Hall
Seurahuone building on the Market square designed by Engel was completed in 1833. It contained a hotel and ball rooms for the society. The building served as a hotel until 1913, when it opened as Helsinki city hall. Plannning for modern premises for the city´s offices started in the 1950´s. An architectural design competition for the Lion block and parts of two other blocks was arranged in 1960-61. The winner´s, architect Aarno Ruusuvuoris plans were radical: preserving fasades but stripping lots of historical layers of the block.

Phase I, renovation of the southern part of the plot took place in 1965-70. The City Hall was completely demolished except the outside walls. The old Great Hall to be conserved was suspended in the air for a while during the construction work. The building process proved to be difficult and expensive. The results were contradictory: an elegant modernist building (within old walls), yet connecting in many refined ways to the older neoclassical architecture it had replaced. - At the same time the renovation became a turning point in Finnish building conservation. It provoked a discussion and an evaluation of conservation values: old environments with all their historical layers should be seen as valuable entities. As a result of the discussion the plans for the phase II changed: the row of buildings and courtyards on Aleksanterinkatu were preserved and restored. A new council building was built in the centre of the block.This renovation stage was completed in 1988.

The latest renovation -and restauration- of the city hall, planned by the architectural office Aki Davidsson, took place 1998-1999. It was limited mostly in the southern parts of the plot. Now, paradoxically the challenge was how to preserve the space structure, details and the spirit of Ruusuvuori´s architecture at the same time updating the technology. No major changes were made for new premises or functions.


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