Helsinki Warming

The city of Sibelius, known as a center for innovative technology and design, now stakes its claim as an urban hotspot

The Finnish capital, facing the Baltic Sea (residents frequent the quay), enjoys a setting that has long enthralled visitors, including a Frenchman in 1838: "This town stretches over a vast peninsula...," he wrote, "the sea surrounds it on all sides." (Yoray Liberman)
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Finns often describe Aalto as the emotional opposite of the romantic, brooding Sibelius. Yet he shared many of the composer's motivations. He, too, viewed his art as an expression of Finnish nationalism and claimed to be inspired by nature. And like Sibelius, he had an ambiguous relationship with Helsinki, choosing to live just beyond it.

Aalto's most famous architectural work, Finlandia Hall, a concert auditorium, was completed in Helsinki in 1971, only five years before his death at age 78. Aalto always resented the prominence given to Senate Square because it was built by Engel, who was German, when Finland was still under Russian rule. Aalto thought that independent Finland should construct a central square of its own—something he never got around to doing, but his Finlandia Hall stands as a fitting memorial, as stunning as any building in the capital. Encased in white marble and black granite, it evokes a tower with a graceful roof that swoops upward over the entire structure.

Like most Aalto enthusiasts, I had visited Finlandia Hall numerous times, but never made my way to the architect's house, a boxlike residence on the northern edge of the city. Built in 1936, the house was sheathed in wood and white painted brick, with a modest entrance near the garage. Aalto intentionally built it on wooded land. "You should not be able to go from home to work without passing through a forest," he once said. But the neighborhood was soon engulfed by a spreading capital. The studio, where Aalto worked with as many as 15 collaborators around three tables, has a ceiling that rises 16 feet. A few brick steps up from the studio, Aalto's own small office is perched on a split level. In a corner of this room, a wooden ladder leads up to the narrowest of doors that opens to the roof terrace. "It's an example of Aalto's humor," says Sade Oksala, who guides me through the house. "He could do a disappearing act if he didn't want to be bothered by his associates or by an unwanted business visitor."

A sliding door separates the studio from the living room and the furniture he designed for it. My favorite piece is a sinuous wooden easy chair from the 1930s. Aalto claimed its signature simple lines and curves were inspired by the forests and lakes in central Finland, where he spent his childhood. The most incongruous piece in the room is a black-upholstered Chesterfield armchair from the 1920s. According to Oksala, the designer loved its comfort. "He bought it with his very first paycheck," the guide says.

Although Helsinki society is thoroughly secular, friends urged me to spend a Sunday morning observing one of the more significant religious occasions in the city—the investiture of novice ministers at the Lutheran Cathedral that dominates Senate Square. The turquoise-domed cathedral, its exterior grandiose with cupolas and white Corinthian columns, is stark white inside, except for the gilded altarpiece. With music from the monumental organ rising to a crescendo, a young novice kneels, and the bishop places his hands over her head in the climactic moment of the ceremony. But the drama is suddenly marred by the unmistakable strains of "Home on the Range" coming from the handbag of the woman sitting next to me. She quickly shuts off her cellphone—a Nokia, naturally.

Almost every Finn owns a cellphone. "I can think of no other developed country where one company has so much impact on the economy as Nokia has on Finland's," says Pekka Yla-Anttila, research director at Helsinki's Research Institute of the Finnish Economy. Nokia accounts for almost 3 percent of the gross domestic product and one out of every five dollars that Finland earns abroad. It's one of Finland's biggest employers, with nearly half of its 23,400 workers living in the metropolitan Helsinki area. When Nokia's chief executives suggest that taxes are too high or that local universities aren't graduating enough engineers, the authorities pay attention.

The local media give the newest Nokia products the kind of coverage reserved elsewhere for entertainment and sports. At the company's glass-and-steel headquarters in Espoo, a city west of Helsinki, Damian Stathonikos, 34, a Canadian-born executive, shows me around; he is a reminder that Finland still imports some of its talent. Stathonikos demonstrates a phone that takes photographs and videos with the resolution of a high-end digital camera, and features Wi-Fi connectivity and GPS; another downloads and plays music with the quality of a nightclub stereo system. Each is priced at about $800.

"Our first market for these devices is what we call the Ôearly adopters'—18- to 35-year-old males with high disposable incomes who just have to have the latest gadget," says Stathonikos. "Afterward, when prices drop, come the Ôeager followers'—people like myself who have a family and don't have as much time and money to spend on the newest gadgets, but don't want to settle for a product that Dad is going to buy."

Finns generally consider themselves people of few words. But cellphones have banished the silence that once prevailed in Helsinki restaurants, buses and other public places. Nokia public relations executive Maria Kellokumpu waited until her son, Pietari, was 10 before buying him a cellphone. But her daughter, Venla, got her first Nokia at age 9 because all of her classmates had acquired them. "Now it seems that kids get a cellphone as soon as they start school," says Kellokumpu.

Perhaps the only Nokia-free environment in all Helsinki is the sauna. For thousands of years, Finns and their forebears have relished sweating in a blazing-hot hut and then plunging into cold water. Nowadays, Finns have about two million saunas, many of them right next to their home bathrooms. Finns of all ages visit saunas, but except for families, men and women do not ordinarily bathe together.

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