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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The Finnish Sauna Society, a 70-year-old private club in western Helsinki, sits at the end of a winding road on a forested peninsula jutting into the Baltic Sea. Waiting at the entrance stands Dr. Lasse Viinikka, president of the society for the past 16 years. Tall, burly and affable, Viinikka, 58, spends his non-sauna hours as director of the University of Helsinki's hospital laboratory. He suggests that I hold any questions until we've sweated a bit. We join a dozen other naked men sprawled or seated on three levels of the main sauna. There is a trace of fragrant smoke from the wood embers used for heating the room to what feels like near boiling temperatures. After about 15 minutes, we take a break. Viinikka walks down to a jetty on the Baltic and plunges into the 60-degree water, while I opt for a tepid shower.

Two sauna sessions later, we move into the "social room" for beer and open-faced herring-and-egg sandwiches. "Some people believe that sauna began as a prehistoric ritual to celebrate a successful hunt," says Viinikka. Can sauna reduce high blood pressure and tension? Is it good for the lungs and kidneys? Does it clean out pores and rejuvenate the skin? "There really is very little medical evidence to support whether or not sauna is good for the health," he answers, to my surprise. "Most important, sauna feels good—and it is a great way to socialize with friends."

When the weather turns warm, Helsinki's inhabitants stream to the dozens of islands in the city's archipelago. None are more historic than the cluster where Suomenlinna, a giant fortress—at the time, the largest construction project in the Nordic region—was built in the mid-1700s to discourage invaders. Its ruins are maintained by some 75 convicts living there in a minimum security prison. As recently as the 1960s, Finland had one of the highest incarceration rates in Europe. Now it has one of the lowest, with 3,572 inmates, or about 67 for every 100,000 inhabitants—compared with more than ten times that in the United States. "The simplest answer for the decline in our inmate population is that nowadays we use prison sentences much less than most other European countries or the U.S.," says Tapio Lappi-Seppala, director of the National Research Institute of Legal Policy in Finland. "We prefer other alternatives, like community service and fines."

I spend my final day at the spot where Helsinki was founded in 1550, on the eastern shore of the Baltic a couple of miles north of the present harbor. The neighborhood, known as Arabianranta, or Shores of Araby (a name conferred in the 1500s, when the location was considered remote from Helsinki), contains the Arabia ceramics factory that has operated here since the late 1800s. Arabianranta, an emerging center for design, is today the most high-tech residential and office complex in Finland. With 6,000 inhabitants and an equal number of employees, the wireless interactive neighborhood will likely increase its population to 10,000 by 2010.

A resident contemplating moving into Arabianranta might be shown a computerized facsimile of an apartment model, with outer walls as the only permanent structures. On-screen, the prospective buyer can choose up to 2,500 ways to customize the apartment even before construction gets under way. "It can drive a developer crazy," concedes Kari Raina, 47, the managing director of Arabianranta's development corporation. Each apartment comes equipped with super-broadband connections for television programs transmitted from around the world and hookups for those who wish to work at home and telecommute. Little wonder that architects, industrial designers and media people gravitate to Arabianranta's small, hip companies.

Each apartment building in Arabianranta has its own "e-moderator," a volunteer in charge of the building's Web site, which keeps residents informed of neighborhood activities, the arrival of new occupants, last-minute availability for a family at the communal sauna, and anything else that affects their building. Kaj Lindback, a 34-year-old former owner of a Web site design company, was acting as e-moderator for his 70-unit apartment building the day I visited. "A lot of residents use the Web site mainly as a chat box to get to know each other," he says. But he also keeps up with neighborhood gossip the old-fashioned way, as co-owner of a local bar where he chats up patrons.

For most who live in Arabianranta the chief attraction is its location on a Baltic inlet. The shore is lined with a pathway for joggers, cyclists and cross-country skiers that circles Helsinki. Across the water a nature reserve is alive with swans and cranes, just as it must have been four and a half centuries ago, when the foundations of the city were laid on the mainland.

To me, the scene offers a metaphor of modern Helsinki. I doubt any other urban residents have succeeded as well in striking a balance between the demands of city life, the virtual reality of the computer age and a profound attachment to the natural landscape that has shaped their sensibilities for so long.

Writer Jonathan Kandell, based in New York City, reports often on culture and economics. Photographer Yoray Liberman lives in Istanbul; this is his first appearance in Smithsonian.

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