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
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

When the long northern winter finally ends, the Finnish capital of Helsinki returns slowly to life. Deathly pale residents, who look as if they have just emerged from confinement in a cellar, roost on the gray stone steps of Senate Square; students from the University of Helsinki sprawl in the greening grass to soak up the sun; crowds linger by the Baltic Sea harbor, where fishing boats, painted bold red and blue, sell the day's fresh catch, watched closely by gulls wheeling in the salt air. The whole city is bathed in golden light, which brushes the pastel neo-Classical buildings, shimmers on the blue sea and shines on the capital for 20 hours a day, all the more welcome after the months of darkness.

Dour climate and isolation have made the Finns a grim people. That, at least, is the conventional wisdom regarding this nation of 5.3 million. They would have reason enough for melancholia, having endured not only eons of winter but also centuries of dominance by more powerful neighbors—first the Swedes, then the Russians, then the Soviets. (The country declared its independence after the fall of Russia's czar Nicholas II in 1917.) Finns survived all of this by dint of sisu, their phrase for stolid perseverance in the face of long odds and frequent disparagement. Even their old capital, of which Finns are justifiably proud, was designed by an outsider, Carl Ludvig Engel, the famed German architect hired in 1816 to rebuild Helsinki when it was hardly more than a town of 4,000.

Now, after years of self-doubt on the sidelines, that capital has grown to 561,000, and the Finns are finally stepping out into the sunlight of modern Europe. They are even showing the way for the rest of the world: Finns were among the first to embrace modern telecommunications, arming themselves with Nokia cellphones, a local product that they unleashed upon the planet, and one that keeps virtually 100 percent of this once-reticent nation chattering away, breaking down the vast distances that characterize their sparsely settled country.

Helsinki's inhabitants have always lived—and thrived—by balancing their urban and bucolic souls. Because parts of the capital are blanketed by woodland and washed by the sea, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish where nature ends and city begins. About three quarters of Finland's 130,500 square miles are thickly forested. The country has some 190,000 lakes, and the coastline crumbles into 95,000 islands. This means that many a Helsinki family has easy access to a summer cottage—usually a modest one, without electricity, but comfortable enough for July and August.

Perhaps as an antidote to the sensation of being overwhelmed and isolated by their natural landscape, Helsinkians have embraced technology more quickly and avidly than people elsewhere. Finland's Nokia, the largest cellular phone manufacturer in the world, introduced wireless phones across the land at a time when most Americans were still using land lines, and the capital's new residential enclaves come equipped with wireless broadband on the premise that good access makes good neighbors.

More than a century ago, Finland's greatest composer, Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), helped forge his nation's identity by writing music that sought to bring the spirit of the ancient forest into the cosmopolitan salons of the growing capital. At the time, the Finns were about to emerge from centuries of foreign rule—by Sweden (1100s to 1809) and Russia (1809 to 1917).

By age 33, Sibelius had established his reputation as a musical genius with his 1899 tone poem, Finlandia; his countrymen immediately embraced the piece, and its composer, with patriotic fervor. But Sibelius had already fallen into a life of partying that was sapping his musical output. A famous 1894 painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela, ironically titled Symposium, depicts Sibelius and some artist pals carousing at the Hotel Kamp's restaurant. This unflattering portrayal scandalized the public. In 1904 the composer decamped for the countryside. "In Helsinki, all song dies in me," he confessed.

He found respite—and inspiration—north of Helsinki in a country retreat named Ainola, after his wife, Aino. She and Sibelius lived out their days there, drawing strength from prolonged immersion in the landscape of dense forests and limpid lakes. Weather permitting, Sibelius spent hours each day walking amid the pines and birches, lingering in farm fields and finally reaching the shores of nearby Lake Tuusulanjarvi. Dressed in a suit, vest, tie and Borsalino hat, he looked like a gentleman banker. These daily encounters with nature infused his music.

And at Ainola, in a two-story house with whitewashed pine slat walls and a red-tile roof topped by several towering chimneys, Sibelius wrote five of his seven symphonies, scores of tone poems, some 50 piano compositions and dozens of chamber music pieces, usually without the aid of any instruments. "He claimed to have an orchestra in his head," says guide Annikka Malkavaara. Sibelius was so obsessed with the need for silence that he forbade the installation of modern plumbing, fearing that the sounds of running water and knocking pipes would break his powers of concentration.

Across the gardenlike esplanade from my hotel in Helsinki, the furniture store Artek pays homage to Finland's other cultural giant, the architect and designer Alvar Aalto (1898-1976), who co-founded Artek. Here, the furniture, vases, trays and lamps he designed in the 1930s and '40s continue to sell briskly. Of course Finland has long been known for its world-class design: boldly colored Marimekko fabrics have been popular for decades. More recently, about an hour's car ride west of Helsinki, the village of Fiskars (birthplace of the popular scissors of the same name) has gathered a hundred artists, ceramists, woodworkers and graphic and industrial designers in a decade-old cooperative whose creativity is probably unmatched throughout Europe. But Aalto, the exponent of clean-lined modernism, is still considered the fountainhead of Finnish design. Even cooks claim to be inspired by him. When I ask Markus Aremo, the 37-year-old chef at George, a leading Helsinki restaurant, what made his reindeer fillet in red-wine sauce and purŽed cabbage so irresistible, he replies: "Good Finnish food imitates Aalto—simple, pure, and close to nature."

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.

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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