Seaside museums – Architecture, art and home museums by the sea!

A self-guided museum tour around the Laajalahti bay, outside the usual tourist routes, reveals seven unique museum sites that can be experienced together or separately. In addition to the scenic surroundings, the sites are united under interesting architecture and the fact that they have originally been homes and / or workspaces. The Didrichsen Art Museum, Villa Gyllenberg and Gallen-Kallela museums also feature significant art collections and changing exhibitions.

In Alvar Aalto’s home and office building in Munkkiniemi you can take part in guided tours all year round. Aficionados of architecture and design will get an insight into the interesting life of the Aalto family and everyday life of architects’ office. During the visit, you can also explore the beautiful gardens surrounding the buildings.

On a guided tour in Tamminiemi you will learn about the house’s most famous and longest-lived inhabitant: president Urho Kekkonen (1900–1986), and discover the original interiors and design from the 1970s. Tamminiemi’s legendary tar-smelling, seaside sauna can also be visited during the summer season.

The nearby Seurasaari open-air museum comes alive in the summer. The beautiful and fascinating traditional Finnish buildings, immersed into the magnificent natural setting of the island, constitute a favourite destination for both Helsinki locals and travellers around.

There are as many as two high-quality art museums on the small Kuusisaari island. The Didrichsen Art Museum has 2-3 changing exhibitions each year. The neighbouring Villa Gyllenberg features museum’s permanent collection which includes, amongst other masterpieces, 38 works by Helene Schjerfbeck. In addition, the museum also organises changing exhibitions. On Saturdays during the summer, Kuusisaari can be reached also by water bus running between Market Square in the city centre and Kuusisaari.

The northern shore of Laajalahti bay also offers exciting museum experiences, as well as a pleasant museum café where visitors can spend a relaxing moment. The Gallen-Kallela Museum, located in a castle-like villa designed by artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela, presents the art and life of Gallen-Kallela and his contemporaries with changing exhibitions, as well as exhibitions of contemporary art. From April you can also cycle to the museum on a city bike.

Espoo and Otaniemi Campus Area

Espoo, located west of Helsinki, is part of the Finnish capital region. Alvar Aalto’s most famous work in Espoo is the Otaniemi campus, now known as Aalto University. Originally known as Helsinki University of Technology, the campus was inspired by American college campuses and realised as their Finnish counterpart by Aalto. The region is under constant expansion, being close to Helsinki, but Aalto’s works remain in their original use.

The center of Otaniemi, Espoo holds a park campus constructed originally in the 1950s, with layout by Alvar Aalto and several buildings designed by him and other famous finnish architects, including Reima & Raili Pietilä and Heikki & Kaija Sirén. Otaniemi Campus is part of Aalto University, named in honor of the architect.

Otaniemi and nearby Harjuviita contain several types of buildings designed by Aalto’s office: from power plant to water tower, and mall to residences. Aalto also made unrealised plans for Espoo residential areas’ layouts.

Helsinki University of Technology main building 1949/1953-65

Alvar Aalto won the design competition for the Helsinki University of Technology in Otaniemi, Espoo, in 1949. In addition to the main campus building Aalto’s office designed several others. The main building was designed in 1953–55. The University of Technology is now part of Aalto University and the building is known as Undergraduate Centre.

Building work was begun in 1964 and the main building was inaugurated in 1966. It was built on the site of the old Otnäs manor. The main building’s stepped auditorium rising above the campus became its main focal point. The amphitheatre is a recurrent theme in Aalto’s architecture.

The main building is divided into several building units, with sheltered courtyards in between. The façade is clad in specially made dark-red brick, black granite and copper.

The design of the Otaniemi campus was intended to separate pedestrians from motorized traffic. Footpaths connect the various department buildings in a park-like setting. The entrance to the main building is easily reached via both the motorized and pedestrian routes.

The main building was later extended and substantial supplemental building still goes on in the Otaniemi area.

Campus area is open to visitors.

Helsinki University of Technology Library 1964-70

Helsinki University of Technology Library, together with the main building, forms the centre of the Otaniemi campus. The library nowadays goes by the name of the Harald Herlin Learning Centre.

The entrance to the redbrick-clad building is from the park and Otaniementie Road side. The reading room and loan library are on the second floor. The focal point of the space is the large loans counter, from beside which stairs lead down to the entrance floor.

The library interior was designed to make it pleasant to work in. The loan library and reading room get natural light indirectly from the skylights and clerestory windows. Aalto’s design also sought to keep out the noise of traffic on Otaniementie Road.

Open for library use. Campus area is open to visitors.

Otahalli Sports Hall 1949-52

The design of Otaniemi sports hall was begun in 1950 and it was first used for the summer Olympics in Helsinki in 1952. The building is known as the Otahalli.

The building originally had two parts, a small hall clad in white brick and a larger one in wood with an earth floor. The roof truss in the wooden hall spans 45 metres. Aalto planned a spectator stand to go between the halls.

Numerous changes have been made to the building over the years and it is still in its original use.

Open for use as a sports hall.

Power Plant 1960-64

The central-heating power plant on the Otaniemi university campus was built in two stages in 1960–64. The power plant in the middle the university campus is just one example of Aalto’s power-plant architecture.

The building’s façade is clad in red brick. The large windows reduce the building mass of the power station. The interior is visible through the rectangular windows. This is a manifestation of modern architecture’s romanticizing attitude to technology.

Aalto designed several power-station buildings, often in conjunction with industrial plants. The power station at Otaniemi is in a central position and prominently on display. The building has been extended and alterations have been made over the years.

Power Plant is viewable from the outside.

Muuratsalo Experimental house

The Muuratsalo Experimental House, Alvar and Elissa Aalto’s summer home, stands on the western shore of the island of Muuratsalo in Lake Päijänne. Besides the house itself, also in the grounds are a woodshed and smoke sauna. The Experimental House consists of the main building (1952–54) and a guestroom-wing (1953). The L-shaped main building and walls form an internal courtyard which is open to the south and west. In the courtyard, the house façade material ranges from white-painted plastered wall to red brick. The heart of the patio is an open fireplace in the centre of the courtyard. The smoke sauna is in a sandy cove on the lake shore. It was built on rocks, with logs from trees felled on site. Besides the steam room, the sauna building also has a changing room. Alvar Aalto made sketches for the sauna and Elissa Aalto created the working drawings.

Aalto designed the motorboat Nemo propheta in patria, which Elissa and Alvar Aalto used to get to the Experimental House in the summer. The boat is now in the Alvar Aalto Foundation’s collection. Find out more about the architecture of the building on the Alvar Aalto Foundation website. The Muuratsalo Experimental House can only be visited in the summer. Visits and guided tours are managed by the Aalto2 Museum Centre.

Finlandia Hall

Finlandia Hall was completed in Helsinki’s city centre in 1971 and the extra wing in 1975. The building was intended for congresses and concerts.

The location of Finlandia Hall is part of the plan for Helsinki’s city centre that Aalto made in the 1960s. The building was intended to be one of a cluster of cultural building around Töölö Bay. In the unrealised plan the main traffic artery into Helsinki was on the opposite side of the Bay. The building’s main façade faces in that direction.

Aalto wanted the interior and exterior marble facings to create a link with the culture of the Mediterranean countries. The details of the furnishings, including the furniture and light fittings, were carefully designed to create an integrated whole.

In 1962 the Helsinki city authorities commissioned Aalto to design a concert and congress building as the first part of his great centre plan. The Finlandia Hall was completed nine years later. Even the earliest plans show the main characteristics of the final solution. One of the most conspicuous alterations involved the chamber music room, originally intended to soar like the main auditorium above the main building mass.

The Finlandia Hall was adapted strictly to Aalto’s centre plan, with its main (eastern) facade turned towards the projected Terrace Square and the car entrance on the bottom level, intended to continue in the form of a tunnel to other cultural buildings along the shore of Töölö Bay. At this level each section’s own access stair can be reached by car. The next storey, or entrance level, with doors opening directly into Hesperia Park, is dominated by the entrance hall, and also contains cloakrooms and other service space.

A broad staircase leads up to the foyers with entrances to the large and small auditorium, the restaurant, etc. Smaller staircases (one of which forms a visible exterior motif in the east facade) lead from the main foyer to the gallery-like balcony foyer and the doors to the main auditorium’s balcony. Principally responsible for the design of the interiors at Finlandia Hall were the interior designer Pirkko Söderman and the architect Elissa Aalto.

The small chamber music room, which has adjustable, shield-shaped acoustic screens attached to the ceiling, seats 350 people; the main auditorium seats 1,750.

The Finlandia Hall was inaugurated in December 1971. Planning of a congress section began even before the main wing was completed; the congress wing was ready for use as early as 1975. The idea was to improve the working conditions for conferences, an important aspect of the building’s use.

The congress wing, linked to the south end of the main building, contains a large foyer in addition to conference rooms and halls of various sizes. The west facade of the wing has large windows and rounded, concave hollows to make space for some of the old trees growing on the site – and to enliven the facade.

Interior and Furnishing of the Savoy Restaurant

Aino and Alvar Aalto designed the interior of Savoy Restaurant, which occupies a commercial building in the centre of Helsinki. The restaurant’s furniture was commissioned from Artek. The Savoy has mostly kept its original appearance and is still a restaurant.

A. Ahlström Osakeyhtiö commissioned the commercial and office building called the Industrial Palace on the South Esplanade in 1937. Aino and Alvar designed the top-floor restaurant and the furnishings for the function rooms on the floor beneath it.

The Savoy Vase

In 1936, Alvar Aalto took part in an invited exhibition held by the Karhula-Iittala glass factory. His series of glass works “Eskimoerindens skinnbuxa” (The Eskimo Woman’s Leather Breeches) won the competition. These winning vases were first displayed to the public at the Paris World Exposition in 1937. One of the models was also chosen to be part of the new Restaurant Savoy’s furnishings. This design of vase came to be known by the name of the restaurant – Savoy.

Helsinki Energy Office Building

Helsinki Energy Office Building was designed for Helsinki Energy, former The Office Building of the Helsinki City Electricity Company. It is located in the the city centre of Helsinki, in Kamppi area. The building’s location is part of Aalto’s city-centre plan from 1961. Together with Finlandia Hall, Helsinki Energy Office Building is the only building realised part of Aalto’s city-centre plan. The designing process started in 1965 and the building finished in 1973.

Aalto designed the new building to form an integrated architectonic whole with the electricity substation already on the site from 1939. The electricity substation was designed by Gunnar Tacher. The buildings are linked by the line of their roofs. Therefore Helsinki Energy Office Building is a good example of the seamlessly combination of a new building with an earlier one. Helsinki Energy Office Building is nowadays a substantial part of the Kamppi cityscape. 

Apart from housing the company’s the head office, the building also has the main electricity and heat-generation control rooms, the electricity substation and the customer-service department. The street level was to be the customer-service floor, while the upper floors were reserved for offices. There were conference rooms on the top floor, plus the staff restaurant. The street-level customer-service hall got natural light from skylights, which resemble the ones that were also used in the National Pensions Institute building in Helsinki earlier.

Helsinki Energy Office Building was also a total work of art for Aalto’s office, therefore all the original interiors were also designed by Aalto. Over the years the interiors have been changed but in some spaces they have restored the furnishings back to the originals. The façades of the building are corrugated sheet copper and the current façade lighting is from the 1990s. Glazed blue and white ceramic tiles designed by Aalto were used for the interior walls of the building. 

Helsinki Energy Office Building is well-preserved in its original state as it has been in the care of its single owner for over 40 years. The building is still used for its original purpose and only a few alterations have been made, so Helsinki Energy Office Building has certainly withstood the passage of time well.

The surrounding areas in Kamppi district have gone through some changes over the years. The latest change being the Kamppi Shopping centre that was built in 2006. Helsinki Energy Office Building is nowadays linked partially to the centre for example with its underground passage. After the renovations, a coffee shop was also opened at the Helsinki Energy Office Building customer-service floor.

National Pensions Institute, Main Building

National Pensions Institute (The Social Insurance Institution of Finland KELA) Head Office is close to the centre of Helsinki. The richly nuancedly monumental main building represents the best of Aalto’s office buildings. The building (1953-1956) is still in its original use.

Aino and Alvar Aalto won the design competition for the head office in 1948. New designs were made when the first plot was changed for another. The floor plan for the building on the new triangular plot was divided into smaller building units, which reduced the impression of a large building mass. A raised inner courtyard sheltered from the traffic in the street is left in the middle of the building. Its character as a public building has been emphasized by its exceptional siting in contrast to the neighbouring buildings. The building is split-level and is lower on the park side.

The complex comprises 310 rooms and 22,500 m2 of floor space. The facade materials are red brick, copper, and black granite. The building is distinguished throughout by workmanship and materials of high quality: all details are carefully studied and the interior design is exquisite, especially that of the management floor and the conference rooms. Aalto developed several new variants of his standard furniture for the Institute, a whole series of new light fittings, ceramic wall claddings, and a variety of textiles.

The general public has access only to the customer service hall, three stories high and lit by three prism-shaped lantern skylights. This room originally contained twenty-eight unroofed interview cubicles in which applicants could present their cases undisturbed to the staff. Of special interest is the tiny library, it is a miniature version of Aalto’s renowned early work, the Viipuri Library.

The intended site was a block marked off by Mannerheimintie, Töölönkatu and Kivelänkatu, though a neighbouring block facing Hesperiankatu was given as an alternative. The entire project was to be funded by the the Social Insurance Institution of Finland, which looked forward to obtaining a good, reliable return on its investment.

Aalto was commissioned to develop this extensive plan further, and he worked on it until 1952, when problems with the site led to the decision to build on another site altogether. The entire original plan for the National Pensions Institute was scrapped in 1952, when a much smaller, triangular site in Taka-Töölö (bordered by Nordenskiöldinkatu, Messeniuksenkatu, and Minna Canthinkatu) was selected.

In order to avoid the oppressive feeling of a large office building in a crowded urban setting, Aalto differentiated the workplaces for over 800 employees into a ramified organism spread out among several seemingly individual building volumes with excellent internal communications both above and below ground. The complex forms an irregular U surrounding a raised, planted courtyard sheltered from traffic noise and exhaust gases and with a view of an adjacent park; the height of the building volumes is stepped down towards the park.

National Pensions Institute, Housing Area

Seen in the cityscape the redbrick high-rise blocks form an integrated whole. Alvar Aalto designed these blocks of flats in Munkkiniemi, Helsinki, for the employees of the Social Insurance Institution of Finland. The collaboration with the National Pensions Insitute and the Aalto’s had already begun a couple years before. Aino and Alvar Aalto won the architectural competition to design an office complex for the National Pensions Institute in Helsinki in 1949. Nowadays these buildings are operated by a normal housing cooperative.

In total there are 4 high-rise buildings and they are located on Riihitie 12-14 and Tallikuja 2-4. The layout of the buildings as well as their volume and details form a rich housing complex to the neighborhood. Three of the four buildings are rectangular but one located on the corner has a meandering lay out.  

The four and five storey buildings were sited beside the street, leaving plenty of room for the buildings’ yard area. The idea was that the buildings would shelter the yard area from the traffic in the street. Aalto planned a paved, open area – a piazza – adjoining the buildings, with a fountain. The fountain and small day-care centre building also planned to go beside the piazza were not built. The open area, raised slightly above street level, and the other yard and street areas form a nuanced whole. Originally a grocery store operated in the ground floor of one of the buildings. This public composition was accentuated with a arcade corridor on the street side elevation. Nowadays some of the ground floors of the buildings are occupied by various offices.

The quite light tone of the the red brick were designed especially for these block of flats in H.G. Paloheimo Oy. The housing area is view-able from the outside.

Aalto knew Munkkiniemi well. At the start of the 1930s, he designed a residential area for the M.G. Stenius company, but it was not built. He was also a member of the Munkkiniemi building committee in 1937–39. Both The Aalto House and Studio Aalto are also located in Munkkiniemi.

Book House

The Academic Bookstore, or ‘Book Palace’, is in Helsinki’s city centre, in the same block as the Aalto-designed office building, the Rautatalo. The building was finished in 1969 and it is still in its original use. The Academic Bookstore moved in to the building in October 1969.

The plot’s owner, Stockmann, held an architectural competition for the design of the building in 1961–62. Aalto won this with a proposal using the same ideas as in the nearby Rautatalo.

The design of the copper-clad façade on Keskuskatu takes into account the adjacent building’s façade. The building’s main interior space, the central hall, corresponds in its ideas to the marble interior courtyard of the Rautatalo. The central hall gets natural light from the prism-shaped skylights. The floor and closed balustrades of the balconies running round the central hall are of Carrara marble.

Alterations have been made to the interiors. Some of the rooms on the upper floors originally used for offices have been taken over for the bookshop. Nowadays, there are two cafes. The one in the second floor is partly furnished with original Aalto furniture from the Rautatalo cafe. Open for public as a bookstore and cafe.

Aalto House

In 1934, Aino and Alvar Aalto acquired a site in almost completely untouched surroundings at Riihitie in Helsinki’s Munkkiniemi. Aino and Alvar Aalto designed the building, whose simple, natural materials soften the form language of modern architecture. Designing their own home gave them an opportunity to make various structural and material experiments. The Aalto House was completed in August 1936. Aalto’s architect’s office was in this building in Munkkiniemi until 1955.

Alvar Aalto lived in the house on Riihitie up until his death on 1976, and the building was used by the family long afterwards.The house, protected by the Act on the Protection of Buildings, is now part of the Alvar Aalto Foundation. Nowadays, the building is a home museum open to the public.

The house was designed as both a family home and an office and these two functions can clearly be seen from the outside. The studio and the family’s living areas have been discreetly separated from each other through choices of material. This can be seen in both the façades and the interiors.The slender mass of the office wing is in white-painted, lightly rendered brickwork. There are still clear references to Functionalism in the location of the windows. The cladding material of the residential part is slender, dark-stained timber battens. The building has a flat roof and a large south-facing terrace. The way that the rooms in this building with its closed street façade face in different directions has been carefully considered.

Although the street side elevation of the house is severe and closed-off, it is softened by climbing plants and a slate path leading up to the front door. There are already signs of the ‘new’ Aalto in the Aalto House, of the Romantic Functionalist. The plentiful use of wood as a finishing material and four open hearts built in brick also point to this. The Aalto House is a cosy, intimate building for living and working, designed by two architects for themselves, using simple uncluttered materials.

Studio Aalto

Alvar Aalto designed the building at Tiilimäki 20 in Munkkiniemi as his own office in 1955. Because of a number of large commissions, the office needed more space to work in. The building is only a short walk from Aalto’s own house, where the office had previously been located. Studio Aalto is one of the best of Alvar Aalto’s 1950s buildings.

“You can’t create architecture in an office environment,” is how Aalto described working in an architect’s office. Aalto designed a free-form studio section for the building, and a drawing room using natural light. The building curves around a stepped, amphitheatre-style courtyard sheltered from the wind. On the upper floor there is a drawing office on a narrow plan, beautifully encircled by natural light from a band of high-level windows. In 1962-1963 the building was extended by building a dining room for the staff, the ‘Taverna’, in the courtyard behind the high brick wall, with an office above it.

Many of Aalto’s best-known works were designed here at the Studio. Alvar Aalto ran the office until his death in 1976. After that, the office continued under the leadership of Elissa Aalto until 1994. The building came into the custodianship of the Alvar Aalto Foundation in 1984 and today it houses the Alvar Aalto Foundation staff. You can visit the Studio Aalto in guided tours for groups. There are public guided tours of the Studio throughout the year.

The white-rendered, wall-like, closed-in mass of the building conceals a garden shaped like an amphitheatre in its inner courtyard. The office staff could sit on the slate steps of the amphitheatre, listen to lectures or watch slide shows projected on the white wall.

The principal space in the building is the curving studio which has a view opening onto the courtyard. Horizontal battens fixed to the high walls of the studio allowed drawings to be displayed there. The rear wall is covered with climbing plants reaching up to the high-level windows and prototypes of light fittings designed by Alvar Aalto are hung in front of the wall.

The slanting bay window of the conference room with its roof light creates the perfect conditions for examining models and drawings.

Sunila Sulphate Pulp Mill and Residential Area

The Sunila pulp mill and the adjoining residential area designed by Alvar Aalto are masterpieces of modern architecture. The pulp mill was said to be the most beautiful in the world and it was presented at the World’s Fair of Paris in 1937 and of New York in 1939. The mill or the head office with the original interior designed by Aino Aalto unfortunately cannot be visited.

The Sunila project (1936–38, 1947, 1951–54) is the largest that was completed according to the original plans of Aalto. Sunila is located on the estuary of river Kymi, by the Gulf of Finland. The residential area is spacious and close to nature, the houses blend in the pine trees and green fields. In addition to the 12 terraced houses and apartment buildings there is the manager’s residence Kantola, a sauna by the sea and several maintenance buildings. The Sunila residential area is protected by law due to its architectural values.

Read more: Experience the Alvar Aalto cycling route in Kotka and Hamina

One of the largest industry investments of its time

Sunila is the most extensive project realised closely according to Aalto’s plans. The area is considered to be a culturally valuable built environment and the regulations in the detailed regional plan guarantees the architectural conservation.

The southeastern Finland industrialized rapidly when several sawmills were built on river Kymi from the 1870s onwards. In the economic boom of the mid-thirties five companies within the paper industry decided to start together a new sulphate cellulose mill in Sunila. There was also a need for housing for the employees of the new company.

One of the five companies cooperating in the pulp mill project was Ahlström, whose manager, Harry Gullichsen, was a friend of the architect Alvar Aalto. Gullichsen was also chairman of the board of the Sunila Company and thus influential in appointing Aalto for the project. At that time Aalto had already gained international fame. The Aalto-Gullichsen friendship evolved around a common interest in modern ideas about architecture, art, technology and social progress. Lauri Kanto, the technical manager at the nearby Halla pulp mill, was appointed leader of the planning team, with Aulis Kairamo as chief engineer. These four men worked in unison to build an industrial community with state-of-the-art technology, housing and social facilities. The building of the mill began in 1936, the residential area in 1937 and pulp production started in 1938.

Sunila, the first “Forest Town” in Finland was a model for planning the housing in the post-war Finland. Until the 1960s Sunila was as a traditional and hierarchical industrial community, yet a modern neighbourhood with welfare services. The company took care of its employees for instance by offering health insurance fund and enabling sport activities. The rowing team of the local sport club Sunilan Sisu won the bronze medal at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

The Sunila town plan is based on the free placement of buildings and the interaction between the built and the natural environment. The arrangement of buildings is fan-shaped, so that there is a landscape view from every apartment. The surrounding nature is lush and barren at the same time, characterized by pines.

Go east from Helsinki and visit the Kotka – Hamina region!

The Kotka – Hamina region is situated on the southeast coast of Finland, only 1 hour drive from Helsinki. The cities of Kotka and Hamina and the towns nearby are attractive seaside destinations with relaxed lifestyle and maritime culture. See the interesting exhibitions of the Maritime Centre Vellamo, explore the history outdoors in the Salpa defence line and the former military zone islands. Enjoy the river Kymi, the seaside nature and urban gardens, visit the beautiful churches and other sights. Experience authentic landscapes and historical milieus. We know all this sounds a bit too much to take, but hey, we recommend to stay a little longer with us!

Read more: Visit Kotka-Hamina