In 1827, architect Engel was commissioned to design a new university building in somewhat dramatic circumstances. The fire in Turku had ruined the town and also the newly finished Academy Building. To further distress amongst the academic society, after the fire the emperor had decided to move the country’s only university from Turku to the new capital Helsinki.

Already in 1832, the university could move into a grand new building, accommodating all the academic fields. It was situated on the western edge of the Senate Square, opposite the Senate Palace, the main wing facing the square. A masonry wall attached to a low annex encircled the block to form an enclosed garden, the haven of the academia.

The University and the Senate Palace can be seen as twin buildings. Both occupy a complete block and their main facades facing the square are composed of similar elements, yet their small differences are very meaningful. The Ionian order of the University was considered symbolic for education and purity, which was enhanced by the building’s white or very light coloring. In comparison, the Corinthian order of the Senate Palace was emblematic of power and governance and the ruling color of the facade was a soft yellow.

The university gradually grew out of Engel’s building and by the 1930s it was obvious that the block would have to be built more efficiently. Due to a design competition, the highly regarded architect J. S. Sirén was commissioned to solve the difficult question of touching Engel’s architecture. On the exterior Sirén chose to continue Engel’s classical forms, all the way to the detailing, but in the interiors the detailing is far simpler, leaning to Functionalism.

Engel’s University building had two remarkably beautiful interiors: a three-storied vestibule with Tuscan and Doric columns and an amphitheater-inspired semicircular assembly hall. The former is still very much in its original appearance, but the latter was destroyed during the air raids of February 1944 and greatly altered after that.

Due to the war and the postwar reconstruction work in the old part almost all of Engel’s detailing was destroyed. Today, when walking through the University block it is quite difficult to identify the borderline between the interiors of the 1830s and 1930s.

text: Kati Winterhalter


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1860s, Helsinki University
1860s, Helsinki University (© Hårdh / Helsinki City Museum)
Assembly Hall in 1907, Helsinki University
Assembly Hall in 1907, Helsinki University (© Brander / Helsinki City Museum)
1930, Helsinki University
1930, Helsinki University (© Roos / Helsinki City Museum)