Saudi Arabia Embassy of Finland
The Otaniemi Chapel was built in the middle of the Student Village of the Helsinki University of Technology’s (now Aalto University) Otaniemi Campus in Espoo. It is located on a small hill sheltered by rock boulders, and birch, rowan and pine trees. The totality comprises a spatial sequence that begins at a fenced-off forecourt, then continues through the low entrance hall to the chapel’s main space and finally merges with the surrounding nature through the glass wall behind the altar.
According to Kaija and Heikki Siren, the key element of the chapel’s architecture is the view opening up through the glass wall. The only element placed amidst the forest behind the glass wall is a simple steel crucifix because, according to the architects, the naturally occurring seasonal changes replace the altarpiece. The building’s close relationship with nature was indeed the main reason why it received the International Carlo Scarpa Prize for Gardens in 2009.
Structuring the chapel space between the two outer brick walls are tall wooden roof trusses. By the upper window opposite the altar is a sturdy truss structure supporting the roof, which allows for an open interior space. The exposed brick surfaces of the walls and floors create a warm feeling in the space, as does the wooden cladding in the ceiling and upper parts of the brick walls. Space is enlivened by the changing lighting conditions throughout the day. The natural light entering through the glass wall and the south-facing upper window emphasises the roughness of the brick walls, while at the same time casts strong shadows on to them from the wooden structures. The church furniture by interior designer Lars Gestranus, representing 1950s minimalism, subtly provides room for the sensitive architecture.
The Sirens adapted the chapel to the surroundings by using wood and red brick, as used in the student housing area they had designed earlier. The wooden structure of the chapel ceiling carries references to the wooden support structures of “Servin mökki”, the restaurant they designed in 1952 for the student village. The fence surrounding the chapel courtyard is a dark-stained round-pole fence. The walls of the rectangular clock tower were also built from this same material.
The Otaniemi chapel has been presented in many national and international publications. The New Zealander Russell Walden, who wrote a book about the building, considers it an example of humanist architecture in which is crystallized the sense of silence and timelessness of Nordic culture. Otaniemi Chapel is listed on the DOCOMOMO Finland registered selection of important architectural and environmental modernist sites.
Text: Elina Standertskjöld / DOCOMOMO Finland