Elsa Arokallio was born on 18 August 1892 in Kurkijoki, Southern Karelia. Kurkijoki was part of the territory that was ceded to the Soviet Union in the Moscow Peace Treaty 1940.
Elsa Arokallio’s parents were vicar Gustaf Arokallio and Elisabeth Arokallio (nee Parviainen). Arokallio went to Lucina Hagman’s co-ed school in Helsinki. Lucina Hagman was a politician and one of the pioneers of the women’s rights movement in Finland. Arokallio took her matriculation examination in 1910, and went on to study architecture at the Institute of Technology in Helsinki. She received the diploma of architecture in 1919. After finishing her studies, Arokallio established an architecture office together with her husband Erkki Väänänen (1894–1924). After Väänänen’s death, she ran the office by herself.
Interestingly, Elsa Arokallio, as a vicar’s daughter, was one of the first female architects in the world to design churches, along with her colleague Elsi Borg, who was a vicar’s daughter as well. Arokallio and Borg were close friends and shared an interest in sacral architecture. Together they designed the Simpele Church, which was completed in 1933. Before the collaborative project, Borg had already designed the Taulumäki Church in Jyväskylä, based on the winning entry in an architecture competition.
During their study years in the 1910s, Arokallio and Borg were part of a tight group of female architecture students, who in the 1940s went on to establish the association of female architects in Finland, Architecta.
Elsa Arokallio died at the age of 90, on 3 October 1982 in Helsinki.