HELSINKI — The Finnish capital is an accessible and compact city known for its vibrant design tradition, food culture, and as a 21st-century high-tech innovation hub. A visitor to the city, with its tower-dominated technology district and center chockablock with boutiques, galleries, hotels, and restaurants that speak of the next new thing, might easily forget that Finland is one of the least populated countries in Europe. But Seurasaari, an island on the Helsinki’s western outskirts featuring a dense forest, lakes, and rocky beaches, offers a taste of the nature that typifies the rest of the country. The island is also home to the Seurasaari Open-Air Museum and what our friend, Washington, D.C.-based architect Travis Price, calls “a nexus of folklore, culture, and nature.”
Price is founder and director of Spirit of Place/Spirit of Design, a design-build educational exploration program at Catholic University of America that provides architecture students the opportunity to research, design, and construct a project in nine days in a remote landscape. In 2010 on Seurasaari, he and his students built Kalevalakehto, literally “cradle of the Kalevala,” named for and inspired by the Kalevala, Finland’s national epic compiled in the 19th century from Finnish oral folklore and mythology.
Although Seurasaari Island is just a 15-minute bus ride from downtown, we’d spent our other Helsinki trips focused on design and food. But here for the first time in summer, and with Price’s project complete, we planned a long overdue day trip to the island and museum.
The bus we caught on Mannerheim Boulevard by the Esplanade, the tree-lined park in the city center, dropped us at a crowded parking lot at the edge of the mainland. Steps away, a long bridge led to the 113-acre forest of birches and pines floating in the Baltic Sea.
First developed as a public park in 1890, the island was originally accessible only by boat. The museum was founded in 1909 by Axel Heikel, a specialist on ethnology and vernacular architecture, with the intent of preserving the traditional rural life of peasants, craftspeople, and gentry from the 18th to the 20th centuries. It would eventually direct the transfer to Seurasaari in the next 60 years of over 85 cottages, farmsteads, manors, and other buildings from the provinces. Today Finland’s National Board of Antiquities maintains the Open-Air Museum and other architectural sites throughout the country that speak to Finland’s rural heritage.
The museum buildings are loosely concentrated on the left side of the island and tucked into the forest. After wandering beyond the entrance area, we chose a clockwise path for exploring, following along the rocky coastline with its small harbors, the sea at our left, the forest at our right, and dipping inland when we were drawn to a particular structure.
One of the most striking statements about rural Finnish life is the massive 19th-century church boat from the central lakes region that appears early in the tour. Owned jointly by farms in a village, these boats could carry as many as 100 people and were used to ferry worshipers in summer to the churches near the water. We walked on to 18th-century Niemalä Tenant Farm, the first structure to be relocated here. The rambling low buildings include storehouses, cattle sheds, a threshing house, sauna, and cooking shelter, their sheer number indicative of how prosperous this farm on the shore of Lake Keitele was.
It is said in Finland that every man is a builder. Traditionally the majority of the population lived in rural areas and built their own dwellings using mostly horizontal log construction and working with hand tools — usually, and sometimes only, an ax — and drawing influences from Sweden and Russia. “Talkoo” — voluntary work, often between neighbors — was a common way to construct labor-demanding structures such as churches or parsonages or the more ornamental birch bark shingle roofs.
Karuna Church is a masterwork of Finnish carpentry and the oldest building on Seurasaari. Built in 1685 in Sauvo for Baron Arvid Horn, it exemplifies this collaborative building technique and features a fine birch bark roof. Inside the white-washed barrel vault ceiling and simple lines of the rough-hewn log walls exemplify Finland’s legacy as the crossroads of Scandinavian and Slavic cultures, and how simplicity, addressing basic needs, and a connection with nature shaped the country’s sensibilities.
Other structures reflected a rural life sharply defined by the seasons. From Petsamo in the far north are tree storehouses built on a high tree stump to store meat in seasonal dwelling areas. Hay cabins from Lapland were built in distant fields to provide housing during haymaking. The water mill, like the example here from central Finland, was communally owned and in operation day and night during spring when the streams and small rivers were at full flood.
We came finally upon Kalevalakehto, on the south side of the island and at the very end of the architectural trail. Crafted from Finnish wood, stainless steel, and glass, the small building rested on a rocky finger jutting into the sea. Envisioned as what Price had described as “a meeting place to evoke the deepest thinking,” the interior was like entering the belly of a boat. In the embrace of its curved horizontal plank walls warmed by the sun and lapped by the sea, the air was as head-clearing as a sauna. We sat on simple benches and through walls of glass looked either to the primeval forest or to the sweep of the modern city across the bay. The experience of this building, rooted in Finland’s ancestral mythology and celebrating Helsinki’s identity as a world-class design city, formed the perfect endnote on a day of history conveyed through nature and architecture.