Helsinki
  • Figure 1. The Handbook of the 1910 Town Planning Conference underlined the leading role of the architecture profession in town planning. The cover of the book was dominated by the figure of Sir Christopher Wren (1623–1723), one of Britain’s most distinguished architects. Source: Royal Institute of British Architects.

Bridge to a better future: town planning in Helsinki, Tallinn and Dublin in the 1910s

A century ago, in the shadow of the First World War, important city plans were drawn up all over Europe. Small nations that were striving for greater freedom were especially active in seizing the opportunities presented by the new discipline of town planning. The plans of Helsinki, Tallinn, Dublin and other similar cities looked far beyond the present and envisioned what the cities could be like when better days came.

The tragedy of the First World War has overshadowed almost everything else that happened in the 1910s. Examination of the decade has often been structured by the war – first the build-up of tensions and outbreak of hostilities, then the war years, and finally the end and aftermath of the conflicts. Yet the decade was not only about tremendous destruction and loss of life; it was also about a search for new beginnings. The discipline of town planning, which lived its formative years in conflict-torn Europe, is one such example.

While many planners were for years at the front or otherwise employed in war work, others continued throughout the decade to build a sustainable future for cities. They planned urban and suburban communities that would outshine those of the pre-war years, they made renewal plans for cities devastated or damaged in wartime, and they planned capital cities for nations striving for greater autonomy or even independence (Geddes 1917, 457–462; Mikkola 1990). In this paper I will concentrate on the latter category, exploring the ways in which town planning was used in Helsinki and similar capitals to redefine the city and the nation in relation to the rapidly changing world.

In the field of town planning, the 1910s began with two epoch-making events. The Universal Town Planning Exhibition (Allgemeine Städtebau Ausstellung) was opened in Berlin in May 1910 and the Town Planning Conference, organised by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), convened in London a few months later, in October 1910. These events attracted a large number of architects, engineers and city officials from far and wide, owing principally to their seminal contribution to the field. The events were organised not only to provide the participants with the opportunity to share and exchange ideas but also to further the planning profession (Freestone and Amati 2015, 1–8).

With the exhibitions, lectures, meetings and publications, the Berlin and London events set the stage for establishing town planning as a transnational, indeed a global, concern with national and regional specificities. The events also contributed to creating a common history for the profession: an imagined linear history – from the pyramids of Egypt to the garden cities of England and the town extensions of Germany – that became a cornerstone of the profession (Hebbert and Sonne 2006; Crasemann Collins 2015).

Yet another important cornerstone established by these events was the conception of town planning as an art and a science. Design was emphasised as central to planning, but at the same time both individual town plans and the discipline of town planning as a whole were increasingly legitimised by reference to new scientific knowledge, techniques and expertise (Taylor 1998, 3–6; on the legitimising authority of science, see Niemi 2007). The secretary-general to the Town Planning Conference, John W. Simpson, stressed in his opening speech that town planning involved multiple spheres of expertise and therefore was more appropriately carried out by architects who were experts in both science and art.

As is the case with all conventional phrases, “town planning” has different meanings in different mouths. To the medical officer of health it means sanitation and healthy houses; to the engineer, trams and bridges and straight roads, with houses drilled to toe a line like soldiers. To some it means open spaces; to the policeman regulation and traffic; to others a garden plot to every house, and so on. To the architect it means all these things, collected, considered, and welded into a beautiful whole. It is his work, the work of the trained planner, to satisfy all the requirements of a town plan, and to create in doing so a work of art (Transactions 1911, iv).

Town planning and national aspirations

The events in Berlin and London gave important impetus to town planning initiatives throughout Europe and beyond. What enhanced the impact was the fact that planning ideas discussed in the international conference settings were – or could have been made – compatible with a variety of national and local aims. For example, many small European nations striving for self-determination saw town planning as a means of enhancing the quality of life of city residents but also of building a national identity and redefining the nation’s place in the world. In cities like Helsinki, Tallinn and Dublin the opportunities offered by town planning did not go unnoticed.

An international town planning competition was organised in Dublin in 1914 at the instigation of the pioneering Scottish town planner Patrick Geddes, who was a frequent visitor to the city. The official aim of the competition was to “elicit Plans and Reports of a preliminary and suggestive character, and thus obtain contributions and alternatives which may be of value towards the guidance of the future development of the City in its various directions.” In more practical terms, it was hoped that the planning competition would bring new insights into the debates as to how to alleviate the housing crisis and how to bring new life to the city which had lost much of its earlier prestige in the course of the nineteenth century. In 1916, the submission by Patrick Abercrombie and his colleagues, “Dublin of the Future”, was awarded the prize. Their plan suggested that Dublin should be ‘haussmannised’ – which entailed demolishing the dilapidated areas and rebuilding them with more ambitious architecture and convenient traffic networks (Abercrombie, Kelly and Kelly 1922; Bannon 1999, 145–151). The plan was never realised, but the Dublin competition reflected and reinforced the new thinking about the role of transnational planning community and planning competitions in transforming cities and enhancing their images and identities.

Similar steps were taken in Helsinki and Tallinn, located on the western edge of the Russian empire: Helsinki was the capital of the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland, and Tallinn was the most important city in the region of Estonia. The population of Helsinki had exceeded 100,000 in 1907 and Tallinn surpassed this four years later, in 1911, so both cities were now categorised as large according to European practice and Russian statistics. The time seemed propitious to utilise modern town planning to enhance the profile of the cities and also that of the nations. In November 1911, the City of Tallinn took a decision to organise an international town planning competition, one aim of which was to lay solid foundations for the future of Tallinn as a city of trade and industry. The competition was won by the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen. His plan was never officially accepted but the planning of Tallinn followed his ideas in many respects (Hallas-Murula 2005). While Saarinen was working on Tallinn, he was also preparing plans for Helsinki and the surrounding areas. Two important Helsinki plans, published respectively in 1915 and 1918, will be discussed in more detail in the last part of this paper.

Helsinki plans in the 1910s

As the secretary-general to the Town Planning Conference, John W. Simpson, had hoped and anticipated, architects took the lead in the town planning movement. In Helsinki, the most prominent figures in the field were the first town planning architect for the City of Helsinki, Bertel Jung, and the architect Eliel Saarinen. Before moving into town planning around 1910, Saarinen had already made an important contribution to the cityscape of Helsinki as an architect. With his colleagues he had designed a number of impressive buildings in the National Romantic style: the National Museum, Pohjola Insurance Company building and a few residential buildings. He had also designed one of the most important landmarks of Helsinki, the railway station, which was constructed between 1905 and 1919. As a planner, he crossed national borders: in addition to working on Helsinki and Tallinn, he participated in the planning process of Budapest in the years 1911–1912 and was the second prize winner in the 1912 international competition for the design of Canberra (Mikkola 1990; Byard 1996).

Figure 2. The Helsinki market square in the early twentieth century. Foto Gustaf Sandberg. The Society for Swedish Literature in Finland.

In the 1910s, town planning offered new interesting opportunities for Saarinen, Jung and their colleagues in Helsinki. The population of the city was increasing rapidly, and many architects, municipal officials and businessmen felt that it was high time to analyse and plan the Helsinki region as an entity. The new Helsinki these architects created on their drawing boards was a metropolis which was to stand proudly alongside with the other great national capitals. Having a monumental and modern capital city – or even a plan to build such a city – was clearly seen as one way of gaining credibility in the international arena (Mikkola 1990; Niemi 2016).

Saarinen, together with a number of colleagues, started the planning project by publishing the Munkkiniemi–Haaga plan (Saarinen 1915). This plan focused on two suburbs outside the official boundaries of Helsinki but also offered more general suggestions for the expansion of the city. The work was commissioned by a private company, M. G. Stenius, which possessed extensive landholdings in the Munkkiniemi and Haaga areas just outside the municipal boundary, with Saarinen both a shareholder and board member. In order to raise the interest of policymakers and the general public in town planning, the models and illustrations of the magnificent Munkkiniemi–Haaga plan were presented in an architecture exhibition in Helsinki. It was evident from the attention and acclaim that the exhibition received, that the ideas of Saarinen and his colleagues were welcomed by many (Mikkola 1990, Nikula 2006; Niemi 2016).

Figure 3. Eliel Saarinen’s Munkkiniemi–Haaga town plan. Aerial view from the north.

In 1916, Eliel Saarinen and Bertel Jung began to develop a master plan for Greater Helsinki, at the request and with the support of the businessman Julius Tallberg. Concerned that there was not enough space in the core of the city for the expanding commercial centre, Tallberg suggested that the Helsinki railway station be moved three kilometres northwards to create space for a new ‘City’.Following his idea, Saarinen and Jung planned an entirely new city centre northwest of the old neo-classical centre. Like Patrick Abercrombie in Dublin, Saarinen and Jung looked, for example, to Hausmannian Paris as a model. In designing the centre, they made use of the axial organisation favoured by Haussmann – drawing long straight streets lined with uniform building facades (Jung 1918; Mikkola 1990; Bannon 1999, 151).

The focus of the new centre was to be King’s Avenue, a three-kilometre-long boulevard cutting across the new centre from south to north. The crossing where the south-north axis met the east-west axis was reserved for public buildings, but otherwise the avenue was to be lined with commercial premises and office blocks. The planning project was started before Finnish independence, but it took on a new urgency in December 1917, when Helsinki transformed, as Jung phrased it, from ‘a residence of Russian provincial satraps’ to the capital of independent Finland. The proposal for a master plan was published under the title Pro-Helsingfors in 1918 (Jung 1918).

The debates and exhibitions held in Berlin and London in 1910 had clearly forged the directions in which the discipline of town planning was developing. Saarinen, Jung and their colleagues – as Abercrombie in Dublin – strenuously promoted their plans as works of both art and science. The beautiful, inspiring models and illustrations were an integral part of the planning process, but new plans were also legitimised by anchoring them on scientific and statistical knowledge. In the beginning of the 1910s, Finland was still an overwhelmingly agrarian country on the edge of Russian empire. Saarinen and Jung planned a monumental new city fit to be a centre of a wealthy, modern, industrialised country – and legitimised their plan by referring to systematic investigations, statistical analysis and demographic forecasts (Saarinen 1915; Jung 1918).

The approach to the new centre of Helsinki was also closely connected to the (imagined) history of the city and the history of town planning. In the Munkkiniemi–Haaga publication, the architects used a large number of pages for reiterating again the common history of the Western planning tradition from the times of the pharaohs to Hausmannian Paris and Ebenezer Howard’s garden cities. The planning of Helsinki was presented as a link in this long chain of the Western planning tradition, and Helsinki as a city that belongs within the Western European cultural sphere (Saarinen 1915; Jung 1918).

Of the large-scale Helsinki plans, only a fraction was realised.This setback, which disappointed Saarinen, did not discourage younger architects. The idea of the new city centre remained alive in Helsinki – and the new generations of architects and town planners seized the challenge again and again until the twenty-first century. And that was exactly what they were expected to do. As Eliel Saarinen wrote in the 1940s, “[urban] planning is more than dreaming. Planning is that conceiving faculty which must recommend ways and means of transmuting the possibilities or impossibilities of today into the realities of tomorrow.” (Saarinen 1943, 241–242).

Marjaana Niemi is Professor of International History at the University of Tampere and President of the European Assocation for Urban History (EAUH).

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