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  • Figure 1. The City Hall of Helsinki is at the Market Place, and the main façade opens towards the open sea.

Quarterly 2/2016 |  07/07/2016Laura Kolbe

Communicating civic or historical pride? The city hall in Scandinavian capital cities

The development between 1880 and 1950 changed the use of urban areas in European metropolises. Urban form and political interpretation marched hand in hand. Monumental new city halls were central elements in Scandinavian capital cities. The planning of the city halls was by no means understood as a purely technical, functional or formal issue. The city halls were expressions of political, social and cultural conditions, and changes in these conditions. City hall communicated with, and even manipulated, citizens, based on their central or visible location. History helped the architects to interpret the nature of municipal pride, and urban historians were needed to make this story a visible tool of communication. City hall architecture must in this sense be seen as a narrative element in the townscape, constructing both national and local aspirations.

According to the conventional ‘tourist performance’, when entering to a new city or town, one habitually heads towards the market place. Every city has its own key monument or urban symbol as well as a story, where this landmark has an essential role. Fortresses, palaces, churches, boulevards and monuments act as urban symbols. The design and architecture, traffic arrangements, people’s behaviour and urban bustle are generally present in city’s central open and public spaces, indicating something essential of the ethos of a city. (Bell & Avner-de Shalit, 2–3). In the continental European tradition, one building dominates the central market square: town hall. It communicates a clear idea of the city as being locally governed, by the proud members of the community, according to the local civic tradition and national legal practises. In this sense, the city halls of Scandinavian capital cities, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki and Reykjavik show themselves as highly interesting examples.

The city hall as Gesamtkunstwerk

Between the period 1880–1950 the municipal authorities of all Scandinavian capital cities explored the possibility of building a monumental city hall, studied locations and invited proposals for its design, but only three were realised, namely in Copenhagen in 1905 by architect M. Nyrop, in Stockholm in 1923 by architect R. Östberg and in Oslo in 1950 by architects A. Arneberg & M. Paulsson. The city hall in Copenhagen was a great source of inspiration to Stockholm, whilst Oslo looked to both Copenhagen and Stockholm. (For Copenhagen: Beckett, 1908; Haugsted & Lund, 1996; Stockholm: Roosval 1923; Oslo: The Oslo City Hall 1953; Lending 2001). In Helsinki the city authorities bought in 1901 an old hotel by the Market Square and planned to build a city hall on that site. An architectural competition in 1914 revealed ambitions to monumentalise the plan, but due to the economic circumstances it was not implemented. Instead, the city authorities rebuilt the old hotel and its surroundings into a city hall precinct in phases, starting from the 1920s. (Kolbe 2008, 50–55). In Reykjavik, the idea of a city hall was as old as in the other four cities, dating back to 1918. However, it took over seven decades to plan the edifice and the new city hall was inaugurated in spring 1992. (Armannsson 2004, 1–2).

Figure 2. The Copenhagen City Hall (1905) was located in an area, which was a lively, urban meeting place, close to the commercial, administrative and amusement center (Tivoli).

The planning of city halls in Nordic capital cities was related to the European process of patriotic and bourgeois nation building during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This was manifested in cities like Vienna, Paris, Prague, Hamburg, Berlin and Munich. The members of the bourgeois class, whether educated or “self-made”, were usually engaged within the new industrial and professional occupations, especially banking, insurance, services, commerce, and the public sector. In all cases, the particular site, in the heart of the old or growing city centre, had been pointed out as a prime place for a city hall. The location had a communicative message: the building was placed either at a point of historical interest or it marked a geopolitical dimension in the city’s urban development. In Copenhagen, the site selected for the proposed city hall was situated in the area vacated by the demolition of the city walls, immediately south of the Western Gate. The gate had been demolished in 1859 and made over to the city in 1870. The city hall building was erected on the spot where the so-called Gyldenlöve’s Basition had previously stood. Earlier, the sea margin had extended to this point. (Beckett 1908, 20–25).

In Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki and Reykjavik the water element was central. In Stockholm the city hall is located at the inland waterway at Lake Mälaren. In Oslo the city hall is facing the old harbour and in Helsinki the old harbour and market place. In Reykjavik the beautiful urban environment of Lake Tjornin was considered a worthy setting for a building intended to symbolise the city’s status as the capital of Iceland.The central location reflected the juridical and ‘constitutional’ development of local self-government. It was parallel in all Scandinavian countries, due to their common historical roots. Municipal government was one of the key factors in stabilising societies as lay and ecclesiastical communes were separated between 1840 and 1875. The city councils became the cities’ supreme decision-making bodies and municipalities were given the authority to undertake activities which aimed to satisfy the common needs of their inhabitants. (See Kommunalförvaltningen i Norden 2000; Kanstrup & S. Ousager 1990; Hammarskjöld 1888).The growth in commerce and industry meant that Scandinavian capital cities became by far the largest cities in their countries, and also ‘true national capitals’ in the commercial and cultural sense. (Nilsson 2002, 198–206; Myhre 2007, 285–9; Rasmussen 1969, 10–20; Veinan Hellerud & Messel 2000, 14–16; Klinge & Kolbe 2007, 5–20 analyse the central elements of urban wealth in Scandinavian capital cities.). In 1910–1920 one-man-one-vote” principle opened the municipal bodies to socialist and social democrat parties. (Sutcliffe 1981, 162-5; Rietbergen, 1998, 352–5; Kocka, 1987, 38–41; Morton & de Vries & Morris 2006, 2–13).

Figure 3. In Stockholm, due to artistic reasons, the City Hall was located close to the crossroads of the sea and Lake Mälaren.

Civic pride and democracy

In Scandinavian urban histories the independent self-government has been presented as part of an ancient democratic heritage. This legacy was – and still is –praised in local political discourse.Communal reforms are often seen as an invention of the (liberal) state. (Aronsson 1997, 174–181; Bloxham Zettersten 2000, 52–54; Kolbe 2014, 56–60).In Scandinavia, the German influence remained strong. Since medieval times the town hall was known as rådhuset or raadhus or rathus. Council buildings developed along continental lines, to house local and central administration and representations. They also functioned as courts of law. When the modern city hall of the nineteenth century was developed, the old name continued mainly to be used. (Wickman, 2003, 22–3; Bloxham Zettersten 2000, 54–5.) Rådhuset was the seat of civic management and local politics and in all cities a series of architectural competitions took place. In Copenhagen an open free competition was announced for the summer 1888, with two stages, following the European examples. In Stockholm the competition was held in 1902, in Helsinki 1914/1958, in Oslo in 1917–1918 and in Reykjavik as late as in 1986. The winning architects were Martin Nyrop in Copenhagen, Ragnar Östberg in Stockholm, and Arnstein Magnusson and Magnus Paulsson in Oslo. In Helsinki the jury was not satisfied with the first competition, and the first price was not awarded. Later, the work was given to architect Aarno Ruusuvuori. In Reykjavik the winners were architects Margret Hardardottir and Steve Christer. The competition entries in all cities were rather monumental, spanning the full breadth of historical styles, and drawing inspiration from monumental buildings like French castles, Flemish warehouses and Gothic churches –or in the case of Reykjavik, from modern architecture and materials. (Beckett 1908, 221–222; Roosvaal 1923, 334–338; The Oslo City Hall, 5–6; Kolbe 2008, 65–71;Armannsson, 2–3).

City halls in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo and later in Helsinki and Reykjavik were planned in close interaction with state administration and governmental buildings. The planning of the city halls was a long-term municipal project. In Copenhagen it took a mere thirteen years, but Stockholm some twenty years. In Helsinki and in Oslo it took over forty years and in Reykjavik 70 years. As a political process they fitted well into the municipal decision-making tradition in Scandinavia: important projects must be communicative, open and have the support of the political majority. In all cities, the work was locally controlled by a special building committee. The studios and workshops used for sculpture, painting, iron forging, woodcarving and textiles were located close to the building site or in the building area. Different kinds of specialists and professionals worked with the project, sharing a common goal and developing a strong sense of devotion. The finished products became the sum of each worker’s contribution – and above all stood the heroic figure of the architect. In all cases, the city halls immortalised their architects.

Figure 4. The Oslo City Hall was planned to a former historic city district, creating the core for a new modernist urban centre.

During their construction, all city halls grew to become major national projects. Inauguration ceremonies, the press publicity surrounding them and their coverage in architectural publications show the kind of reactions these buildings provoked in public opinion and indicating their high reputation. The motivation was clear: town halls were built to symbolise the role of the capital city in a national context. The combination of local and national themes worked in harmony with ‘European’ elements, including the variety of ways in which the vocabulary of traditional European city hall architecture was transferred to Scandinavia to express the individual personality of these cities. The early twentieth century architects were familiar with the historical role of great town halls such as the Palazzo Ducalein Venice, the city hall of Siena, Lübeck’s Das rote Rathaus, the Hotel de Villein Paris and Amsterdam’s Stadhuis. (Beckett 2008, 56–67; Rådhuset i Oslo, 48–68; Östberg 1929, 99–111). Germany gave to Scandinavian city halls picturesque details, the festive hall, a tavern and courtyards. France and Belgium gave balconies and weathercocks. Italian architecture inspired the bell tower or campanile in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo. (Roosvaal 1923; Reinle 1976, 61–8).

The facade and its material played an important role in communication. Brick, considered to be an honest European material, was used in Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo, concrete in Reykjavik. Both materials give a feeling of unity. Brick architecture, strong in the Netherlands, Denmark, England, and Northern Germany, had a long tradition as a building material in countries with mercantile middle-class, bourgeois values. (See Ringbom 1987). Politically, brick was alien to the tradition of imperial classicism, used in Helsinki. Classicism is considered to be a supranational style with strong roots in imperial and aristocratic architecture. Concrete in Reykjavik became a symbol of modern, industrial and urban building during the latter part of twentieth century. The chosen material, together with aluminium and glass, was clearly linked to modern cultural message, opposing the more traditional local materials turf, wood and Icelandic rock. The characteristics of light, water and vegetation are as important as the solid building material itself in creating the city hall’s external and internal aspect. (Armannsson 2004, 7).

Figure 5. In Reykjavik, the modern City Hall communicates with the urban water element, and they form a central part of city’s central walking route.


In northern Europe, the main aim of the modern city hall was to create a public space, a political forum, a ceremonial core and a symbolic centre for the capital city – and indeed for the state, the nation and civil society at large. The city hall was planned to be a central showcase and permanent exhibition space for national design, applied arts, and handicraft. During its usually very long period of construction, the city hall even became a major national symbol, and one of the principal works of the respective country’s architecture and culture. This message was communicated for citizens and outsiders alike, making the Scandinavian city hall a stimulating, multi-layered symbol of the capital city urbanity.

Laura Kolbe is Professor of European History at the University of Helsinki. She was the President of the International Planning History Society (IPHS) in 2006–2010. Her present research project deals with the development of capital cities, city halls, grand hotels, and students’ radical movements in different times and areas.


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