Helsinki Senate Square and a Lesson in Language

Carl Ludvig Engel, the most famous German architect the Germans have never hear off. Despite being German, his work was never made in Germany but almost entirely in Helsinki and all centred around this square. This was the break that he got, and he became the architect in Helsinki.

Carl Ludvig Engel (Source)

Engels was Prussian but moved to Tallinn for a job, he couldn’t find many but managed to come into contact with Johan Albrecht Ehrenstrom who found him a talented guy and invited him to design a city square for the new capital of the Grand Duchy of Finland. Ehrenstrom was tasked with designing the new Helsinki to be the capital of the Grand Duchy of Finland and he was in search of talented architects. A chance meeting with Engel was what it took for him to encourage Engel to submit a plan. But Engel was an unknown, there was no reason the plan would be accepted – except on merit. Engel submitted them and thought no more about it, why waste brain space for something that would not happen.

Then surprisingly, Tsar Alexander II accepted the plan and instructed the Senate Square built to this requirements. Engels was in fact planning to return home when the news arrived.

And the rest, as the cliche goes, is history.

In its hayday, Helsinki was refererred to as mini St Petersberg for the fact that the Senate Square was a visual miniature of the Palace Square in St Petersberg.

Little St Petersburg is today the iconic image of Helsinki to the world.

I stepped onto Helsinki Square with my former colleague for the first time a day after the Turku attack and it was clear that there was heightened police presence even if there wasn’t a decrease in tourist numbers.

The buses were parked all around the square practically forming almost a whole barricade.

Then there were tour groups, such as the Helsinki Free Walking tours.

And then there were the large tour groups mostly from Asia. This is not too relevant to the post but there were a large number of Chinese tourist in Helsinki when I was around, a fact partly due to (it seems) the vital role of Helsinki Vantaa Airport in being a gateway into Europe for may Asian flights.

This was the famous square in Helsinki, the place you take a picture in. It’s value in tourism is what Gamla Stan is to Stockholm. Unlike Gamla Stan though, the square is not a town. There are no active residential districts in the area and therefore no resident population. To me at least, the square therefore felt a little too well troden by tourist and a little too gentrified to be authentic. I migt be wrong though, I might not have been there long enough.

The Finnish capital was moved from Turku to Helsinki in 1822, and a lot had to be done to build up the city. The square was meant to be the heart of the city, surrounded as it was by the religious, academic, political and business elite.

The centrepiece was the Helsinki Cathedral (more on that another time),

and around the square was the original head office of the new University of Helsinki (that moved from Turku), now a library building.

Located in the heart of the senate square is the statue of Tsar Alexander II. The fact that the statue of a Russian Tsar is still present (despite initial requests to remove it) in an independent country does mean one thing, the people of Helsinki did not completely hate the time when Finland was under Tsarist Russian control. The statue was put up in 1894 to commemorate his decision to reinstate the Finnish Diet (parliament) as well as reforms that he put in place to increase Finnish autonomy from Russia.

I turned to my Russian-Finn friend and threw out a comment, “looks like occupation under Tsarist Russia was a much better thing for Finland than when it was under Sweden then…”

“Well, occupation is not a really good word to use it’s the language that you Anglo-American educated would use, but we wouldn’t use it that way.”

I excused myself, it was a thoughtless throwaway comment that I should have processed before speaking. Of course, the word “occupation” is contextually wrong, even logically speaking, no body celebrates their occupiers. I should have thought about that before allowing my English-speaking world view take over. The language we think in informs our ideas of the world, my mind harkened back to Warsaw, when the tour guide explained that World War I did not have the same connotations for Poland as it did in the West of Europe because it was through the end of World War I that Poland was reborn…

What made Alexander II and the Tsarist era good for Helsinki? First was the setting up of Helsinki and the establishment of the city, then there was the greater freedoms that were given to the Finns under Alexander II. Alexandar II was the best Tsar for Finland, his grandson, Nicholas II however wanted a Russian Finland and tried to engage in progressive Russification of the country. The people laid flowers around the statue in a silent protest to show Nicholas – we liked your granddad, we don’t like you.

It’s not that the Swedes did not contribute anything. Many of the buildings in Helsinki in the 1700s were built in wood, and those houses would end up burning down after a few months. A large fire burned down much of the old senate square leading to a completely new one being built with e beautiful brickish houses that bound the Senate Square.

The square has lost its practical purpsose today and is mainly an arts and culture attraction. It was also for me a lesson in language, history and intepretation…

ON THE MAP

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