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Published in the Finnish Architectural Review 5/2020, pages 16-23. English translation by Eeva Parviainen.

Senate Square in Helsinki is a monument of tsarist Finland. The Kansalaistori square that was finished two years ago, then, has become a monumental square for the era of Finnish independence, with the Parliament House on one side, paired with the Central Library on the other. At the same time, a rare continuum that combines public authority with cultural hegemony has been created between the two national squares.

Kansalaistori (Citizens’ Square)
(City of Helsinki, Urban Environment Division, City survey services. CC by 4.0. Image modified).
Senate Square
(City of Helsinki, Urban Environment Division, City survey services. CC by 4.0. Image modified).

By “monumental”, I am referring to a monument-like reminder born of visibility in the cityscape, as well as impressiveness and the implied meanings. The scale of the crowds that a monument is seen by, and how often, is an essential component of memorability. Repetition reinforces remembering, and reiteration can eventually turn even the extraordinary into the ordinary. Visibility has steered the placement of both Senate Square and Kansalaistori, which means Citizens’ Square, according to the phases of urban development in the capital.

A monument is imprinted in memory due to its impressiveness. This can be established within the cityscape in many ways. A large scale is the most classic of such means: visibility and a striking effect in one fell swoop. Other traditional methods of instituting effect include easily perceivable and therefore memorable shapes, architectural gesticulation, and various organisational principles in the cityscape that are designed to express, for instance, symbolic hierarchy or equivalence. Impressiveness achieved through such means also offers a point of transmission for meanings, as the human mind is adept at interpreting the subtlest of clues.

The early proposals for the area in front of the Parliament House comprised symmetrical overall compositions. The mid-20th-century plans sought to break free from classicist principles, but the very same principles have been gradually reinstated. Eventually, the Parliament House was paired with the Central Library. At the same time, an exceptional continuum that combines public authority with cultural hegemony has been created between the two national squares: at the Senate Square, the Government Palace and the main building of the University of Helsinki, namely, public authority and cultural hegemony, hold pride of place on opposite sides of the square.


The pairing of the Government Palace and the university did not come about as you might expect based on the dignified harmony of Senate Square. The traces lead back to the tensions between forms of power. In the detective novel The Name of the Rose by author and semiotic Umberto Eco, William of Baskerville and his apprentice Adso discuss meanings and the relationships between them:

‘I have never doubted the truth of signs, Adso; they are the only things man has with which to orient himself in the world. What I did not understand was the relation among signs. — I behaved stubbornly, pursuing a semblance of order, when I should have known well that there is no order in the universe.’

‘But in imagining an erroneous order you still found something….’

‘ — The order that our mind imagines is like a net, or like a ladder, built to attain something. But afterward you must throw the ladder away, because you discover that, even if it was useful, it was meaningless.’1

On our monumental squares, the order of the buildings as they settle into the cityscape has been designed in pursuit of attaining something, but the same ladder can be used to reach out in other directions as well. When we apply this idea to not only symbolism but also lived-in spaces, the consequences are substantial: the composition of the Government Palace and the university building is likely to have spurred Finland’s national development into a different direction than the ones who commissioned the plan had imagined. Perhaps in another century or so, something similar will be stated about Kansalaistori.


Architectural historian Anja Kervanto-Nevanlinna suspects that Tsar Alexander I primarily commissioned the monumental neoclassic city centre in order to impress other rulers2. At the same time, the square was a striking facade of power for the Grand Duchy of Finland governed via thin connections from St. Petersburg.

In the plans by Carl Ludwig Engel, the main axis of the square lay between the then Senate House and the university building replicating it in mirror image. This tension became diluted around the time of Engel’s death with the opening of the monumental staircase leading to the church that stood by the third edge of the square, as well as pavilions and other additions. In the words of architect and author Nils Erik Wickberg, the effortless balance of the interrelations between the components so subtly laid out by Engel was supplanted by a despotic hierarchy of the dominating and the subservient.3

The university was not moved from Turku and introduced into Engel’s square composition until the Senate House, today known as the Government Palace, had been in use for years. The Great Fire of Turku in 1827 presented itself as an opportune reason to bring the academics with their radical ideas under the immediate watchful eye of the Senate. However, a university in the capital arguably only allowed the radical influences to better infiltrate the government. Indeed, the professors were avid Fennomen, and half of the prime ministers of independent Finland during the first decades of independence were former professors.

Even today, government representatives are included in the university degree ceremonies held at the Helsinki Cathedral. The Chancellor of the University of Helsinki continues to have access to the Government Palace to participate in policymaking concerning the university. Urban historian Laura Kolbe suggests that the Senate Square composition influenced the rise of the new, enlightened civil servant and Finland’s development into a civilized state.4


Our new monumental square, Kansalaistori, is located on land that used to lie on the reeking shore of a bay and became perhaps the most frequently seen landscape in Helsinki with the developing railway connections in the early 20th century.  

The old monumental city centre had become too cramped for its purpose and was no longer visible as the crown over an otherwise modest city of low-rise wooden buildings. That is why the Töölönlahti Bay area became the object of fantasy for the newly formed republic and for its capital with aspirations to become a European metropolis. In the 1910s, cultural buildings, including a central library, were outlined for the Arkadianmäki hill rising by the area.5 These would form the new intellectual heart of the nation – a new crown at the intersection of the old and new city centres.

In the 1920s, however, the Parliament set up house atop the Arkadianmäki rock, providing a symbolic charge to the railway yard at the bottom of the hill. The visibility of the Parliament House became sacrosanct, and planners have been wary of limiting it. In Oiva Kallio’s 1924 city centre plan, there is a vast symmetrical plaza in front of it. Even though the architect who designed the Parliament House, J. S. Sirén, made several attempts to propose new buildings around the Parliament House, the monolithic structure remained ever condemned to its majestic solitude. The cultural buildings that were later implemented all descended the hill and settled onto the area around Töölönlahti Bay. The open area between the Parliament House and the Central Library measures one and a half times the span of Senate Square.


While the impression generated by Senate Square was created starting with the square composition then moving on to the individual buildings, the impact of Kansalaistori originated with the buildings and was then extended to the square itself. In its implemented form, the square is like hindsight rediscovered. In Alvar Aalto’s unrealised city centre plan from 1964, the square fanned out into a flourish of cultural buildings. Aalto was particularly interested in their visibility from the motorway that was planned to run over the railway. On the current Kansalaistori, they have been crystallised into a more classic square model, in which the overall impression is greater than that of the individual buildings.

The library was an unexpected addition to the composition: it is not even included in the currently valid detailed plan from 2002. Alternative venues for the new library included the nearby Postitalo and Lasipalatsi buildings, but, in the end, a location opposite the Parliament House and the value of the library for the Töölönlahti area were the deciding factors in the selection of the site.

In the detailed plan, Töölönlahti’s wedge of a park area reaches to the front of the plot later allocated to the library. The solution that came about as a result of the Helsinki Central Library Competition cut into this originally leafy area, forming a monumental axis between the library and the Parliament House. This has been highlighted with several details.

The library plot lies at an angle towards the Parliament House, but ALA Architects have alleviated this by stretching the cantilevered front canopy in their library design to align with the Parliament House. The granite paving on Kansalaistori has been dimensioned to match the width of the Parliament House stairs: it seems to compensate for the distance between the library and the Parliament. Viewed from below, the Mannerheimintie street remains hidden and the Parliament House does, indeed, seem to rise up from the square like a monolith.

Just as the features of the Government Palace are repeated in the university building on Senate Square, some of the features of the Parliament House remarkably seem to have been carried across to the new library, even though the two buildings represent completely different styles. In the main facades of both, the architectural gesture demarcating the entrance has been expanded to gigantic proportions, soaring to the height of three storeys, with a rooftop level on top.

The most frequently used entrance to the library on the railway station’s side is quite modest in comparison. The library underscores the monumental, symbolic order more than it manifests the traffic flows created by the urban structure, thus asserting itself as the counterpart of the Parliament House across the Kansalaistori square.


Kansalaistori draws the Parliament House closer to the people on the streets. There is now a vast, easily accessible area in front of the Parliament – the terraced lawns stretching southwards from the Musiikkitalo concert hall are especially popular on sunny days. Kansalaistori is undoubtedly also a more pleasant venue to hold a demonstration than the steps of the Parliament House.

At the same time, however, the square pushes the Parliament House further away. From the square, it is mainly visible from far below, from behind the terraces. This also makes the building seem larger. Also swept further away is the diverse alternative culture that used to thrive in the old railway storehouses at the foot of the Parliament House that have now been torn down. The storehouses were released from use by the railway company in 1988, after which various tenants occupied the facilities.

The storehouses were suited for a variety of events – including the kind that were not a natural fit with more distinguished and valuable buildings. The venue housed pioneering eco-businesses, a club, workshops and a gallery. I personally used the place, without asking anyone for permission, to work on my piece for the 2004 Helsinki Fest. Of course, the new library also offers spaces and tools for a number of tidy indoor activities. Compared to the life of the former storehouse area, however, the Kansalaistori square, which was designed to bring international appeal, has a more conventionally palatable and bourgeois air.

Monuments are not just about what the builders want people to remember. An equally important element is that which is not actively recalled. The railway storehouses had unintentionally grown into a monument with multiple meanings: a memento of the harbour railway and trunk line that lifted Helsinki to its prime, and a dialectic counterpart for the Parliament House, the lowly counterbalancing the lofty.6 The intention was to preserve a small piece of it, but setbacks meant that not one brick was spared.

The polished, distant visibility of the Parliament House from Kansalaistori seems to be parallel to the fact that power in political parties has shifted from the people on the field to the elite.7 One reason for this is that youthful rebellion has already been thoroughly understood and placated, leaving no room for zealous expression and leading to passivity. Following politics is always within our grasp via our cell phones, whereas the traditional processes of getting involved in politics are far removed from our everyday lives. People want to concentrate on their own jobs and leisure activities. We make our ideological choices mainly as consumers.

During the long history of planning for the Kansalaistori square, an answer has been sought for the question, what is Finland? The pair formed by the library and the parliament provide one answer: a civilized state. But the answers yielded by our monuments tend to change with time, which is also attested by the history of Senate Square. The monumental order in the cityscape may remain unchanged, but our interpretation of it is constantly evolving. The most striking monuments do not even attempt to provide answers. They help us to imagine new societal orders. That is the only way to retain freedom. A union of government and civilization is a fruitful source of fantasy, but an important task hereby falls upon the new library, with its events and its shelves for minority literature, to replace some of the edge that was lost with the old storehouses.

1 Umberto Eco: The Name of the Rose. Trans. William Weaver. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1983, p. 492.

2 Anja Kervanto-Nevanlinna & Laura Kolbe: Senaatintori – Suomen sydämessä. Siltala 2012.

3 Nils-Erik Wickberg: Senaatintori, Anders Nyborg 1981, p. 25.

4 Anja Kervanto-Nevanlinna & Laura Kolbe: Senaatintori – Suomen sydämessä. Siltala 2012.

5 Riitta Nikula: Yhtenäinen kaupunkikuva 1900–1930 : suomalaisen kaupunkirakentamisen ihanteista ja päämääristä, esimerkkeinä Helsingin Etu-Töölö ja Uusi Vallila. Societas scientiarum Fennica 1981.

6 Kimmo Oksanen: Makasiinit: 1899–2006. Helsingin Sanomat 2006.

7 Vesa Koskimaa: ”Onko valta siirtynyt puolueissa kenttäväeltä eliitille”. In Mari K. Niemi, Tapio Raunio & Ilkka Ruostetsaari (eds.): Poliittinen valta Suomessa. Vastapaino 2017, pp. 111–138.

8 Tommi Eränpalo: ”Onko kuva suomalaisnuorten yhteiskunnallisesta passiivisuudesta harhaa?”. Kasvatus & Aika 6(1) 2012, pp. 23–38.