Architect Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950) and his son Eero were time travellers from the future with an interest in transport. We know this because their transport buildings are adrift in time, built years earlier than seems possible based on their appearance. Eero (1910-1961) was responsible for the futuristic TWA Flight Center at JFK Airport in New York. It opened in 1962 but is redolent of – or rather, prefigures – much more recent buildings by architects like Zaha Hadid and Santiago Calatrava. It’s one of my favourite pieces of transport architecture. But Eero was following in a grand family tradition, because his father (well that’s what they’d have us think; we all know that in time travel stories, the father is always his own son or something) built one of the great late 1920s / 1930s railway stations. Except it opened in 1914.
Eero worked in America because the family emigrated there in the 1923. Before the move, as you’d expect from the name, the Saarinens were a Finnish family, and Eliel became famous for his work in the Art Nouveau style. Yet although his most famous transport building, Helsinki Central railway station, is classified as Art Nouveau, it contains many features that would later come to define the Art Deco / Modernist approach applied particularly to American stations like those at Cincinnati, Buffalo, Newark and Los Angeles.
The replacement for an earlier station which proved too small to cope with increasing passenger numbers, Saarinen completed his design for Helsinki Central as early as 1909, though it took another five years for the building to be completed, and another five before it was officially dedicated, the First World War having intervened to delay the ceremony. To give you a sense of what contemporary railway architecture looked like at the time, consider Moor Street station in Birmingham, which opened in 1909 in traditional Victorian style. Saarinen, meanwhile, was designing something that relied little on such precedents, and instead looked towards the coming decades.
Glancey (1999, p79) describes Eliel Saarinen as “a bridge between the architectural concerns of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” and that bridge is epitomised by Helsinki Central. Its form is very much that of an Art Deco / Modernist railway terminal, but while Modernism would strip away surface detailing, Helsinki Central is finished in pink granite sculpted with detailed patterning.
Helsinki Central’s most famous feature is its main entrance, which has a huge arched window (one of the features that would become emblematic of later American Art Deco stations). There are bow patterns, toothed patterns and floral patterns surrounding the window in an Art Nouveau style influenced by the Vienna Secessionists rather than the more organic French Art Nouveau. Another nod to Art Nouveau is that the copper roof has a segmented finish at the gable ends, including over the main entrance. The entrance is flanked by Helsinki Central’s most iconic feature: four huge statues, two on each side, each of which hold globe-shaped lamps. Like Helsinki Central itself, they are bridges between the more naturalistic and decorative approaches of Art Nouveau and the more abstract and stylised designs of Art Deco. The bottom halves of the statues are abstract; they have no legs but a half column instead. The columns are sculpted with patterns similar to those surrounding the large window. The upper parts of the statues are largely naturalist in style, except for their hair, which is an Art Deco a finish as you could ever hope to find.
Smaller lamp-bearing statues flank some of the non-passenger external doorways. A secondary station entrance on the west side of the station has a similar arched window above the doorways, but this time it is flanked by two curved towers instead of statues.
The 48.5m tall clock tower, with its stepped top, also embedded itself in the architectural consciousness as a feature that would be repeated at other inter-war railway terminals built in the years following Helsinki Central’s construction. Buffalo Central’s (NY, USA) tower in particular, with its stepped upper storeys, is very reminiscent of the one at Helsinki Central. The door at the bottom of the tower is topped off with a super little sculpture of the globe cradled within a pair of winged train wheels.
Groups of narrow vertical windows seen all around the building are another feature of Helsinki Central which would be repeated on countless later Modernist stations, and indeed other types of buildings. You can look at the narrow vertical glazing on Modernist power stations like Bankside in London and see Helsinki Central once again prefiguring the Modernist movement.
But it’s inside where the similarities with later Modernist railway stations are strongest. The vaulted internal roofs are made of that favourite Modernist material, concrete, still a novelty for large public buildings in the early twentieth century, despite its use as far back as Roman times as a building material. Take a look at this image and tell me you’d have known it was built as early as 1914:
The giveaway, of course, is the inclusion of sculpted patterning on the pilasters and around the window.
Today the interior of the station survives in good shape, despite various additions over the years, and damaged sustained during bombing and a fire a few years later. The lovely chandeliers are spectacular and instantly recognisable to those familiar with the station, though this photo suggests that the originals were of a different and more ornate design.
It’s still a working station though, not a museum. Modern facilities have been installed but the quality of the original design shows through everywhere, as in the enquiries/ticket hall:
Not regularly seen by passengers is a waiting room for the exclusive use of the Finnish president and guests (imagine that), originally designed for the Russian Emperor when Finland was under Russia’s influence. The station featured in a BBC list of 10 of the world’s most beautiful railway stations. The design was such a success that Saarinen adapted it for Vyborg railway station, completed in 1913 but destroyed during the Second World War.
If there’s a disappointment at Helsinki Central, it’s with the trainshed itself, a somewhat nondescript steel and glass structure considering the elan on show in the main building. No overall roof was provided when Helsinki Central was built and it took until the early 2000s for this modern facility to be provided.
In addition to its main building setting the template for many later railway stations, the statues flanking the main entrance of Helsinki Central have passed into Finnish popular culture. Take a look at the Customer Services mascot on the homepage of VR, the Finnish state railway operator. It’s one of those same statues, bedecked in a green apron and little hat. What, you might wonder, would Eliel Saarinen make of that? Well, he came from the future, so he probably knew all about it anyway.
How to find Helsinki Central station
Bibliography and further reading
Glancey, Jonathan (1999) Twentieth-Century Architecture. London: Carlton Books
Solomon, Brian (2003) Railway Masterpieces. Newton Abbot: David & Charles
Solomon, Brian (2015) Railway Depots, Stations, & Terminals. Minneapolis: Voyageur Press