The Austere Majesty of Helsinki

Helsinki, Finland – August 2008

The most dramatic thing that I’ve ever heard about Helsinki is that it’s a “nice” city. This bland description is usually accompanied by a shrug. Therefore, I do not expect much.

As the ferry enters the Helsinki harbor, my eyes are drawn to two immense cathedrals. The one on the right is earth-colored. The one in the center is immaculate white. It rises above the orderly buildings as if enthroned. A commanding presence against the slate gray sky. I can’t take my eyes off of it.


Later, when I walk through the imposing doors, my mouth drops open. The walls are completely vacant. A simple chandelier hangs from the highest dome. The only ornamentation is a circular gilt canopy over the pulpit. There are no dramatic frescoes or effigies to behold. It is my first time in a Protestant cathedral. The vast emptiness inspires wonder, not indifference.

Then I understand: there are no distractions from the words being spoken from the pulpit.


The buildings of Helsinki are just as spartan. No gargoyles. No cherubs. Only clean lines and subdued colors. I find it intriguing rather than boring.

The only sign of architectural frivolity is the Central Railway Station.  Four male figures bear circular lanterns. But even these figures are stoic and hard-edged. It is a solemn, masculine design.


I stare at it for a long time. It’s the coolest building that I’ve ever seen.


When I visit the sea fortress of Suomenlinna, the sun makes a reappearance. I meander the paths and passages. I climb to the top of a hill and look out over the water. It is mid-August, and already the light is diffused. I don’t need to shield my eyes from the sun.

There are few other visitors, and most of these seem to be Finns rather than foreign tourists. I had heard that Finns were cold and unfriendly. It’s hard to judge in just two days, but I don’t agree. A frugality of expression shouldn’t be mistaken as rudeness. In these latitudes, all forms of heat are precious and must be conserved.