Published in 1/2023 - Movement

Project Review

New Adventure and Romance

Mikko Summanen

Kuva: Tuomas Uusheimo

The new entrance building of Helsinki Airport offers a memorable setting for departures and arrivals.

In the mid-1970s, my uncle, who was a fan of aeroplane romanticism, often took me to Seutula Airport, where we marvelled at the planes. In addition to DC-10s, a high, sloping glass wall and a shiny parquet floor were also imprinted in the memory of a young boy. At that time, people were allowed to enter the main facilities of the terminal and go and look at the runway without having a flight ticket.

The main airport of Helsinki had been moved from Malmi in Helsinki to Seutula in Vantaa in 1952, but it was not until 1969 that the first modern terminal building was completed, designed by architects Keijo Ström and Olavi Tuomisto. In the 2020s, Helsinki Airport is a patchwork quilt of extensions which have been carried out at different times and the architectural quality of which is varying. The most recent extension is the impressing entrance building designed by Ala Architects.

Phillip L. Jacobson, architect and professor at University of Washington, wrote the following in the Finnish Architectural Review (4/1969) regarding the international magnitude of the terminal designed by Ström & Tuomisto for Finland: ”It will provide untold numbers of visitors with their first and last impression of the country and will stand as an illustration of current standards in design in a country not only famous for its contribution to design but one seeking to enhance this image.” The airport continues to have a symbolic meaning for Helsinki and Finland. However, the location where the first impressions take place has been moved, due to the earlier extensions, away from the terminal building that was completed in the 1960s, and today, the first impressions happen in the new entrance building. Its architecture aptly responds to a requirement for creating a memorable space that defines feelings dealing with arriving and departing.

Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo

Helsinki Airport Departures and Arrivals Building
ALA Architects

Location Lentoasemantie 1, Vantaa
Gross Area 43 600 m2
Completion 2021
Old Building Keijo Ström and Olavi Tuomisto 1969, 1983 (Arkkitehti 4/1969), Pekka Salminen 1996, 1999 (Arkkitehti 4/1996, Arkkitehti 1/2000)

More photos and drawings of the project →

It is said that when designing the Trans World Airlines terminal for John F. Kennedy Airport, architect Eero Saarinen spent a long time at various airports and at Grand Central Station in New York, measuring passenger flows with a stopwatch. This fieldwork strongly affected the spatial dimensioning and design of the terminal. The anatomy of the architecture of the new entrance building of Helsinki Airport is based on a similar logic. The most dominant element is a wooden suspended ceiling. The design of the sculpture-like ceiling, which resembles contour lines, creates associations to nature in the north or to plywood works of art by Tapio Wirkkala and Rut Bryk, as well as to the TWA Terminal by Eero Saarinen.

The new part has been divided into two volumes. The first volume – an expressive entrance building with a wooden ceiling – is formed by a departures hall on the upper floor and an arrivals hall on the lower floor. These functionally clear floors are connected with each other by a diamond-shaped opening in the intermediate floor, a large skylight above it and a nature diorama called Luoto (the ”Islet”) on the lower floor. These three architectural elements facilitate navigation in the space and create a strong spatial feel by pausing the passenger flow in the terminal building for a short while. Luoto has potential for becoming a similar meeting place as the one under the famous clock at the entrance of Stockmann Department Store in Helsinki. 

Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo
Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo

The second volume – an intensively blue lower building – functions as a conveying element between the entrance building and the terminal that was built in the 1960s. Security control has been located on the upper floor and the baggage conveyor belts on the lower floor. The geometry of the blue building is more pared-down, and it separates the terminal buildings that were completed in different decades from each other in a natural way. The Ström & Tuomisto terminal can be seen from the windows in the ceiling of the departures hall. At the same time, the solution provides an airy and lightweight feel for the wooden suspended ceiling. According to the designers, the original intention was to use the same blue colour for the floor surface of security control as for the walls. This would have further highlighted the character of the conveying space.

Despite its free form, the new entrance building is highly rational. A significant operational improvement has been implemented, as all passenger traffic now runs through one terminal. This makes the routes of passengers much clearer, even though it sometimes means long distances to gates. The entrance building can also easily be extended, according to future needs, towards the bus terminal. This has been taken into account in the roof geometry as well as in the structural solutions.

According to the architects, the new airport building aims to bring adventure and romance back to air travel. A few weeks ago, while waiting to check in for a flight to Tokyo, I remembered the feeling of freedom from childhood when the wheels of the plane come off the runway. Something similar can be experienced in this eloquent building. Romance can, to some extent, be regarded as a contradictory goal when looked at from the perspective of climate change mitigation. Should architecture, too, communicate environmental problems that deal with flying? On the other hand, a memorable travel experience perhaps makes us consider our travel choices more closely. Maybe we will fly more rarely when flying is made special and memorable?

Ala is one of those Finnish architecture firms that has a clearly identifiable style of their own. As regards public buildings designed earlier by Ala, they are known for landmark-like entrances and imaginatively designed wooden ceiling surfaces. These architectural means are particularly well suited to the Helsinki Airport entrance building. The problem with most airports across the globe is their excessively generic character and a downright lack of identity. At Helsinki Airport, the situation is quite the opposite. The gateway to Helsinki and Finland represents strong and memorable architecture. ↙

Architect, founding partner of K2S Architects.