Published in 1/2023 - Movement

Project Review

New Geometry of the Ceiling

Marianna Wahlsten

Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo

Suspended ceiling in timber at Helsinki Airport is refined by digital technology.

A long queue meandered through the new departure hall at Helsinki Airport, when travel restrictions finally eased last summer. Waiting to get to security controls, there was a long moment for sensing the effect of the space, designed by Ala Architects, and reflect on the aesthetics of parametric design in wooden architecture. Compared to airports constructed of concrete, glass and steel, the ambience of the space was much softer and very distinctive for its acoustical qualities. A particular effect, arose from the big difference in ceiling height, ranging from 2,80 metres to 16 metres at the highest point.

Although space has been liberated by digital services over the past decade, the physical flux of passengers and baggage is still at centre of the airport programme. In this context, the undulating ceiling structure acts like a calming blanket, while passengers circulate, wait, and check messages on various screens. In contrast to all the online activities, material weight is gaining new meaning. In this spatial composition, inspired by Finnish traditions in arts and architecture, the suspended ceiling creates a sense of drama, with the large central skylight, cutting across, reinforcing the recognisable identity of the airport. Daylight falling from above and from the sides enlivens the space, shifting the spatial characteristics throughout the day and the seasons.

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 →

Within the programmatic constraints of the terminal, the ceiling was the only possible element for strong architectural expression. Plain, lightweight steel and glass structures are contrasted by the horisontal dynamic that the ceiling creates; ambience is set by the soft curves in wood. Principal designer, architect Juha Grönholm from Ala Architects explains how the ceiling was designed for added warmth and a sense of ”romantic adventure” for air travel. In addition to this spatial experience, the ceiling hides a complex system of machinery commanding fire safety, ventilation and the various sensors and networks. If one of the ideals in modernism was transparency, in post-digital architecture we can see a tendency for hiding, and for deconstructing stiff geometrical forms.

Designed with parametric software, the production of the wooden ceiling elements demanded advanced technological skills from all contractual partners of construction. Carpenters firm Raision Puusepät took up the commission for producing and installing almost five hundred elements of 20 square meters, which required massive investment for both machinery and extra working hours for planning transport and storage. Each element was first individually modelled. The layered timber boards with Finnish spruce on top, where sent on a CNC machine for the cutting process following a 3D-model. Each panel was then finished by hand and sealed by an automated surface treatment for a unified end-result.

With the aim of creating continuity between the form and the material, the timber grain was carefully analysed during the design process. As each panel is individual, the installation of this large composition required special attention in order to retain the dynamics between the abstract forms and a visual unity. The industrial process can be identified in the long seams running across the composition, which resembles a topographic model. The centrally cut large skylight is surrounded by horisontally assembled battens, following the dynamic movement of the ceiling structure. Conceived with advanced technology, it shows how digital tools are used to refine new approaches in timber design.  

Photo: Tuomas Uusheimo

The wooden ceiling starts from the outside canopy, extending inside. As an architectural solution it exemplifies the modernist pursuit of continuity between interior and exterior, while simultaneously creating a strong facade for the airport. As a reference for the ceiling design, the architects mentioned a plywood installation by Tapio Wirkkala titled Ultima Thule (1965), in which the artist explored the potential of an industrial material used in aircrafts. In its sculptural qualities the ceiling design by Ala is remarkable and shows how artistic influences can be appropriated in post-digital architecture, like Russian constructivism in Zaha Hadid’s designs, or 1960s Californian sculpture in Frank Gehry’s works.

Ala has designed large-scale curved wooden surfaces previously for the Kilden Performing Arts Centre in Kristiansand, Norway, and the Central Library Oodi in Helsinki, playing with modernist traditions with the help of digital tools. These earlier projects also reassured the client for the commission of the new terminal, in which a central theme in Alvar Aalto’s architecture, the bent timber, has been reimagined to a new level. It reminds of Sigfried Giedion’s observation on the ceiling, already evident at the Pantheon in Rome, as the site of symbolic expressive power of each period. ↙

Journalist and photographer specialising in architecture and interiors, doctoral researcher at Université Paris Cité. Her thesis work investigates airport architecture as part of urban identity, one of the case studies being Helsinki Airport.