Published in 3/2023 - Block

Project Review

Apartment Building in Kallio, Helsinki, Sports an Air of Newly Found Romanticism

Tuuli Kanerva

Photo: Kuvatoimisto Kuvio

The apartment building in Helsinki’s Kallio district is firmly rooted both in the architecture of a hundred years ago and in the present day.

The apartment building on Kaarlenkatu in Helsinki’s Kallio district designed by Inaro merges into a large perimeter block comprised of seven plots. The existing parts of the block were built at different times from the 1910s onwards. The recently completed part in the northwest corner of the block has replaced the previously most recent addition, sheltered housing built in the 1980s. The design of the new apartment building has relied on the cornerstones of urban architecture: good proportions, street level appeal and a sense of belonging to the place, which has meant establishing a connection to the early 20th century roots of the Kallio district.

Photo: Kuvatoimisto Kuvio

Kaarlenkatu Housing

Location Franzeninkatu 26, Helsinki
Gross Area 4 586 m2
Completion 2023

More photos and drawings of the project →

A significant feature of the apartment building’s street facades is the impression that the floors are higher than the current stipulation of three metres. This has meant giving careful attention to the proportions between the areas of solid wall and fenestration. Consequently, the architects have sought to connect with nearby buildings, where the characteristic dimensions of the façade have been influenced by higher floors.

The illusion has been achieved through the following three means: all the window openings in the apartments facing the street are 2.2-metre-tall French balconies. The one-metre distance between the windows on the different floors, as required by the fire regulations, has been reduced by 30 centimetres by introducing fire-break protrusions to the bottom edge of the windows. The balcony railings are frameless glass panels that disappear from view, especially from the apartments, and make the French balconies look like windows.

The arches on Kaarlenkatu play a significant role. In the Finland of the 2020s, these arches feel, on the one hand, like a pleasantly consistent use of a motif and, on the other hand, even like radical ornamentation. The streetscape is enlivened by a ground-floor restaurant, the display windows of which are decorated with shallow arches. Tectonically, the street facade is divided, in accordance with the stipulations of the detailed town plan, into a stone ground floor on which sits a rendered upper part. In such a layout, the walls between the large display windows tend to look like columns, which breaks the unity of the facade surface. On Kaarlenkatu, however, it is the arched openings that breaks the dividing line between the concrete and render, thus fusing together the parts marked by different materials. A similar curve is repeated in the underside of the eaves and the fire-break protrusions that emphasise the lower edge of the window openings. A rectangular protrusion would stick out from the wall more as an independent element than a curved one does. The curves give the facade a humane softness.

Today, the arch is a psychological choice, an ornament in its simplest form.

In keeping with the architectural rhetoric of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the architects have taken a more informal approach with the inner courtyard facades than the street facades. The most significant exception to the building’s fenestration principle are the wide vertical cuts created by the recessed balconies, which break the feeling of a uniform wall perforated only at certain points. The large cuts feel alien in relation to the rest of the building’s scale, but from the point of view of the apartments the balcony solutions are certainly understandable: the narrow, street-facing apartments have French balconies, while the deep, double aspect apartments have recessed balconies.

Using colour sample cards, the architects found the pale yellowish hue of the render for the facades from the 1920s buildings in the nearby Torkkelinmäki area. In the stairwell, the ethereal atmosphere becomes more intense with the strong, warm colours. The curving of the space and again the soft arches as well as the shades of yellow and burgundy bring to mind the flashy Art Deco.

Photo: Kuvatoimisto Kuvio

Residents have had the freedom to choose the colour schemes and materials of their apartments, something in housing construction which seems to lead to a situation where nothing connects the apartment interiors to the particular building. There is unused potential in the range of colours and materials of the new apartments. I myself yearn for a time and place where the character of the architecture experienced in the external facades and stairwells could continue, in one way or another, also inside the apartments.

The history of the location has been taken as the starting point of the apartment building on Kaarlenkatu, but the building also reflects the spirit of the times. In the 2020s, society feels chaotic: people’s hearts are weighed down by the knowledge of mass extinction; the pursuit of an economically secure life and saving nature seem mutually exclusive; the sense of control is gone. Amid this uncertainty, clarity holds great sway, and so in the 21st century architecture has begun to take on, as if by itself, the features of classical architecture, with its hipped roofs and rows of windows.

For a long time, the arch was a practical way to bridge an opening in a wall with bricks. Today, the arch is a psychological choice, an ornament in its simplest form. The rationality behind using arches on Kaarlenkatu stems from the goal of connecting the new building to the old building stock. At the same time, the shallow arches and curves imbue the building with a subtly romantic spirit. A new feature in Finnish architecture of the 2020s is that designers accept nostalgic imagery and the resulting romanticism alongside rationality. The architects’ consistent use of the arch motif elevates the Kaarlenkatu apartment building above pure nostalgia. ↙

Architect, founding partner of AS LL TK Architects. Teaches at Aalto University.