The city they just decided to build
"There are two kinds of cities: trade locations that came into being naturally and those that were deliberately planned and founded by rulers. Helsinki is clearly in the latter category, along with places like St. Petersburg, Ankara and Brasilia," says Professor Matti Klinge of the University of Helsinki. "The foundation of Helsinki was the King's idea, and when work began on the Suomenlinna fortress (Sveaborg/Viapori) 250 years ago, it was an investment by the realm as a whole. When Finland had been ceded to Russia and became an autonomous grand-duchy, the elevation of Helsinki to the status of capital was another action carried out because it lay in the ruler's interests. When railways arrived in the 1860s, the plan was to build them in the shape of a fan radiating out from Helsinki, which again emphasised the status of the city. That plan, too, came from above."
King Gustavus Vasa of Sweden pursued an active trade policy. When he founded Helsinki in 1550, he did so to create a counterweight to the German-dominated Hanseatic League, which was very strong on the opposite (southern) shore of the Gulf of Finland. At first the town was located at the mouth of the River Vantaa, but in 1640, the regency that ruled on behalf of Queen Christina relocated it to its present site on a peninsula some distance further west. In the aftermath of a lost war, Sweden ceded Finland to Russia in 1809 and Helsinki became the capital in 1812, a status that it retained when the grand-duchy became a fully-independent state in 1917. Thus the city celebrates its 450th birthday in 2000.
"The artificial decision to found Helsinki did not work out well at all in the beginning. It was only later that the desired result was achieved. The construction of Suomenlinna was such an enormous task that it brought in merchants to satisfy the builders' needs; in other words, just the burghers that the town had been trying to attract all along. The influence of the State has been strongly felt at all times," emphasises Professor Klinge. "For a long time Helsinki was a garrison town, a university seat and an administrative centre; industry and commerce acquired a more visible role in the pattern of the city's life only after the railway had been built. The country's most important institutions are still located in Helsinki: Parliament, the Council of State (i.e. Government), the Presidential Palace, the General Headquarters of the Defence Forces, the most important university, the Bank of Finland. Unlike the situation in countries like the USA, Germany and the Netherlands, where the situation is quite different, this is where political and economic decision-making is concentrated. From the points of view of both Helsinki and Finland, this is a clear advantage. It is in concentration like this that a small country's strength lies, as has been realised after various attempts at decentralisation.
"History is clearly visible in Helsinki's expression. The streets were built straight and wide by command of the ruler, wider than in Stockholm for example. Many old cities were built more or less randomly, their streets winding between buildings dating from many different periods. We can thank the Russian way of thinking for the spacious city plan adopted here; there is plenty of space there, the wide-open steppes . What mattered most, though, was the Czar's will," Professor Klinge points out. "The streets here are wide because he ordered it; they would not have been built that way otherwise. The Senate Square is the best example of what he wanted."
"The site contained a church, a cemetery, shops, schools, a town hall, some marshland and rocky hills. When the Czar commanded that a big square be built there, the hills were quarried away, the marsh was drained and the houses demolished. People were not asked for their views very much in those days, but they would never voluntarily have agreed to the plan."
Now the Senate Square and its buildings are a source of great pride for Helsinki. The whole totality is a handsome and coherent example of the variant of Neoclassical called Empire, a unique pearl of architecture.