Religious architecture can become controversial, if it ceases to follow the mandates of how a religion is followed. Even when architects and designers decide to innovate in this genre of building, excessive caution and sensitivity towards designing these religious spaces become mandatory. A visit to the Helsinki Cathedral, the Kamppi Chapel and the Temppeliaukion Church (Rock Church), all in and around the city centre of Helsinki and built across different decades, reveal how their distinctive design styles separate them, yet the soul, spirit, sanctity and peace that is evoked from these architecturally unique structures binds them.
The majestic Helsinki Cathedral in pristine white, forms the focus of the Senate Square, perching on the top of a plaza that also houses the modest residence of the governor and the building for the University of Helsinki. Neoclassicism and its accompanying traditionalism, and intricate details make up the exterior architecture of the cathedral, while the interiors have surprisingly minimal ornamentation, except the arresting golden chandeliers (a requirement of a Lutheran cathedral). The very typical setting of this imposing cathedral in the plaza with steep steps leading up to it, green domes and zinc statues of the 12 apostles accentuating the rooflines, have made it a landmark of the city. The cathedral is used during religious events, weddings, exhibitions as well as university events.Designed in 1839 by Carl Ludvig Engel, the German architect who exercised a huge influence on Finnish architecture, and later additions of the smaller domes and statues designed by Ernst Lohrmann, the construction took almost two decades. The plan of the cathedral has been modelled on a Greek Cross. Engel’s earlier idea of placing a row of columns to indicate the main entrance was not taken through; which could have been an appreciable solution to highlight the otherwise inconspicuous entrance.
The Kampii Chapel is all about minimalism, except for its arresting curved robust form, which creates interest because of how it mimics an installation and a structure of modern art. Contemporary Finnish wooden architecture that is applauded globally finds itself a great representative in this chapel where three diverse kinds of wood have been used: spruce coated in a special wax in the exteriors, alder planks in the internal walls and solid wood furniture. Also called the ‘Chapel of Silence’, it was built to create an oasis of peace and calm in the otherwise bustling Narinkka Square where it is located. The power of the silence inside the monochrome space of the chapel is overwhelming. It is generated with the integration of the material warmth and the flooding of natural light through a circumferential window strip along the ceiling, evoking the deepest of emotions. Built in 2012 by K2S architects, the windowless façade (a sole glass wall leads from the entrance to the exhibition space and the chapel alongside) seems a great metaphor to block the mundane life stresses and create a haven inside for contemplation.
The radical design of the Rock Church, conceptualised towards the end of the 1960s, offers a huge round of applause for its designers, the acclaimed Finnish architect-siblings Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen. It is fascinating how the interiors of this granite rock were excavated and the church was built directly into it. The understated exteriors lead into an explosion of space, materials and textures. Not a surprise then that this design faced initial opposition at the time of construction. One of the best examples of preservation of landscape and nature, for which Finland is famous, the church stands for natural, pure and organic architecture.
Even though built completely in rock and crowned by a copper dome, there is a lightness to the structure, which could be attributed to the glass panes that connect the dome and the wall and let one’s eyes travel upward. They allow daylight to move in from the roof periphery to the altar wall casting myriad tones of a natural glow and a variety of ambiences throughout the day. The subtle hint of colour and the red and mauve granite further make the space vibrant. Noteworthy details include the sound of the water trickling down the exposed rock walls, a crevice from the ice-age forming the altar and a life-sized pipe organ. The exposed rock surfaces and rubble walls are known to provide brilliant acoustics, making the church an occasional venue for concerts. A balcony platform offers a holistic perspective of the entire elliptical space.
The above three structures are symbolic of the fact that religious architecture does not have to be monotonous; it has the capacity to evolve. It can be fun, it can be contemporary, it can give you your peace of mind, and it can make you talk to God! And most critically, it can be all of this together! There is always a question of identity when one talks about religion; but when architecture comes into play, religion should always be defined by the intangibility created by spaces that one experiences, rather than the physicality.