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Sounds good: Helsinki's new concert hall

When Finland tore itself free from Russia after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, its leaders discussed what the independent country's first building should be. "A concert hall," said someone, to general assent. The nation had, after all, been conceived by Jean Sibelius in Finlandia, back in 1899. It would not exist without music.

Plans were drawn and a hillside site allocated in central Helsinki. Then it was pointed out that the new state might need a parliament. The site was reassigned and the hall was put on ice during a brutal civil war, two Russian wars and enduring poverty in a culture that is ever prepared to grit its teeth and wait.

When peace prevailed during the neutral age of Finlandisation, the concert hall project was given to the next most famous Finn after Sibelius. Alvar Aalto was an architect of world renown for his "functionalist" buildings in which every steel joist and glass wall was fit not just for purpose but for its unity with lake and forest surrounds. The new hall was to be named Finlandia and finished for the composer's centenary in 1965. Six years late, it opened in 1971 to the accolades of a grateful nation. There was only one dissenting voice. It belonged to my late friend Seppo Heikinheimo, chief critic of the mass-readership Helsingin Sanomat. He declared the hall an acoustic disaster. He was ostracised and sent on leave, cold-shouldered by every right-thinking Finn.

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Stephen Hayford Morris
February 4th, 2014
12:02 AM
I agree with Sakari Oramo that his Birmingham Symphony Hall is the standard to aim for. We are so lucky outside London to have such fine halls like the Bridgwater in Manchester, Lighthouse in Poole, the improved Liverpool Philharmonic and even Northampton has a very presentable Derngate.

October 6th, 2011
5:10 PM
Finlandia Hall wasn't exactly turned into a conference centre this year, it was designed as one in the first place, and has always hosted at least as many conferences as it has concerts. The musicians were complaining about too many conferences being booked right from the opening day of the hall in 1971. In 1973, two years after completion, Finlandia Hall was the stage for what was aimed as president Kekkonen's crowning achievement, the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE). The final act was signed by 35 countries from both sides of the iron curtain and seen as a major achievement (at least for a moment) in relations between the west and the communist bloc. The acoustics of Finlandia Hall were always a compromise, and Aalto was apparently quite aware of this already in the design stages, as he did go to concerts himself. Acoustically poor fan-shaped halls were in vogue at the time, and they were a natural fit for Aalto's architectural language and the needs of a conference auditorium. I certainly wouldn't call Finlandia Hall spartan with its Aalto-designed bent wood decorations, marble floors and whatnot. The word might better suit the new Music Centre, or at least its exteriors. The photo in the article shows Sibelius Academy's entrance in the 'rear' of the building, not the 'front' sides with the main entrances for the audience. More pictures here:

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