Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The House of Culture

Site No. 55: The House of Culture in Helsinki (1952-58)

As already promised earlier, today I would like to present a new Aalto site, the House of Culture also known as Kultuuritalo in Finland. I have visited this site several times before, as far as I can remember back I was there already in 2004. In 2012, after I had started writing this blog, I did my next visit. By that time the entire building was undergoing a larger renovation. Finally this summer I was able to properly visit the site, not only to be able to admire the exterior but I was also lucky enough to participate in one of the guided tours. Lucky not only in the sense that the building was just freshly renovated but also due to the fact that guided tours are only offered each year 15 times during the month of August. In case you cannot participate in one of the 15 tours the only way to see parts of the building's interior is to participate in one of the many events held in the building or by visiting the cafeteria which provides warm lunch on a daily bases. However, to really get a look behind the scenes participation in one of the guided tours is probably the only way.
Street view of the House of Culture during renovations in March 2012

The House of Culture is located quite central in Helsinki and can easily be reached by public transportation using e.g. tram 3 (stop Urheilutalo), tram 8 (stop Linnanmäki) or even more convenient bus 23 which stops right in front of the building (stop Kultuuritalo). The address is Sturenkatu 4.  

The building itself was ordered by the Finnish Communist Party in the mid 1950s. Even tough not a member of the party Aalto did not charge the Communist Party for designing the building, in return however the party gave Alvar Aalto complete artistic freedom. Interesting is also that a large amount of work during construction was completed by volunteers of the party. The building was owned by the party until its bankruptcy in the 1990s. Then the building was sold to the Finnish State who is nowadays the owner of the property.

As there was a lack of halls for larger audiences in Helsinki after the war the Communist Party tried to fill this gap by building the House of Culture. Until completion of Finlandia Hall the House of Culture featured the largest concert hall in Helsinki. Many major cultural events took place in the concert hall during the 1960s, 70s and 80s and famous international artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Led Zepplin, Tina Turner and Metallica had performed in the House of Culture.

Besides a large concert hall the House of Culture houses also smaller halls in the basement and in the upper floor as well as a lunch restaurant and a office building that is directly connected with the halls through a corridor. The concert hall section was kept in red brick and looks due to its curved forms rather futuristic. The office track on the other side is kept in copper and its form is rather rectangular.

Special about the building is also that the red brick used for the concert hall can only be found at this Aalto building and wasn't used in any other building designed by Aalto. The only exception of course is the Experimental House in Muuramme where this special red brick can be found, too. Its rectangular form gives the building a special touch. 

Interesting are also the curved walls which are not featuring any windows

Here we can now see the connecting corridor between the two building parts. The corridor is kept in the rear allowing a kind of inner yard between the two building parts

Towards the road a roof can be found that offers arriving visitors shelter from rain or snow and functions at the same time also as a space keeper between the inner yard and the road passing by the House of Culture

Here are more views of the office section

Next we will have a look at the entrances starting with the entrance through which the large concert hall can be entered. Here we see again the typical Aalto entrance doors known from so many other public buildings

Next we have a look at the entrance doors to the so called "Alppi Sali" or "Alp Room" which is a smaller hall located in the basement of the building. The room got its name most probably from the nearby neighbourhood which is called "Alppi"

Next to the entrance doors of "Alppi Sali" beside the road is an information board placed that contains information about upcoming events taking place in the House of Cultures

So much for the exterior, let's now enter the building through the entrance doors of the large concert hall and have a look at the lobby which houses a bar, a waiting area and a coat room

Interesting is also this work of art on display in the lobby showing an important scene from the Finnish national epos Kalevala

Another interesting detail in the lobby is this small stage that was added later. It was used by bands performing for Friday night dances that were held in the lobby during the 1960s and 1970s

Before climbing up the stairs to the large concert hall we first will quickly visit the "Alppi Sali" in the basement. As already shown above "Alppi Sali" has its own entrance from the road but there is also a connecting door between the lobby and the entrance to "Alppi Sali". Before taking the stairs down the visitor of "Alppi Sali" passed by a cashier window where entrance tickets are sold

"Alppi Sali" itself has a stage but the seating capacity is rather limited. The hall has been mostly used for theater performances

Back in the main lobby we climb next the stairs up which lead to an intermediate floor that houses another waiting area. In the lobby several stair cases can be found in order to separate the audience and guide them towards the right section where their seats are located

Here we see now pictures of the intermediate floor before entering the main concert hall. Interesting here is also the indirect lighting of this almost windowless building

Finally we are entering the large concert hall

It is almost unbelievable that this building was designed in the 1950s. Bot interior and exterior were in my opinion much ahead of their time

The wall decor and the lighting, just fabulous...

Finally a view of the audience room from the stage

... and the stage itself

Before leaving the concert hall part let's have a short look into the third audience hall, a lecture hall located right next to the large hall. Interesting here are the roof lamps and of course the roof itself...

Next we use the corridor that connects the two building parts. Unfortunately it was not possible during the tour to visit the office section of the building. The office spaces are rented out to companies and are therefore not open to the general public. An interesting detail of the corridor is the indirect lighting through the roof windows seen in many Aalto buildings as well.

The tour ended in the entrance hall in the first floor of the corridor which is the only part of the building that is open to the public during business hours and can be visited without a guide. The earlier mentioned lunch restaurant is located right next to the entrance hall.

The entrance hall features a model of the staircases used to connect the lobby with the large concert hall 

Besides that the entrance hall has a small coat room, a waiting area and a reception

Often refereed as one of Aalto's major works the House of Cultures is indeed something special. Not only its futuristic outside with its round forms but especially the interior is really outstanding. It is a pity that this building is hardly accessible as the amount of guided tours is so limited. When visiting Helsinki and hunting for Alvar Aalto's architecture, don't miss out this building. Even tough you might not be able to attend at one of the very few guided tours, go there, admire the building's exterior and have at least a cup of coffee at the lunch restaurant which is open during all weekdays. It is worth it.


  1. Your blog explaining all the main points very awesomely. Thanks for sharing this knowledgeable post.
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  2. Hello! I am wondering about the structure system of this building and cannot find answers online...

    Is the concert hall a reinforced concrete structure cladded in brick?

    Any knowledge would help!


  3. Hello! I am wondering about the structural system of this building. Is the concert hall a reinforced concrete structure cladded in brick? I am designing a brick building with similar curves in school and would like to know how the master went about this.

    Any information would be appreciated.


    1. Thank you very much for your comment Anthony, unfortunately I am not able to answer this question. However, I am sure the Aalto Foundation would be more than happy to help you with this request. You can find their contact details here: http://www.alvaraalto.fi/contact_information.htm. Good luck with your project!

  4. Hello Stefan. Thank you very much for your blog, I love it. Please, tell me if you remember the source for the information that says that Aalto did not charge any money to the comunist party. I explain why I need it: I also thought that that was the case, but when I asked first the tour guide inside the building and after the people from the Alvar Aalto Foundation, both said that that was not true, so I just want to know if there is a source, so I can rediscusse the issue with the Foundation. Thank you very much.

    1. Thank you very much for your feedback! My source of information is the tour guide who explained us that Aalto didn't charge the communist party for his work. Perhaps you could get in touch with the communist party as they might be able to tell you whether this information is true or not. Please let me also know, I would be happy to update the information on this blog, if necessary. Thanks.

  5. Its like you read my mind! You seem to know so much about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. Helsinki Guided Tours

  6. This is lovely!!! Beautiful piece as usual... I thoroughly enjoyed the pictures, the perspectives, but especially the descriptions and narratives...

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  7. Thank for your sharing. I love Alvar Aalto'works too. Do I need to make a reservation if I want to visit the concert hall?

  8. Thank you for your comment. Outside concerts the concert hall can only be visited when attending a guided tour. These tours are normally offered during the summer months. The cafeteria, although, is open for any visitors.