Tapiola – green satellite town of Helsinki

The modern garden town of Tapiola was built next to Helsinki in the 1950s and 60s. It became a test lab for the latest ideas in architecture and urban planning.

Espoo Cultural Centre in Tapiola

LOCATED JUST WEST of Helsinki, Tapiola was built as the opposite of the hectic and unhealthy stone city. The plan was to create a new kind of ideal town in which urban life and nature coexisted in harmony. The idea was that people could best relax and recharge their batteries after a day's work in an environment that was closer to nature.

Each stage of the planning emphasised people's connection with nature. The buildings were placed further apart from each other in the hilly terrain, with spacious parks and untended woods in between. Each flat had a view of a natural setting, trees or green parks. Nature was all around you in Tapiola.

The garden town of Tapiola was the most prominent urban planning experiment in Finland. It attracted great interest in the 1950s and 60s both in Finland and abroad. There we even "tourist hostesses" to guide visitors.

Heads of state and other VIPs were taken to visit Tapiola. It was the calling card of a modern Finland, a showpiece to visitors. The press took an interest, and so did ordinary Finns, visiting housing fairs in the area in great numbers.

Tapiola architecture
Otsonkanava in Tapiola

The Tapiola project started in July 1951, when Asuntosäätiö, a housing foundation, bought 238 hectares of land from Hagalund Manor in Espoo. Zoning began right away, and construction got under way in what used to be fields already the following year.

It was Asuntosäätiö, headed by Heikki von Hertzen, who was calling the shots. What was exceptional was that neither the municipality nor the state had much say in things in the area. Maybe that was why the new urban vision was completed in an exceptionally uniform way.

Tapiola was in many ways an idealistic project. They wanted to create an independent satellite town to Helsinki, with homes, but also services for the inhabitants.

"The goal was that Tapiola was not to become a bedroom suburb, but a vibrant small town that could offer its inhabitants both material and intangible services and a healthy and happy living environment," wrote Otto-Iivari Meurman, who was part of the zoning team, in his memoirs.

The plan was for the different social strata to mix in Tapiola. With this in mind, various types of homes were built, from studio flats to flashy villas capable of entertaining visitors.

Tapiola architecture

Tapiola became a test laboratory of modern architecture, trying out the latest design ideas. The buildings were designed by architectural prodigies of the new generation, such as Aulis Blomsted, Aarne Ervi, Viljo Revell, Markus Talvio, Jorma Järvi, and Kaija and Heikki Sirén.

Tapiola tested various new housing architecture solutions, such as modern row houses and chain houses, which we only being introduced in Finland. There were also some rarer solutions for detached houses, such as atrium houses, with an open-roofed central court. More large-scale experiments, visible from everywhere in the horizon, included Alvar Aalto's fan-like high-rise buildings and Viljo Revell's high-rise buildings in the shape of hip flasks.

Tapiola tested various new housing architecture solutions, such as modern row houses and chain houses, which we only being introduced in Finland.

The interior decoration solutions were rich with new ideas, such as the American-style kitchen bars. The simple Scandinavian interior decoration style favoured by people in Tapiola attracted plenty of media attention, as architects, interior decorators and many other creative field professionals were eager to present their homes in magazine articles.

Experimental architecture also extended to public buildings in the area. The centre was dubbed "Finland's first town centre", a modern shopping centre along Tapionraitti pedestrian zone, with a 13-floor central tower and a large pool adding some grandeur. Other public buildings were added later. These include Aarno Ruusuvuori's minimalistic church, completed in 1965, and Arne Ervi's swimming hall.

Tapiola Swimming Hall

Building Tapiola proceeded stage by stage, because the land area bought by Asuntosäätiö was substantial. The eastern part was completed first, with construction continuing in 1956–61, and from 1961 onwards, construction moved to the northern part and Suvikumpu.

The landscape architects designed "grass belts and flower fields", softening the modernist architecture, between these areas. Landscaping was expended to people's gardens, with gardeners helping them to choose suitable plants.

The wooded suburban idea applied in Tapiola was the urban planning ideal in Finland for a long time.

Tapiola created modern urban planning solutions into a modern, developing and urbanising Finland. Ideas that were tested there were soon copied elsewhere. The wooded suburban idea applied in Tapiola was the urban planning ideal in Finland for a long time. Low-rise and sparsely built "Little Tapiolas" began to spring up in practically all of Finland's bigger cities.

Kino Tapiola

Tapiola was originally planned to be a miniature town for about 17,000 people, next to Helsinki. This dream of a small town has, with time, been overtaken by the expanding capital region. Those who designed Tapiola probably could not have guessed in their wildest dreams how much the population would rise in the future.

The pressure caused by more residents has changed Tapiola. High-rise concrete houses have rised next to the low-rise garden town, and the shopping centre has undergone various transformations. Tapiola is no longer on the edge of the city, but it still retains, after six decades, the greenness of a garden town and a small-town feeling.

Text: Anna-Kaisa Huusko Photos: Otto Virtanen

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