The 1952 Olympics, held 70 years ago, had a significant impact on Helsinki’s cityscape. Design Stories went on a tour of the sites of the Olympic Games to see what they look like nowadays. Join us!
THE OLYMPICS MAKE the host cities invest heavily in competition sites and accommodation facilities and clean up their image. Regardless of where and when the Olympic Games are held, they always leave a permanent mark on the host city.
In Helsinki, the Olympics were held in 1952, although some of the competition sites were already built in the late 1930s, as the original intent was to hold the Olympic Games in 1940. However, the Helsinki Olympics had to be canceled due to the outbreak of World War II.
The buildings completed in the 1930s reflected the new architectural trend of the time, Functionalism, due to which a simple unadorned look was designed for the competition sites. The buildings feature large window surfaces and gleaming white walls. They exude practicality, efficiency, and the spirit of a brave new era, whereas the competition sites built in the 1950s have a much softer feel to them.
Rowing Stadium and Velodrome – sister buildings
For the Helsinki Olympics, architect Hilding Ekelund (1893–1984) designed two streamlined white concrete stadiums that are, in fact, sister buildings. The Velodrome was constructed in Käpylä for track cycling, and the Rowing Stadium was built on the shore of the Taivallahti bay in Töölö for rowing and canoeing. Both were completed in the late 1930s.
Hilding Ekelund represented a new generation of architects who were enthusiastic about the simplicity and practicality of Functionalism. However, Ekelund’s architecture was also characterized by finesse: he usually placed the buildings carefully in the middle of nature and provided them with sophisticated details, such as sculptural staircases and round windows.
Among the buildings designed for the Olympics, the kayaking center Merimelojien Maja represents a smaller and cozier variant of Functionalism. It was built on the small islet of Humalluoto in Töölö, and even to this day, it is accessed via a narrow wooden bridge. On the outside, the building looks simple and modest. Both the exterior and interior walls are planked.
Merimelojien Maja was designed by Pauli E. Blomstedt (1900–1935), who died at a young age. Blomstedt was one of the advocates of Functionalist architecture in Finland – as well as a fellow canoeing enthusiast. The building was completed as early as the mid-1930s.
Olympic villages Olympiakylä and Kisakylä
Olympiakylä, located in Käpylä, was built as an Olympic village for the 1940 Olympics, and it was supposed to be used for accommodating around 3,000 male athletes. The apartment complex formed a unified area of about 600 apartments, and it was completed just before the outbreak of World War II.
Olympiakylä, designed by Hilding Ekelund and Martti Välikangas (1906–1973), became one of the milestones of Finnish residential architecture. It was the first residential area clearly realized in accordance with the principles of Functionalism. The buildings were placed among trees and plants with sufficient space around them, and each apartment was designed to let in sunlight and fresh air.
After the Olympics were postponed, the Kisakylä area, designed by architect Pauli Salomaa (1907–1983), was built for the accommodation of Olympic athletes. Kisakylä, intended for a total of 5,000 male athletes, was built next to the Olympiakylä area. After World War II, a new architectural style was trending, and in the 1950s, the buildings were more colorful and varied than before.
In addition to Kisakylä, Olympic athletes were accommodated elsewhere in Helsinki. The Soviet team, participating in the Olympics for the first time, as well as other athletes from the Eastern Bloc, were accommodated in the Teekkarikylä area, designed by Kaija (1920–1921) and Heikki Sirén (1918–2013), located in Otaniemi, Espoo. The female athletes were accommodated at the Nursing College in Meilahti, and accommodation was also provided at the military academy in Santahamina.
Töölö Sports Hall
Töölö Sports Hall, originally called Messuhalli, was built to serve as Finland’s first fair venue and multi-purpose arena. Construction work on the hall started in June 1934. The original plans for the Messuhalli building were very ambitious and grand – the visions included, for example, an exhibition hall twice as large as the current one and an over ten-story hotel and office wing, which were never built.
The curved, modern Messuhalli building was, however, expanded before the 1952 Olympics. The extension was needed both for fairs and as a competition site for the Olympics. The extension was designed to reflect the simple and functional architecture of the original Messuhalli building designed by Aarne Hytönen (1901–1972) and Risto-Veikko Luukkonen (1902–1972). During the Olympics, the building was used for competing in sports such as gymnastics, boxing, wrestling, and weightlifting. When the new fair center was built in Itä-Pasila, Helsinki, in 1975, the Messuhalli building was permanently designated for sports.
Ruskeasuo Riding Centre
Finnish equestrian sports got an unprecedented boost from the Olympics. Before the Olympic Games, there had been no indoor training facilities in Finland, but the situation was remedied when a large indoor riding arena was built in Ruskeasuo, Helsinki, for the 1940 Olympics.
The curved riding hall designed by Martti Välikangas was completed in October 1940. In addition to the hall, two stable buildings as well as riding arenas and a cross-country course were built in the area. After the Olympics, the stables and indoor riding arena became an important hub for equestrian enthusiasts and Helsinki Mounted Police.
Finns started already dreaming of a large stadium of their own in the 1910s when Finnish athletes succeeded in international athletics competitions for the first time. The dream began to come true in 1928 when the Stadium Foundation was established for the project.
After an extensive search, a suitable site was found for the stadium, and a competition for its design was launched in 1934. This did not lead to a winning proposal, but after a follow-up competition, the proposal of Yrjö Lindegrén (1900–1952) and Toivo Jäntti (1900–1975) was selected for implementation.
Upon its completion in 1938, the simple, all-white Olympic Stadium with its high tower was a perfect example of Functionalist architecture – and one of the landmark buildings on the Helsinki skyline.
During the war years, the stadium was hit many times in bombings and had to be repaired for the 1952 Olympics. At the same time, it was made higher by adding a wooden seating section, so that the stadium could accommodate more spectators. The wooden parts that widen outward, characteristic of the stadium, were also only built in the 1950s. The stadium has also been modified in various ways many times since then. The latest renovation was completed in 2020.
Suomenlinna ferry passenger pavilion
After the Finnish armed forces stopped using the Suomenlinna sea fortress, located on the coast of Helsinki, it became available for public use just a few years before the 1952 Olympics. Around the same time, regular ferry traffic to the island commenced.
For that reason, a ticket office and waiting area for ferry passengers had to be built in the Market Square. The architect duo Aarne Hytönen and Risto-Veikko Luukkonen, who had also created Töölö Sports Hall, were commissioned to provide the designs. They designed a small wooden Functionalist building, given a streamlined look by a long overhang, to serve as the ticket office. In addition to the overhang, the building is characterized by the rounded shape of its doors, windows, and edges.
The building was restored to its original condition in 2021, and it is still being used as a ticket office. Suomenlinna is currently a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular destination in Helsinki.
Did you know that these buildings were also part of the 1952 Olympics?
- Helsinki Swimming Stadium and Kumpula Outdoor Swimming Pool
- Tennis Palace
- Hotel Palace in Eteläranta
- Olympic Terminal
- Linnanmäki amusement park
- Walhalla restaurant in Suomenlinna
- Hotel Vaakuna
Text: Anna-Kaisa Huusko Images: Niclas Mäkelä