Statue of Tsar Alexander II (1818-1881), Senate Square, Helsinki. Photo: PM.

Soon after Finland became the Grand Duchy of Russia in 1809 after centuries of Swedish rule, Tsar Alexander I moved the administrative capital from Turku on the western coast of the country to Helsinki which was closer to Saint Petersburg, the imperial capital. At the time, Helsinki was a small and insignificant town, so the tsar’s decision also required an urban upgrade including a plan to build a new administrative centre. The new centre was to be built in a neoclassical Empire style that echoed the architectural fashion prominent in Saint Petersburg at the time, and its design was commissioned to German-born architect Carl Ludwig Engel (1778-1840) and city planner Johan Albrecht Ehrenström (1762-1847).

From C L. Engel’s letter to Carl Herrlich, dated 4 June 1822 (draft of Helsinki town plan by Ehrenström). Source: City of Helsinki Archive.

The centrepiece of the new capital was to be a city square around which the capital’s main administrative buildings would be built. The sketch above reflects Engel’s interpretation of Ehrenström’s vision. The ‘Grand Square’, as it was known at the time, can be seen in the sketch as a white rectangular area. A red cross to the north marks the place where a new cathedral would be built (Helsinki Cathedral, originally St Nicholas’ Church, completed 1852), while the large red hollow rectangle to the east marks the place of a new government building that would house the Senate (Government Palace, originally Senate House, completed 1822). Finally, a smaller red rectangle to the southeast marks the former home of a wealthy merchant that would be enlarged and redesigned in the Empire style including a new facade with Ionian columns to serve as the residence of the Governor General (originally Bock House, a.k.a. Old Rathaus, redesign completed 1819). In addition to these three original components, the plan also included the enlargement and redesign of several other merchant homes on the south side of the square (e.g. Houses Burtz, Hellenius, Sunn and Kiseleff, redesigns completed in the mid-1830s) as well as the completion of the new building on the west side of the square for the country’s only university that was relocated from Turku at the same time (University of Helsinki, originally Imperial Alexander University in Finland, completed 1832). According to the city plan, the University building’s neoclassical facade would symmetrically reflect the Senate House on the opposite side of the square. A monumental statue honouring the ‘progressive tsar’ Alexander II in the middle of the square was finally added in 1894.

After the north, east and west sides of the square had been completed, the five former residential buildings on the south side would be gradually occupied by key representatives of state power. Bock House on the southeastern corner of the square soon became Helsinki City Hall, and in 1913, soon after the city administration relocated to a former hotel on the south end of the same block, the Helsinki District Court moved in. At about the same time, the four remaining buildings on the south side were transformed into government offices and would mainly house the regional Crime Police Centre and units of the Helsinki Police Department.

Senate Square. Source: Helsinki Urban Environment Division, City Survey Services.

The south side of the square has since been assigned other functions related to culture, retail and tourism. But this was the design of the square by the time of Finnish independence in 1917. There are eight buildings in the same neoclassical Empire style situated on the four sides of the square, and they all represent some aspect of state power: the executive, the judicial, public security, the ecclesiastical, and the epistemic. In addition to the architectural uniformity of the neoclassical style, the plan of the square reflects an ideal of balance in which the different powers are set to oversee and temper each other. As an image, it resembles the figurative organisational charts that are used to depict constitutional designs in which even hierarchically layered state powers are balanced against each other.

There are two curiosities in this seemingly harmonious plan. First, the statue of the tsar in the centre of the square can, perhaps, be interpreted as a conduit that facilitates the balancing relations between the main institutions. But second and more importantly, the House of the Estates (completed 1891), the only democratic element of the larger constitutional design, and precursor to the post-independence Parliament, was built further away and is only partly visible at one-o’clock on the city plan above.