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Arland O. Fiske: The story of Helsinki’s ‘rock church’

What should city planners do when a huge rock formation lies in the middle of its downtown development? Blast it with dynamite or leave it?

The Finns, being among the world’s most creative architects, had a better idea. They designed Helsinki City Square around it with one of the world’s most original and beautiful churches at the center. It’s called the “Temppeliauko Church.”

Planning for the square began in 1906. The architectural competition for the church began in 1932, but it was not until 1961 that any plans were accepted. Two brothers, Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen, won the competition. Construction began on Feb. 14, 1968, and it was consecrated on September 28, 1969, at a cost of 3,850,000 marks (about $1,800,000).

Quarried into bedrock, the idea was to preserve the rock formation of the area. A copper dome joined to the rock by reinforced concrete covers the church beams in between which there are 180 skylights. The floor of the church is on street-level, so the altar can be seen from the street through the glass doors. The interior walls are rough and jagged. Even the drill marks have been preserved to let the working methods remain visible. The walls are from 15 to 30 feet high.

The altar consists of a slab of smoothly sawed granite. During the summer, morning sunlight falls against it during the worship service. The altar is formed by an ice-age rock crevice. A small crucifix portrays Christ as sufferer and victor. Twenty-five people can kneel for communion at a time. Wheel chairs can be brought to the altar rail.

Space is provided for radio and television broadcasting and for an orchestra. The Finns are great lovers of music. The acoustics and lighting simply overwhelm the visitor. The organ has 43 registers, four manuals, a pedal and 3,001 pipes.

A tunnel leads to a two-floor parish house, which includes four clubrooms.

The building is heated from the central municipal heating network and it is mechanically ventilated.

The church building serves a parish of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland. Twelve thousand people are members of the congregation, an unusually large number by American standards. More than 170,000 people annually attend church functions.

Concerts and recitals are also held there frequently. About a half a million visitors come each year from all over the world. My wife, Gerda, and I were among them.

This building is such a surprise. But its ingenuity is typically Scandinavian.

They disturb the landscape as little as possible during construction. The same goes for private home. It’s an architect’s paradise.

We were greatly impressed by the stark simplicity and utter beauty of this church building. It’s an awesome feeling to sit in the pew and see the sun streaming down through the skylights. There is a feeling of spaciousness. Even when the pews are filled, you don’t feel “fenced in.”

If you visit Helsinki, be sure to see this 20th century architectural wonder. Spend some time in the “Rock Church.” It’s good for both body and soul.

Next week: Hans Hyldbakk – “King of the Cliff.”

— Arland Fiske, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes.