Churches on the rocks

Churches on the rocks

in Helsinki

Churches on the rocks

Carved out of sheer rock, the Temppeliaukio Church in Helsinki makes up in the audacity of its architecture what it lacks in conventional opulence. Once upon a recent time, some bright spark in Finland’s capital came up with the idea of excavating a large rock in the Toolo area in the city, and building therein a shrine unlike any other anywhere.

The proposal was mooted in the 1930s but, what with the war and the ensuing frugality, it could take root only in 1961 when, in an architectural competition, the brothers Suomalainen — Timo and Tuomo — presented the winning design that hewed a church out of the solid rock and covered it with an artificial dome of copper strips.

The Church of the Rock opened in 1969, and has become one of the most iconic sites in the country. Half a million people visit it annually. Its idiosyncratic choice of form has made it a favourite with aficionados of architecture. From above, it resembles a crashed UFO. Inside, despite the rows of pews, it looks very different from conventional cathedrals. In the daytime, it’s always bathed in natural light that enters through the translucent band surrounding the central dome. It also has an organ with 3,001 pipes. The rough, jagged walls of unaltered geology have, surprisingly, excellent acoustics, and the hall is often used for concerts as well.

The Church of the Rock is an easy walk from the city centre, but the 99-years-older Uspenski Cathedral is a good five km away in the opposite direction. We were trying to make sense of the tram ticket-vending machine to get there, when a young Finnish lady, seeing our predicament, said, “I show you.” She not only got us the tickets, but accompanied us to our destination and then took another tram back to wherever she was headed. That is what hospitality is about.

This is an Eastern Orthodox temple and is one of the most visible signs of Russian hegemony over Finland in the last few centuries. It is not carved into a rock but built on top of a huge one. Its golden cupolas atop a red brick facade are visible from afar as it sits majestically on a large hill. It is the largest church of its denomination in Western Europe. There are 13 onion domes in all, representing Christ and the 12 apostles.

The interior is as opulent as one can expect in a prominent centre of Christian worship. It has a rich display of icons and other Orthodox paraphernalia. Large chandeliers hang from the vaulted ceiling. One has to climb a short, steep path cut in the rocky hill to get to the cathedral. From here, one also gets a good view of the market square and the harbour below.

Helsinki has several other churches and, although the ardour of its believers has abated (as everywhere else), they are maintained in an immaculate condition. On the way back from the Russian church, we stopped to see the white Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church. A distinctive landmark in the Helsinki cityscape, with its tall green dome surrounded by four smaller domes, it was built in the neoclassical style in mid-19th century.

The church’s plan is a Greek cross that consists of a square centre and four symmetrical, equilateral arms, and each façade featuring a colonnade and a pediment. This is another of Helsinki’s popular tourist attractions that can be admired, irrespective of the faith one belongs to.