Annular Further – Finland – Vernacular and traditional Finnish building culture

Old Porvoo – one of the several old wood districts found in Finnish cities and towns – Photo Visit Finland

A brief overview

With wood culture close to its heart, Finland’s wood building traditions go back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. As noted in the introduction, wars destroyed many historic buildings, although arguably the most visible examples of the country’s vernacular building culture today are the wooden town districts which can be found in a variety of cities and towns. Old Porvoo’s wood town district (about 50 km east of Helsinki), ticks both the picturesque and well-preserved boxes, while also covering a large footprint of the townscape. There are also wood districts in Naantali, Old Rauma (close to Turku), and Reposaari. In Helsinki, there are three districts with a significant number of wood houses, Käpylä, Vallila and Kumpula. All three districts and other wood town districts are highlighted on this Visit Finland page.

Historically, Finnish building culture is traced to western (Swedish influenced) and Eastern (Russian influenced) traditions, with the development of various farm building templates, marked by upper floors in the eastern tradition, and log buildings built around a farm courtyard in the western Swedish tradition. Both applied variants of horizontal log buildings, with corners notched to ensure tightly interlocking joints. Examples can be found at the Seurasaari Open Air Museum near to Helsinki. The log building tradition developed significantly, alongside a palette of skills required for their construction. The emergence of more complex timber buildings emerged in church building, with identifiable archaeological remains from the 12th century, and standing churches from the late 17th century, such as Sodankylä old church in Lapland built in 1689. The log wood church tradition continued, influenced from the Mediterranean south as much as concurrent activities across the north, developing in complexity through the next two centuries. Petäjävesi church includes a cross plan with even-sized arms, measuring 18 x 18 metres, with a 13-metre tall interior wooden vault, and is considered one of the medieval Finnish period’s most atmospheric and impressive achievements.

Petäjävesi Old Church, Finland, (left) interior, pulpit, choir, and (right) interior, ceiling, dome – Photos Antti Bilund/Wikipedia SA BY-SA 3.0

Many others were built, though also many burnt down through the next centuries. Likewise, the wood districts, which have become heritage and tourism magnets, went into decline after a series of disastrous fires ravaged many cities and towns through the 18th and 19th centuries, including Turku in 1827 when half of the city, about 25,000 people, were consumed in a blaze. This led to a massive decline in timber in built-up central city and town districts, and the emergence of building with stone through the 19th and 20th century, with the ascent of concrete as Finland’s ubiquitous building material, despite, or because of, the country being so fully covered by woodland.

Petäjävesi old and new church and surroundings, Northern Finland – Photo Kulmalukko/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0