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Monday, January 5, 2015

Church of the Rock--Helsinki, Finland

Temppeliaukio Church interior.

Evening and winter give the church a new ambience.
No, it's not a church that uses only rock music in their worship. Neither is it a cocktail--"church on the rocks," though the entire city of Helsinki itself, might be considered a "city on the rocks." Officially it's named Temppeliaukio Church, but one glance at the tongue-twisting name and it's quite easy to accept the nickname. The rock is solid granite. Helsinki is full of such massive outcroppings. Any topsoil to be found in the city seems to serve merely to hold the rocks in place. This rock is in the middle of the Toolo neighborhood near the center of the city, and though it's relatively flat, calling this largely subterranean boulder simply a "rock" is like calling Mt. Rushmore a statue. Planning for the church began back in the 1930s, with a design competition. WW II intruded. The irregular pentagonal plot having been reserved for a church when this section of the city was first laid out, the project was revived in the 1960s with a second design competition. 
The Temppeliaukio pipe organ, all 3001 pipes and 34 stops.
Temppeliaukio from the air.
The architect winners in 1961 were two brothers, Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen. The only problem seemed to be that the church they designed was about four times bigger than anyone could afford. Thus it was scaled back. That was good, because the average Sunday attendance at this Lutheran house of worship is about seven. (I asked.).The Fins are not a traditionally religious lot. They pay their taxes. The government gives the Lord a piece of the action. Though it has a huge pipe organ (above), an altar, pews, aisles, even a narthex, it's used much more as a concert venue seating several hundred than as a traditional church. The acoustics are said to be superb, largely due to its low, copper dome, round shape, and natural stone walls. From the outside, it looks very little like a church, resembling nothing so much as a subway entrance (below). Inside (top), it's ranked as one of the most starkly beautiful churches in the world.
The Church of the Rock main entrance.
Slender, stainless steel "blades"
cause the windows to appear
 to support the dome.
Whereas other architects might have started by blasting lengthy crevasses in the granite monolith then poured them full of concrete to form a base for a soaring heavenly vision, the two Suomalainen brothers chose to make as minimal an impression upon the urban outcropping as possible. Only the flattened dome extends much above the ground level (below) and from some angles, even then it's barely visible. One might expect such a structure to seem cave-like inside. (The walls have their own drainage system). Only the entry vestibule with it's minimalist tendencies suggests such an ambience. Once inside the church hall, the circle of slender clerestory windows (actually, more like skylights), supporting the broad, copper dome quickly dispels such a notion. Inside, the impression is light and bright, giving the feeling of once more having moved outdoors. Overhead, a giant, inverted, flying saucer seems to hover effortlessly like the spirit of God (bottom). The nickname takes on a new meaning. The space suggests very much a church of  the rock.

The dome crowns the rock, yet avoids dominating the landscape.
The accidental altarpiece.
My wife and I visited Helsinki in 2012. I'd not heard of this church before that. The blurb in the excursion booklet said only that the church was carved from a single rock. I guess I was expecting something on the order of a contemporary style cathedral chipped away somewhat like a Nordic Petra. "Carved" is a poor choice of words. Only a masochistic idiot carves granite. This architectural wonder was blasted from solid rock, the chisel being several sticks of Alfred Nobel's dynamite. Moreover, when you're working with granite, you are its master only in your own mind. The stone decides what it wants to do and be. In this case, one false move took out way too much stone. However the resulting surface, once the rubble was cleared away, revealed a superbly beautiful rock face suggesting an altarpiece designed by God himself. Today it forms a focal point for the entire sanctuary, even though it meant rotating the interior design several degrees to accommodate the wishes of the stone.

The dome, distorted somewhat by a wide-angle lens.
(Not to be confused with Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock.)


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