The main building of the Bank of Finland

‘The first architectural competition held in Finland was an international competition in 1876 for designing the head office of the Bank of Finland . The first prize was awarded to architect Ludwig Bohnstedt, and the Bank’s head office was constructed based on his designs.’ This nearly legendary statement is part of architectural history both in Helsinki and in Finland as a whole.

Bohnstedt, who was born in St Petersburg in 1822, was a follower of the Rundbogenstil (round-arch style) developed in Germany in the early 19th century, and later of a more ornate style, Neo-Renaissance, a rather simplified example of which is the head office of the Bank of Finland.

Bohnstedt, architect of the Bank of Finland’s head office

The Bank of Finland was established in Turku in 1811 and moved to Helsinki in the autumn of 1819. Its first temporary location was the house of merchant Johan Sederholm, at the south-east corner of Senate Square. The Bank operated for nearly six decades in the southern wing of the House of the Senate (now the Government Palace). This was a natural location, as it was a monetary institution operating under the Senate. The Bank of Finland’s administrative status was changed in 1868 when it was placed under the Diet, and the plan for a special building to house it became topical.

© Suomen Pankki

The first designs for the new Bank of Finland head office were drawn up in 1872 by Hampus Dalström, chief architect at the Board of Public Buildings. As stated by Hugo E Pipping in the historical review of the Bank of Finland, Dalström was sent abroad, eg to Copenhagen to study the building of the Danish central bank (Nationalbanken) that had been completed earlier. This building, designed by architect J D Herholdt, and at the time representing state-of-the art bank architecture, has since been demolished. In his design, Dalström had clearly adapted some of Herholdt’s solutions, although within the scope of a smaller construction programme. Based on these solutions, Dalström drew up the first outlines of the room layout of the future building.

Dalström’s designs did not, however, please the Parliamentary Governors of the Bank. This was the period when the first private architects were emerging alongside civil servant architects. Dalström’s design was discarded when the decision was taken to arrange an international architectural competition to design the Bank’s head office, the first such competition in Finland. The competition prospectus was also sent abroad with the help of the Bank’s network of contacts.

The competition prospectus laid down several requirements for the building. The main facade should face Nikolainkatu (now Snellmaninkatu). The building material was defined with fire safety in mind, and thus only stone and iron were allowed as building materials, except for the floors and doors. The vaults also had to be fireproof. Also for the sake of fire safety, heating had to be conveyed to the bank building from a separate annex. The room layout was also strictly specified.

By the closing date of 1 September 1876, nine proposals had been submitted to the Bank of Finland’s secretariat. Bohnstedt submitted two proposals to the competition, one of which was awarded the first prize. The members of the jury included two Finnish architects: Frans Anatolius Sjöström, a private architect and a leading teacher of architecture, and Ludvig Lindqvist from the Board of Public Buildings. The international member of the jury was F G Dahl, an architect from Stockholm whose designs included the National Library of Sweden.

© Bank of Finland

Two prizes were awarded. The first prize, of FIM 5,000, was awarded to Ludwig Bohnstedt. The second prize, of FIM 2,500 was awarded to F O Lindström, an architect from Stockholm. There is no official information on the other entrants, because the names of the participants were kept in sealed envelopes and only those of the winners were opened.

Bohnstedt had acquired experience in Gotha, Germany in designing bank buildings and in developing the building type. His proposal for the Bank of Finland head office includes similar features to those in other bank buildings designed by him and only recently completed. For example, the two-storey buildings had a clear, almost cubic form, slightly protruding wings, rustic facades and Roman arches. All these solutions are typical of the era.

Bohnstedt was at the height of his career when he won the competition. Having an internationally known architect to design a building in Helsinki was greeted with enthusiasm. Bohnstedt’s implementation drawings are an example of his elegant way of presenting drawings. The facades have grandeur, although lacking in individuality. In the interior, one is struck by the magnificent spatial progression leading from the ground floor entrance hall to the monumental staircase that dominates the entire spatial composition – as in so many 19th-century public buildings – and onwards to the halls on the main floor.

Old bank hall © Bank of Finland

In the elevations, attention is caught by the wealth of ornamentation and arrangement of walls and ceilings, adhering to the controlled elements of Classicism. The building is a typical example of a stone building designed by Bohnstedt, ie solid and quite traditional. It is based mainly on brick masonry and arching covered with stucco. The innovation of the era, ie iron construction, was, however, adapted extensively in the supporting structures. In detail drawings, attention is drawn to the abundant use of iron bars and bricked arching in the supporting structures of the interior roofs. The aim was to achieve reliable fire protection, which was particularly important for a bank building. This increased the costs, but, in the view of the Bank’s senior management’s, the building’s fire safety was so good that it was unnecessary to take out fire insurance.

© Bank of Finland

Construction of the head office

Construction of the Bank of Finland head office began in 1878, on a site on Tallinmäki in Kruununhaka. The site, located on Nikolainkatu, had been purchased by the Bank in 1875, for approximately FIM 16,500.

The cornerstone of the building was laid on 13 May 1879. The chairman of the Parliamentary Governors, Robert Montgomery, gave a speech, and in the corner stone, a tin box was hidden, containing 10 and 20 markkaa gold coins, 1 and 2 markkaa silver coins and a roll of parchment describing the founding of the Bank of Finland.

© Bank of Finland

In the execution phase of the project, conflicts arose. The Board of Public Buildings even refused to approve the original drawings. In a letter to the Emperor, the Board doubted the strength and fire resistance of the building and its ability to protect against burglary. It is noteworthy that the head of the Board was Hampus Dalström, the same architect whose designs for the building had been rejected. Bohnstedt stayed in Gotha and mailed all the drawings required in the execution phase, refusing to travel to Helsinki. Architect F A Sjöström was hired to supervise execution. He criticised Bohnstedt’s designs bitterly, as witnessed by the letters found in the Bank’s archives. He points out, for example, that the height of a room could vary in different drawings.

The building structures and the technical outfitting of the building were executed mainly by Finnish experts. Construction was supervised by chief engineer Ossian Bergbom, and the technical equipment was designed and supplied by engineer Gustaf Emil Berggren. Both men apparently also contributed to the roof structures and other constructional details.

The building was completed in 1883, final construction costs amounting to approximately FIM 1.1 million.

Later phases in the life of the head office

In the 1890s, Gustaf Nyström became the regular architect for the Bank of Finland. Over the years, he designed a number of branches in various towns around the country, and he had a considerable impact on the architecture of the head office. First, he modernised the courtyard building, mainly for the purpose of banknote printing. The building has since been demolished. In accordance with a plan drawn up in 1898 and 1900, the small courtyards of the building were closed off and the downstairs was provided with a new American-style safe vault. When the roof slabs were reinforced with concrete structures, an even more spacious arrangement was created on the upper floor. Over the main area for serving members of the public, a glass roof was constructed. In several of his other designs, Bohnstedt, too, had shown an interest in experimenting with a glass roof. Diagram drawings and cost data on the building elements reveal, however, that the glass roof, at the time so important and characteristic of the interior of the building, was a redesign by Nyström.

© Bank of Finland

Upon Nyström’s death, architect W G Palmqvist inherited several assignments and designed the next major renovation and extension project on the head office; the drawings are dated 1922. The facades of Palmqvist’s extensions (wings) complemented Bohnstedt’s building quite harmoniously. The wings were, however, discarded in the next major renovation. Armas Lindgren also participated in designing the furnishings in the 1920s.

The head office was damaged by bombing in 1944. Marks of the splinters are still evident on the pedestal of the statue of J W Snellman, located in front of the building. The distinguishing glass roof was also destroyed in the bombings and was replaced with a solid roof.

In the early 1960s, the building was completely renovated and a considerably larger extension constructed on the west side by architect Harry W Schreck. The head office was turned into a large, functional public office building. The facade on Snellmaninkatu was restored, but the interiors experienced major changes in this complete overhaul, including the surface materials, an example of which are the new, demanding marble tiles.

© Bank of Finland

A detailed restoration of Bohnstedt’s building would be impossible after all the changes. During the latest restoration, completed in 2006, part of the transparency and spaciousness in Bohnstedt’s and Nyström’s designs was re-established in the main layout of the old part of the building. The restoration design was prepared under Matti Nurmela.

© Bank of Finland

Even after all the changes to the head office, one can still experience the architectural designs of Ludwig Bohnstedt. The overall volume of the building and the facades along the front square on Snellmaninkatu still dominate. In the interior, the grand entrance hall and its wall placement, typical of Bohnstedt – particularly the monumental main staircase and some of the spaces on the upper, ie main floor, showing the imprint of both Bohnstedt and Nyström – can still be experienced. The ornaments include the letters L B, effectively the architect’s signature.