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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Finnish Building Gives City Style




Even now, the L-shaped, Constructivist building housing the Finnish Embassy stands out among the classical constructions of the city center. But when it was built in 1938, it was truly radical in a city where Constructivism was banned by Stalin and Socialist Realism enshrined as the official architectural style.


Architects, journalists and diplomats gathered at the embassy on Kropotkinsky Pereulok near Ostozhenka Ulitsa to celebrate the 60th anniversary of one of Moscow's architectural landmarks.


"The Finnish Embassy building was the first building in the Soviet Union especially constructed by a foreign country for its embassy," said Finnish Ambassador Markus Lyra. "All the rest of the countries rented old buildings for their embassies and only in the 1950s some other countries began constructing their own buildings for the embassies."


After Russia and Finland established diplomatic relations in 1920, the embassy was first located in a railway carriage. Then it moved to a building on Voznesensky Pereulok that belonged to the Church of England before the Revolution. The building was too small and too inconvenient and, as the ambassador of those days, Antti Hackzell, put it: "did not match the dignity of the country." In 1935, Finland decided to build something special for the embassy.


"It was a very difficult question about constructing a new building in Moscow of that time," Lyra said. "Many conservative politicians predicted that the capital would unavoidably be moved to St. Petersburg and there was not much sense in building anything in Moscow. But finally, the more realistic point of view prevailed."


Many successful Finnish architects, including Alvar Aalto, a founder of modern Finnish architecture, took part in the competition. Aalto's proposal did not win, however, and the construction began based on the drawings of Hilding Ekelund, chief editor of an architectural magazine and a teacher of architecture at the Helsinki University of Technology.


"Ekelund's early projects were evidently inspired by the works of Russian masters of Constructivism, which was actively developing in turn-of-the-century Russia and much-studied abroad," said Vilhelm Helander, an architectural history professor who arrived from Helsinki especially for the building anniversary.


But by the time building got under way, Constructivism - a modern, international style emphasizing abstract and geometric design - was banned in the increasingly isolationist Soviet Union. To get permission to build, the architect had to add some realistic sculptures to the facade, said Helander, "although there was not enough money for the sculptures anyway and the embassy was constructed without them."


Construction took two years and the official opening was held on Finland's Independence Day on Dec. 6, 1938. Less than a year later, the Soviet Union invaded Finland, launching the 1939-40 Winter War, which ended in Finland's defeat. The two countries fought again during World War II when Finnish forces invaded Russia with the Germans.


The war kept the building from being publicized in Finnish architectural media, so it is still not well-known despite being an interesting example of modern Finnish architecture, Helander said.


The building has undergone five renovations and recently got a new addition, designed by Tuomo Siitonen, to house the consular section. The old part of the building is used for official receptions, the ambassador's residence, offices and apartments for the staff.


It also has a swimming pool, a library, a winter garden and famous paintings on the walls, including one by Ilya Repin.


Of course, being Finnish, it would not be architecturally complete without saunas. There are four: an official sauna for high-ranking guests, one for men, one for women and a smaller one for families.