Helsinki explored

Where were you when the announcement was made that Cape Town is set to be World Design Capital in 2014? It’s one of those questions likely to come up in conversation time and again as the excitement grows ahead of the city taking on the coveted title. (See Cape Town’s World Design Capital 2014 website.) HL recently visited the current World Design Capital - Helsinki, the capital of Finland, at the very top of the world - as its year-long programme reached its exciting culmination. Just four days in any new city – especially with a packed programme comprising talks and presentations - is rarely sufficient time to get an authoritative sense of what it’s all about; its people, the best places to visit, where to shop, where to eat and drink… Yet time spent walking the streets (with trusty iPhone in hand to snap away) can often give you enough of a feel to know whether you’d return or not. In my case? I was captivated by this enchanting, thriving city with its vibrant mix of architectural styles, its five different harbours and water’s edge produce markets, its shady parks, cool boutiques, and bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly sidewalks and streets… Not a city stuck in the past, there’s development happening around every corner, and Helsinki’s mission is all about moving forward using design. In fact, there’s a total immersion in design visible in just about every aspect of Finnish culture and daily life that you simply can’t ignore.

The sidewalks were papered with reminders of the multitude of activities taking place across the city during Helsinki Design Week.

Diverting architecture that has you looking up while wandering the city streets – you quickly learn it’s not such a good idea when encountering your first near-miss with a tram!

You could spend hours and hours perusing the amazing displays at Helsinki’s Design Museum, which was established in the 1870s and features stunning collections of traditional handcrafts, through to modernist ceramics and glassware, textiles and fashion. (Watch this space for more on Finnish design.)

Sandwiched between the Design Museum and the Museum of Finnish Architecture was this temporary structure, The Pavilion, made from plywood, which served as a meeting place for like-minded creatives and the general public alike, hosting lectures as well as community activities like yoga classes and ballroom dancing.

Breathtaking contemporary architecture sits comfortably alongside that from other periods, and Helsinki’s university lays claim to some superb examples – we visited the striking new Kaisa House City Centre Campus Library: Art, Humanities, Law, Theology, designed by AOA Anttinen Oiva Architects. I loved the beautiful form of the spiral staircase connecting its many levels, viewed from above and below.

Set in the busiest square in the city is the Kamppi Chapel of Silence, a haven of quiet and contemplation for all the city’s people, whatever their beliefs and religious practices. Its design, by K2S, is an interpretation of a modern wooden chapel endemic to Finland, and is constructed from ash wood with laminated spruce on the exterior. An intermediate space, you can still experience the city, but once inside you forget what lies beyond and simply enjoy the ambience and the warmth of the wood…

The beautiful and historic Kappeli restaurant, housed in a glass conservatory-like structure, is set in a pretty park in the heart of the city, conveniently opposite the flagship stores of iconic Finnish brands Iittala and Marimekko. It’s all tinkling (live) piano music, sparkly chandeliers, champagne and delicious fare featuring traditional Finnish and modern classic dishes. Reindeer mousse and smoked reindeer tongue might also feature on the menu, but I opted for the tasty grilled whitefish Hollandaise with endive and dill potatoes!

A short drive out of Helsinki is the Espoo Museum of Modern Art (EMMA), one of the biggest of its kind in Finland, and boasting an incredible collection of contemporary art and an ever-changing programme of inspired exhibitions. It’s also worth a visit just to experience the Futuro-house by Matti Suuronen, a permanent structure set on the museum’s grounds. Not just spaced-out from the outside, the view from one of the reclining chairs inside this vision for futurist housing offers trippy views of the surrounding forest beyond…

Back in the city, we stopped by Design Forum Finland’s HQ, located in a refurbished old factory circa 1910, its design said to be somewhere between classicist and Art Nouveau (Jugendstil). It has been the venue for a host of exhibitions, including the Design Forum Mini World Fair, for which countries from around the world were invited to exhibit in brightly coloured shipping containers. Each of the countries was represented by its flag, in Marimekko fabrics! Its location in an industrial area near one of the harbours made for some dramatic photo opportunities! As the evening set in and the rain stopped, a dazzling rainbow appeared, causing as much as delight as the design on display… Text and images: Leigh Robertson For more on Leigh's Scandinavian food experience go here…