The Temppeliaukio Church – Helsinki’s Must See Attraction

Needless to say, Europe has more than its fair share of grandiose and unique churches of all denomination types. There is the world’s largest church in St. Peters Basilica, the Gaudi masterpiece Sagrada Familia, the stunning Notre Dame Cathedral, the Duomo in Florence and even though not technically a church, the awe-inspiring Meteora Monasteries of Greece, to mention just a few. They are all visually stunning and are major tourist draws for their respective countries. And then there’s The Lutheran Temppeliaukio Church of Helsinki, Finland.

The Temppeliaukio Church (The Rock Church) - Helsinki's Must See AttractionWait a minute. What is The Temppeliaukio Church and did I just put it in the same breath as the other world famous churches? Ok, maybe let’s not get carried away with the hyperbole. Whereas the aforementioned architectural wonders can take your breath away with their sheer size and magnificence as you approach them, The Temppeliaukio Church is unpretentious and mostly hidden away. Whereas the aforementioned churches have a vertical emphasis, The Temppeliaukio Church’s highest point is just the top of it’s dome barely above street level. Whereas the aforementioned churches have a great reach into the depths of history, The Temppeliaukio Church is a contemporary church – so young that it’s not even 50 years old!

The one thing they all have in common though, is that they are all architecturally unique and intriguing in some fascinating way. That, in my opinion (rightly or wrongly as I’m no expert) is what ties The Temppeliaukio Church with the great churches of Europe. With that in mind, let’s have a look at what makes The Temppeliaukio Church so unique.

History of The Temppeliaukio Church

Before delving into what makes The Temppeliaukio Church an interesting architectural wonder, let’s first learn how it all started.

View From Inside Temppeliaukio Church

View Inside Temppeliaukio Church

In 1898-1900, Finland held its first ever competition for town planning. The winning proposal would have the town located in the site of what is now known as Töölö, north of the Helsinki core on the western side of the peninsula.  The city plan reserves a granite laden plot of land for a church at the end of Fredrikinkatu. When Helsinki experiences a growth spurt and was in need of an expansion, Töölö gets built during the 1920’s. Töölö is actually comprised of two neighbourhoods, the southern Etu-Töölö (the rear Töölö) and the northern Taka- Töölö (the front Töölö). Pohjoinen Hesperiankatu is the street acting as the dividing line between north and south Töölö.

It is in Etu-Töölö that the church plot is located. By 1931, plans and applications proceeded ahead for the church, eventually leading up to an architecture contest announced in 1932. The results of this content proved unsatisfactory to the contest committee and a second contest was announced in 1936. The winning design by J.S. Siren was never fully implemented as WWII broke out. Finally, a third competition was announced after the war with the winning design belonging to the brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen in 1961. Construction of the brothers’ plan starts in February 1968 and about a year and a half later, in September of 1969, it was completed and dedicated as the Taivallahti Church. The church was officially renamed to Temppeliaukio church in 1971.

The Design

As mentioned earlier, the site for the church is located on a rocky, granite outcrop that rises about 40 feet above street level. There is nothing spectacular about the surrounding area – it’s just a normal residential neighbourhood. Except, the Temppeliaukio church is located here, on the rocky site. Actually, that’s not technically correct.  It’s more like inside the rocky site.

There is many a small church that is carved into the softer limestone of mountainsides, as caves. Similarly but wholly different, the Suomalainen brothers’ plan called for the church to be fully embedded inside a hard, large granite block. The excavation left as much of the granite rock intact as possible. What you see inside is that the interior of the rock forms the walls of the church – creating an oval space where you are in the belly of the rock, so to speak. The walls are neither smooth nor decorated with a human touch, but is instead naturally uneven and jagged all around as a result of being blasted and quarried from the inside during the exaction process. If you look closely, you can still see the drill markings from the quarrying on the rock surface. Some of the quarried rocks are arranged together above the wall to complete the combined look. Apparently, these granite walls are also what gives the church it’s outstanding acoustic qualities and is often used as a recording studio. Knowing all this, you should understand why the church is nicknamed The Rock Church, or The Church of the Rock.

The Granite Wall of Temppeliaukio Church

The Granite Wall of Temppeliaukio

Above the rock walls are 180 window panes of different heights and widths, each separated and supported by vertical steel girders. These window panes have three main functions as I see it.  The first is to act as a skylight, allowing the natural sunlight to light up and to envelop the interior.  As the sun moves around during the day, there will be a different spot of the church being spectacularly highlighted. The second function is to funnel the visitor’s focus to the copper dome above it. The vertically fitted panes are sloped inwards and following their lines, they direct your attention to the dome’s focal point. The third, obviously, is to functionally connect the rock wall with the copper dome.

Closer look at the glass and steel above the granite wall at Temppeliaukio Church

Closer look at the glass and steel at Temppeliaukio Church

The giant copper dome capping the church is 24 metres in diameter and is made of copper wire. The dome is supported on the rock walls by reinforced concrete beams. Sitting on one of the benches in the church, I myself looked at everything in here, but my eyes kept going back to this copper dome. So I would say the big highlight is the dome and how it fits in with and lights up everything below it. Despite the granite nature of the church and the rocky bare walls, the dome is the attention grabber for sure!

The UFO like copper dome of Temppeliaukio Church

The UFO like copper dome of Temppeliaukio Church

Other Notable Features

Entering the church is a direct walk in from street level. No stairs to go up or down, just straight in through a wide hall into the interior entrance, which makes it very wheelchair friendly. Above the entrance is a balcony platform which can be accessed by a set of stairs past the entrance but before walking into the church itself. This platform would be used by the choir. You should go up to this balcony for a more elevated perspective of the interior – makes for more interesting pictures.

The Balcony of Temppeliaukio Church

The Balcony of Temppeliaukio Church

By the way, when entering the church, don’t just quickly move in and jump to the main attraction further along inside. Pay attention to the entrance doors of the church that you are passing through. It’s fully made of non-oxidized copper – see how it shines!

If you look closely at the base of the rock wall you will see special ducts running along it. They serve to collect and carry out water that is trickling down from the cracks in the rock.

Then, there is the altarpiece. There’s a crevice in the rock which serves as the altarpiece. But it’s not just some crevice in the rock, it’s one from all the way back in the ice age! The altar itself, on the other hand, is just evenly sawn granite.

The altar at Temppeliaukio Church

The Altar of Temppeliaukio

Another notable feature in the church is the large pipe organ at the wall to the left of the interior entrance. When it was being designed and built, there was a constant debate about it’s design and where it should be placed in the church, with everyone having an opinion on the matter. Eventually the organ was designed by Asko Rautioaho and Matti Rindell and built by Veikko Virtanen. If you know your organ music theory, then this will mean something to you:  it has 43 stops, 4 manuals and pedalboards, 3001 organ pipes, a mechanical action and an electrical action.

The Pipe Organ of Temppeliaukio Church

The Pipe Organ of Temppeliaukio Church

One thing that you won’t see inside this uniquely designed building is church bells. Instead, they are replaced by the sounds of bell tunes coming from speakers mounted on the stone walls. These bell tunes were composed by Taneli Kuusisto.

If you explore outside of the church, you can see the top of the dome protruding out above the rocks in the area. From above (hint: search for Temppeliaukio Church in Google Maps, and then switch to Earth view), it looks eerily alien, UFO-like, on a planet with rocky features. Church? What church?

The Dome of Temppeliaukio Church jutting out above the rocky outcrop

The Dome of Temppeliaukio Church

How To Get There

Due to the fact that it’s free to get in, located next to Hesinki’s core and is also one of the city’s most popular attractions, it’s easily accessible. By public transport, you can take the tram line #2 and get off at the Sammonkatu stop. From there it’s a short 2 minute walk eastwards over to the church. The Kauppakorkeakoulut bus stop with Stop ID 1305 on Runebergsgatan (northbound route) would be closest and is actually just a block below the Sammonkatu tram stop. As an FYI, both the stop name and the stop ID are listed at the top of the sign at the bus stop – helpful as some of those stop names are really long! The following bus numbers pass through the Kauppakorkeakoulut stop: 14, 18, 18N, 37, 39, 39B, 39N, 41, 42, 45, 69, 70T, 194, 194A, 195, 195N
Please note on Google Maps the Kauppakorkeakoulut bus stop with Stop ID 0204 on Arkadiankatu is not the stop – that’s the southbound route in the direction of the downtown core.

From this stop, just walk to the next intersection and take a right at Luthernikatu street. Here, you’ll probably encounter many coach buses here dropping off their tour groups. You are now a 1-2 minute walk eastwards to the church.

The Hop on Hop off bus also stops nearby the Kauppakorkeakoulut bus stop.

Or, if you are so inclined and are on your own walking tour, it’s about a 20-25 min walk heading north/north-west (slight uphill) from the central areas (i.e. Stockmann Mall, Esplanadi Park, Railway Square, etc).

If you’re driving (not recommended), then there’s parking on the various side streets nearby. I’m not going to recommend anything on this front as I’ll admit I’m not comfortable with providing this information. If anyone has any experience on this item, I’d like to hear about it.

Events and Happenings

The Temppeliaukio church is a popular recording studio, concert facility and wedding church so if an official event is happening during your visit, you’re out of luck. But if there is a choir in there practicing, etc, you’re in luck! For example, if you want to check out the acoustic capabilities of the church, then check it’s calendar for any free events: http://www.helsinginseurakunnat.fi/seurakunnat/toolo/tapahtumat.html.stx

Right now, I’m looking at the calendar and it’s offering free music (grand piano or harp ) for visitors during the hours 9.30 to 12:00 and 13.00-15.00 from Monday-Friday, in the summer months of June to the end of August 2016. Also, usually on Sundays at noon, there is music (with organ) being played and again, it is free. As a side note, use Google Chrome as your browser with the Translation plug-in installed, you can translate the whole Finnish website to English (or whatever language you prefer).

Closeup of Copper Dome at Temppeliaukio Church

Closeup of Copper Dome at Temppeliaukio

You may have been to many cities the world over and visited their many churches but trust me, you haven’t seen it all until you’ve made a visit to The Temppeliaukio Church of Helsinki. It’s really a beautiful, modern and uniquely built place (church or no church) and that’s what separates it apart from the other churches (old or new). Inside, it’s a comforting place where you can lose yourself in your thoughts (yes, despite the crowds!). I myself sat down for a while, totally lost track of time, and realized afterwards I didn’t walk around enough nor take as many pictures as I normally do!

This is one of the world’s most admired pieces of architecture and is a must see for lovers of architecture. It’s become a Helsinki landmark, so unique and remarkable you would have thought that the Hand of God guided its construction. My only advice? Just go see it!

Let me know in the comments below if you plan on making a visit to The Temppeliaukio Church. Or, if you have already visited, let me know what your impressions of it are. If this article has helped you, please share it as well.

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