Helsinki looks its best in sunshine. Unfortunately, I had more rain than sun. I enjoyed just enough sun to appreciate how much more brightly the gold finials on the Russian Orthodox Uspenski cathedral could shine, and just how vividly green the grass down the center of the Esplanade could glow. Sprinkled with raindrops sparkling under a blue sky, the grass seemed almost luridly bright. I admired the display from the Cafe Strindberg, whose own Art Deco interior sparkled as well.
The interior of the Russian Orthodox cathedral didn’t live up to the outside, at least for me. While the windows provided light, they also occupied wall space I had expected to be given over to murals, and the vaunted iconostasis was only two saints high, instead of the four or five levels I had seen in Russia. Maybe if it had been my first Orthodox church… The first time I tried to visit I met an American couple at the foot of the stairs who told me it had just closed. They were sorry to have missed the interior, as “there weren’t any in America”. I think they just hadn’t looked, as there are several Russian synods in the US, and at least a dozen Greek Orthodox churches just in Bible Belt NC.
The Uspenski cathedral, legacy of the Russian rulers, occupies one hill. A second is crowned by a Lutheran cathedral, legacy of earlier, Swedish, rulers. Its interior was stark, but that I had expected. I spent an instructive time in the local history museum, where I realized that although I had supposedly studied “European” history in school in England, I had actually studied western European history, we had spent very little time on the north and east. While Finland, for much of its history, was a frontier territory, with hunting, fishing, and seal hunting more important than agriculture, it was also on important trade routes, with tentacles reaching as far as Istanbul. But it was well beyond the Pax Romana, and remained pagan into the second Christian millenium.
The history museum was an unexpected pleasure, but the Design Museum, high on my list of sights, proved disappointing. The permanent exhibition was much smaller than I had expected, and I began to wonder whether I had confused Finnish design with Danish – I certainly preferred Copenhagen airport! The temporary exhibition featured the work of Kaj Franck. Unfortunately, while functionalism sounds admirable in theory, in visual reality it quickly becomes boring. This was also where I managed to drop my brand new camera, while trying to load a locker. After I had manually adjusted the plates that covered the lens, it seemed to be functioning again, but I wondered whether that would last.
I visited the Design Museum my first afternoon in town, right after the Sibelius Monument. (I had bought a transport pass and was zipping around on the trams.) I had seen several photographs of the multiple pipes that form the monument, but hadn’t realized that they were decorated. The monument had been controversial, and the artist had to add a bust of the composer, but I thought the pipes admirable.