The trials and tribulations of building a church out of rock

Timo Suomalainen, architect

In the fall of 1960 my brother Tuomo and I started a journey which became the “long march" of our lives. The first step was taking part in the design contest for the Temppeliaukio Church. Our design won first prize and the media was very positively interested in the outcome.

The atmosphere changed quickly, however. Many members of the parish council started to think that building more churches in downtown Helsinki would be a waste since there was a shortage of churches in the newly built suburbs. Anticlerical feelings were growing among the public under the shelter of social radicalism. Some people saw the situation as their chance to be in the spotlight. By giving false information and predictions, the public started expecting the worst. Even during the building phase some inappropriate opinions were spray painted onto the construction site. The whole project was in jeopardy in the parish council, in one meeting it was the chairman’s vote that saved the project from being closed down when the vote was tied. Those who had positive feelings toward the building of the church had to agree to reduce the church’s overall space in order to keep the project going. The building committee was in the difficult position of having to get the designers to make modifications in order to keep the budget in check. Alterations were also done on our behalf and with the help of others’ suggestions. Many things changed in the process of creating a church out of rock.

The first alteration was made due to a statement made by the contest committee in which the clock tower was seen as below the standard of the rest of the design. From the beginning we had thought of the clock tower, a requirement made by the contest committee, as unnecessary and in further designs we replaced it with a low rising bell tower, which comprised of two pieces of stone wall placed close together. This design was in the ground plan for a long time, until it too was taken out due to expenses being cut. One argument for removing the bell tower from the plans was a complaint filed by a resident of Helsinki who lived near a church: they had complained to the city government about the disturbing noise of the church bells.

According to the agenda, our plan featured a number of congregational spaces. They were to be placed on the edge of the bedrock on the Runeberginkatu side and were to be mainly two storied buildings that would “accompany" the main building all the way from the main entrance until the end of Oksasenkatu. A wide gap for pedestrians from the street to the rock was the only thing disjointing this meandering structure, separating it at the same time into the Finnish and Swedish speaking facilities. At the end of all the cut backs, only one third of these facilities were left.

The mass hall was the structure we really fought the entire time for, in order to keep it as close the original design as possible. The materials and colors of the hall changed entirely during the planning: the original design had the inside of the church painted completely white as were the dome from the outside and the facades of the bordering buildings.

The walls in the mass hall were originally made of concrete. We hadn’t the courage to propose bedrock as the surface material in our original design, though the thought did come to mind. Only the protective wall on the outside of the hall was piled up out of stone. From the inside the stone wall could be seen through the glass roof as an extension of the white concrete wall. We put out the idea of making the interior walls completely out of bedrock and stone when we started collaborating with engineers from different fields in the beginning of the designing process. The bends and holes in the structures of the walls asked for by an experienced conductor and acoustics specialist would thus be easily and affordably produced. The HPAC technician convinced the building committee that heating and the quality of air would be easily manageable and the structural engineer didn’t see any problems emerging from the bedrock remaining visible. The building committee approved the plan but still many unnecessary questions had to be answered in all the different levels of the reviewing offices where the plan had to be approved. People still had prejudices against the project. We, as the architects, did know of real problems to look out for but, in our minds, they couldn’t stop the whole project from coming to life. We only needed to be prepared. It was a possibility that while quarrying a part of the bedrock could collapse, but this problem only affected the appearance of the facades, not their structural quality. If this would have happened, we would have repaired the defective parts with concrete and stone walls. The most difficult problem we could have faced was to have the mass hall situated in the darkest and most dull colored part of the red and grey bedrock. We tried imagining all the setbacks in advance; we were under a lot of pressure. One night I dreamed of the finished mass hall: the wall behind the choir stand was a pile of rubble and in front of it near the central corridor was a large, one meter tall cake of hard stone. For one reason or another, it couldn’t be quarried to the level of the rest of the floor. In reality we only had one mishap – and even that one ended happily. The quarrying of the altar wall got out of hand and accidentally reached all the way into an ancient bedrock crevice. All we can say is that with that one blast, we were able to acquire the most vibrant and beautiful altarpiece we could have imagined.

When the color of the interior walls changed, we noticed that the granite slabs originally planned for the floor of the church would not go together well with the rough stone walls. We developed a better solution out of white Japanese ceramic tiles which were the size and shape of the tip of a person’s finger and that differed in shape. The floor would look like it was covered in white beach pebbles. When we tried tuning down the lightness of the hall we changed the color of the tiles to grey, but that didn’t fit right in our minds. When more cutbacks had to be made, we gave up the idea entirely. Instead the floor is now made of a concrete cast, polished and waxed at the site. Some bluish red color was put into the concrete to get rid of the greenish tinge concrete usually has.

When the acoustics specialist started working on designing the hall with us, we had proposed enveloping the bottom of the roof’s closed dome section in a five centimeter thick asbestos fiber which would be painted white. After looking at the church’s acoustical problems, the acoustics specialist suggested that the asbestos layer would be left out completely and that the roof would be built out of stiff sheets, or boxes, that would scatter sound and help absorb low sounds. The hair on the back of our necks stood up. What would a roof like that look like! According to the specialist we could at least cover the roof with a material that would have holes on ? of its surface. We made models of this kind of surfacing. One option seemed better than the rest: an aluminum wire netting that would be sprayed with a white grain like paint. The seams just didn’t seem to work. There was a danger of the roof looking like a patched up parasol. This became an annoying complication; we didn’t want to compromise the acoustics since the point was to make a concert church. Finally we were saved with the decision of not painting the interior of the church white, due to wanting to minimize overall lightness. Thus we had more alternatives to choose from and so the thought of the surface structure seen today was born. We decided to attach a 1mm thick and 22 mm wide copper band, with 5 mm gaps in between, beneath the boxes on the ceiling. The roof would spread out in an orbicular design. We made a 1 m² model of the design and discovered that it would work surprisingly well. Changing the color of the roof to a copper finish changed the design of the gallery as well; it was made out of copper panels.

While the inside of the church went through radical changes in surface materials, the outside also got its share of crisis and regeneration. We had found a beautiful covering for the dome. It would be made out of small white post stamp sized pieces of glass originally meant for use as floor material, which we would glue onto bitumen roofing. We had a bitumen store manufacture a model of the church dome for us, which we then set up on my balcony at the right inclination and at the mercy of the weather. The results of our test were that the bitumen melted a bit during warm weather. That was enough to wreck our great plan. The change in color on the inside of the church solved our problem yet again; it was then a natural choice to have the outside of the dome made out of copper as well. The exterior walls changed also: white became concrete gray. The roof experienced an irritating change: the frames around the glass were originally made of bronze. In the need for some more belt-tightening, the building developer decided that steel would do the job. The frames lasted for only 25 years. The decision was defendable at the time and we were saved from the ridicule of spending too much money at least in this situation.

Not taking into account the drastic cut in space, the change in skylight materials, and some other smaller changes that decreased the overall effectiveness of congregational activities and durability, it feels like the problems we faced usually made us come up with better alternatives than what we had originally planned. The feeling of success in such situations helped us endure those countless challenges we faced due to problems caused by the resistance of the project shown in the media and other problems encountered in different levels of office. Our nine year journey was over in due course and the mission accomplished.