Lahti: Replete With Nordic Design

Photo by Ron Bernthal

In 2000, Lahti’sinnovative Sibelius Hall became the world’s first concert hall constructed almost entirely of wood, with only its foundation, elevator shafts and stairs containing concrete.

Owing to Finland‘s vast expanse of pine, spruce, and birch forests, wood has long had a large place in the country’s design. But in the late 1990’s, the Finnish government, in an attempt to reverse a post-WWII preference for cement and stone and to boost the country’s timber industry, declared the Era of Wood.

Lahti —a city of about 100,000 people that’s located on the southern shore of Lake Vesijärvi, an hour north of Helsinki —  is one of five Finnish cities participating in the year-long World Design Capital Helsinki exhibitions and events.

It’s filled with many other wonderful examples of Nordic design.

Eliel Saarien designed the red-brick Town Hall, with its distinctive tower, in 1912, and Alvar Aaalto unveiled his light-filled Church of the Cross in 1978.

The Swedish designer Gert Wingårdh’s outdoor Pavilion, facing the lake adjacent to Sibelius Hall, is a lovely one story, glass and wood restaurant, café and bar opened in 2008.

To obtain additional space, architects integrated the new concert hall into a 1908 red brick carpentry factory, which offers rehearsal space for musicians, dressing rooms, and offices.

The hall’s unique timber construction, much of it protected by an exterior envelope of clear glass, overlooks the lake, and the visual result is nothing less than spectacular. The Lahti Symphony Orchestra, best known for its performances of the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, is the hall’s resident orchestra.

“There are many special things in Sebelius hall,” said Anu Kärkkäinen, the hall’s congress manager, as she escorted me through the stunning interior of the building.

Photo courtesy of Sibelius Hall

“Notice how the summer sunlight, and reflections from the lake stream into the windows above the lobby area.  In winter, when it is dark outside, the lights from inside the hall are reflected onto the snowy landscape outside.”

Kärkkäinen added that “even for our washrooms, a local family-owned carpentry workshop created four solid-wood benches, one from alder wood, one from aspen, one from spruce, and one from pine.”

After summer concerts at Sebelius Hall, audience members stroll to the Pavilion, where they linger with other residents over a coffee or beer.

The indigo night sky above the lake will never turn to black, not during Lahti’s long summer anyway, and when the Finns finally call it a night, many of them will be humming Sebelius on their way home.