Places that Work: III, Helsinki’s Temppeliaukio Church

Photo by T.P. Tukiainen.

As images of a book-burning pastor and airplanes flying into buildings increased stress levels across the US this past 9/11, I decided to take a mental retreat to some tranquil, spiritual spaces I’ve known. Wooded glens close to my parents’ home in Boston, mosques in Turkey, and the interior of Calatrava’s addition to the Milwaukee Museum of Art came to mind.  But no place is as mystical and magical as Temppeliaukio Church in Helsinki, designed by architect brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen and consecrated in 1969.

 Approaching the church is a bit stressful, because it’s confusing; it’s hard to find, even when you’re on a nearby street. This is not the case with other European churches, they normally tower overhead. But Temppeliaukio is built into a rock outcrop in the middle of a standard, mostly residential Helsinki neighborhood.  A relatively uninteresting doorway leads to a golden, oval sanctuary. To say that the church is welcoming is inadequate. The experience of entering is like bonding to a positive force of nature.

 Sunlight floods the space from above through a mammoth ring of windows that rims an enormous disc in the center of the ceiling.  It bathes the rough, natural gold/brown/beige/gray stone on the chamber’s walls. Because of the rock formation’s shape, into which the sanctuary is cut, the windows over the altar are larger, and the space under them is brighter.  This draws your eyes to sacred spot. The combination of the colors of the light and the stones is perfectly soothing. Copper on the cupola and the front of the balconies enhances the golden ambiance. 

 The rounded space with its domed ceiling, entered through a narrow opening from the outside world, feels organically nurturing and womblike.  (Those of us who have been raised in the rectilinear Western world find it arresting to be in rounded spaces; though  we’re generally comforted by rounded objects and design elements.)  Combining the round space with relaxing colors and lighting makes us thoughtful, not sleepy. The mullions between the windows in the cupola and the straight rows of pews inject a sense of order, confirming that this is a planned space. This detail enhances the feeling of security generated by the materials and architectural forms.

 In Temppeliaukio, an acoustic gem, the soundscaping is ethereal. What makes it really different, and restful, is the burbling water that cascades from the inner walls of the sanctuary. This, the architects achieved by intermittently allowing in the naturally-occurring springs that were exposed as the walls were being carved.

 When I asked Timo Suomalainen about the emotional experience of being in the church, he responded that people regularly leave comments in the guestbook describing it as stunning and sublime, unique and spiritual.  He added that the design intent that guided him and his brother was to “create architecture as a union of functionality and practicality and emotion.” They succeeded.

Sally Augustin, PhD, is a principal at Design with Science . She is also the editor of Research Design Connections and the author of Place Advantage: Applied Psychology for Interior Architecture (Wiley, 2009). She can be reached at 

Last week, Sally Augustin wrote about The Rookery in Chicago.

Image courtesy Maila Mehtala and Timo Suomalainen.

Categories: Design, Uncategorized