The Torikorttelit area is a true paradise for friends of architecture and history. New layers are being added right now: maritime Helsinki by the Market Square and the Torikorttelit is experiencing a renaissance, and there is plenty to explore.

The story of Torikorttelit began in 1640 when Per Brahe the Younger moved the city of Helsinki from today’s Koskela district, where Gustav I of Sweden had originally founded it, nearer to the harbour. The area that we know as Kruununhaka and the Senate Square became the centrepoint of the settlement, which was then only a tiny village of 3,000 inhabitants.

Tsar Alexander I of Russia named Helsinki the capital of Finland in 1812. The city had been severely damaged in a fire in 1808 and a committee was appointed to direct its rebuilding. The committee was chaired by senator Johan Albrecht Ehrenström, whose first step in the process was to devise a new city plan. A decision influenced by Ehrenström, the committee chose the German architect Carl Ludvig Engel – who had previously been working in Turku – to execute the design process.

Ehrenström made a plan for the vicinity of the Senate Square that was based on symmetry as a starting point for the work of Engel. He first transformed a house built in 1763 for the merchant Bock on the southern edge of the Senate Square into the palace of the governor general. Also other merchant houses dating back to the Swedish rule on the same stretch, such as the Sederholm, Burtz and Sunn houses, were modernised and given a Classical appearance. Built in the late 18th century by Sederholm, the Kiseleff house was renewed by Engel in 1818. The house served as a sugar refinery until 1821 and opened its doors to the public as a department store in 1879.

Ehrenström was inspired by Stockholm in naming city blocks. From 1820 onwards, building blocks in the city centre were given names of plants and animals. The blocks that make up Torikorttelit are called Lion, Rhinoceros and Dromedary.

Engel also designed the Government Palace (1822) and the University of Helsinki’s Main Building (1832) around the Senate Square. First known as St Nicholas’ Church, Engel worked on the Helsinki Cathedral for decades with an attempt to follow the ideals of Classicism as precisely as possible. The construction effort was commenced in 1830. When Engel passed away in 1840, the construction process was handed over to his successors who made additions to Engel’s plans and changed the church’s appearance significantly.

A paradise for merchants and pleasure-seekers

The area of today’s Torikorttelit was a lively part of town due to its location: a wealthy elite resided in the merchant buildings and the area became known as an epicentre of social life at the time.

The current City Hall (Pohjois-Esplanadi 11-13) was first designed by Engel as the hotel-restaurant Seurahuone, where many social events were hosted from the 1830s onwards. These included the first opera performances in Finland, popular music concerts, variety shows and a cinema screening organised by the French brothers Lumière. The Seurahuone hall could fit 1,600 people, a huge amount for a city with a population of 12,000. The 1830s were a golden age for the Seurahuone.

From governmental blocks to the epicentre of maritime Helsinki

Several governmental offices relocated to the building blocks in the 20th century. The Sofiankatu street transformed from a shopping street into an office stretch when the department store Stockmann moved to the corner of Mannerheimintie at the other end of Aleksanterinkatu. The Helsinki Police Department’s headquarters relocated in the 1930s to the house designed by Lars Sonck. The legendary Seurahuone turned into the City Hall in 1913 and many adjacent buildings were used for governmental functions.

For most of the 1990s, Sofiankatu – one of the oldest streets in Helsinki – was lined with mostly offices. When the police headquarters moved to the city’s Pasila district in the 1980s, the City Museum took over Sonck’s house with its intricate lion details in 1995. Soon after, the Kino Amanda cinema changed its name to Kino Engel.

The properties in the blocks were at risk of ending up in the hands of private investors in the early 2000s but the citizens fought back. Much to the joy of locals, the mayor at the time decided to keep the premises in the ownership of the city, to renovate the crumbling properties and to open spaces for commercial purposes and events.