Alvar Aalto's House of Culture in Helsinki is a modernist gem reborn

Modernist icon House of Culture by Alvar Aalto has been restored and brought to the 21st century by Finnish architecture studio JKMM and Design Agency Fyra for ASM Global Finland

house of culture exterior at dusk
(Image credit: HANNU RYTKY)

The midcentury gem that is the House of Culture in Helsinki is one of Alvar Aalto's masterpieces - an iconic event space conceived as a place for performance and the arts and imbued with the modernist architecture master's signature organic curves, sensitivity and use of brick. 

Completed in 1958 and an icon in architecture history, the place has seen gigs by the who-is-who of 20th-century music, including Queen and Led Zeppelin. Over the years, however, it fell in need of a refresh - and now, this landmark piece of architecture has got a new lease of life by a team led by Design Agency Fyra and including established Finnish architects JKMM, who worked on the interiors, for client ASM Global Finland, its new operator. 

house of culture main auditorium

(Image credit: HANNU RYTKY)

Reviving Alvar Aalto's House of Culture

The site, owned by Helsingin Kulttuurihub, has been designated for preservation under Finland's Building Protection Act since 1989. This meant the architecture team had to tread carefully to ensure all changes were made in the original structure's spirit. JKMM, the design team behind several inspiring, yet considered reuses of existing buildings in the city - such as the Amos Rex Museum - as well as a wealth of cultural spaces across Finland, including the recently opened Chappe, took on the challenge to head the interior restoration. 

house of culture seating in cafe

(Image credit: HANNU RYTKY)

JKMM was assigned to work on the modernization and design care of the public areas, including the majestic main auditorium and concert hall, the black box club, the mirror room, the brick foyer, the lobby areas, and the restaurant. 

house of culture main staircase

(Image credit: HANNU RYTKY)

As the aim was for the space to continue to serve as an event space, hosting gatherings, conferences, art performances and music shows, all functions needed to be brought to the 21st century, while preserving the architectural spirit of the whole.

house of culture modernist mural

(Image credit: HANNU RYTKY)

The building's basement-level Alppisali hall, a space that has stood dormant for years, has now been fully revitalised and transformed into a new venue. Originally designed as a cinema but having fallen into disrepair, the generous room has reopened as 'Kult,' a black-box type DJ and live music club accommodating 300-500 patrons. 

house of culture cafe

(Image credit: HANNU RYTKY)

Elsewhere, areas have been cleaned and restored, refitted with modern technologies and services. Meanwhile, in the interior mix of surfaces and furniture, the architects explained that 'inspiration was drawn from the history of the building, existing surfaces, and today's youth culture, where personal identity is freely constructed by mixing styles and accessories from different eras and crossing gender and generational boundaries.'

house of culture lobby area outside auditorium

(Image credit: HANNU RYTKY)

The architects write: 'At the heart of the renovation and modernization of the public spaces has been the creation of a functional event environment while respecting the cultural and historical value of the protected building.'

house of culture downstairs club

(Image credit: HANNU RYTKY)

'In terms of interior design, references to different phases of the building's history have been incorporated into the audience spaces. The colours and shapes honour the original spirit of the building.'

house of culture dance floor

(Image credit: HANNU RYTKY)

The House of Culture’s existing, original furniture pieces by Ilmari Tapiovaara and Alvar Aalto were upholstered and reintroduced with care in various areas that felt fitting to host them, taking into account each space's function. Similarly, existing Aalto light fixtures were upgraded and reused, in another gesture that celebrates the great architect's lasting legacy. 

house of culture entrance at dusk

(Image credit: HANNU RYTKY)

Ellie Stathaki is the Architecture & Environment Director at Wallpaper*. She trained as an architect at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece and studied architectural history at the Bartlett in London. Now an established journalist, she has been a member of the Wallpaper* team since 2006, visiting buildings across the globe and interviewing leading architects such as Tadao Ando and Rem Koolhaas. Ellie has also taken part in judging panels, moderated events, curated shows and contributed in books, such as The Contemporary House (Thames & Hudson, 2018), Glenn Sestig Architecture Diary (2020) and House London (2022).