As the engine that drove the early growth of Finnish industry, Helsinki experienced a period of rapid expansion and zoning in the beginning of the 20th century. With space becoming limited on the Helsinki peninsula and smoking factory chimneys being seen as unwelcome in the inner city, land for industrial use was purchased on the edges of the city centre.
Helsinki acquired Salmisaari island in 1917 from commercial counsellor Julius Tallberg. The island, which was still populated by fishermen and summer residents in the early 1920s, was annexed to the mainland by filling in the strait between the two.
In the post-prohibition era of the 1930s, alcohol consumption was on the rise in Finland and the state-owned alcohol company Oy Alkoholiliike Ab was in need of new and larger business premises. The new central warehouse and factory were first planned for the Katajanokka district, but eventually Salmisaari was selected on the strength of its transport links: raw materials were delivered to the factory on ships and trucks, while distilled spirits were brought in on trains from Rajamäki.
Competing architects – a scandal in the making
The job of designing the factory and central warehouse was first assigned to Alko’s trusted architect Pauli Ernesti Blomstedt. He accepted the challenge with a great deal of passion, seeking influences from Nordic breweries and alcohol factories.
However, an architectural design competition was organised in 1935 to create the final designs, perhaps due to Blomstedt’s poor health. The shortlisted architects invited to submit their designs were Alvar Aalto, Väinö Vähäkallio, Erkki Huttunen and Bertel Liljequist. When Professor Eliel Saarinen heard about the competition, he sent a bitter telegram to Alkoholiliike: “The old man isn’t good enough anymore?” This led to a request for a design being sent to Saarinen to placate the old master.
None of the 15 proposals received were approved in their initial form. The two winning candidates, Väinö Vähäkallio and Erkki Huttunen, were asked to submit improved versions of their designs. Architectural researchers have later suggested that Vähäkallio plagiarised parts of Huttunen’s design, particularly with regard to its structuring, the placement of building groups and certain other details. This became evident when the scale models of their designs were revealed. It appeared that there was a scandal in the making, but Huttunen did not make a fuss over the situation.
Vähäkallio’s design ultimately won the competition on merit, as his proposed solution was based on a cost-effective foundation with economically viable opportunities for later expansion. The contract with Vähäkallio’s architecture firm was signed in 1937 and the initial construction of the ground floor skirted by a wood embankment was completed in autumn 1938. The zoning plan for the plot was approved in 1938. One year after that, the construction platforms were gone, the bricks were laid and the windows were in place. The principal contractor was Oy Rakennustoimi, which made a strong contribution to the development of reinforced concrete construction in Finland.
In-house wine production and bottling wines from around the world
The operations of the alcohol factory and the central warehouse were closely linked. The production facilities were housed on the second floor and above, while the central warehouse occupied the basement and ground floor. The production operations made clever use of gravity: water was pumped up to the ninth floor, distilled spirit was diluted with water in tanks located on the eighth floor, the liquid was filtered into storage tanks on the seventh floor and further processed into mixing tanks on the sixth floor.
The factory produced strong alcoholic beverages by mixing spirits produced in Rajamäki with imported ingredients. It also bottled wines delivered in barrels from various wine-producing regions around the world and even experimented with producing Finnish berry wines in 1947–1955. The central warehouse prepared the bottles for shop shelves and handled their storage and distribution.
In the early days, wine was pumped into the factory from tankers. As the tastes of Finnish consumers grew increasingly sophisticated, the ships began to bring in cargo containers full of bottled wine instead. The factory’s own products were matured on different floors of the building: liqueurs, raw cognac and cut brandy were on the seventh floor. Valencia wines, punch and cognac were kept on the sixth floor. The fifth floor housed large vessels for cut brandy and monopol.
Salmisaarentalo was expanded in 1956 by extending the high part of the building further to the north. The extension matches the structures and details of the original structure to the extent that the line between the two can barely be discerned from the outside. The expansion also added a new top floor to the building with laboratories and research facilities.
Salmisaarentalo gives the district a unique look
Vähäkallio’s functionalist style set the tone for the Salmisaari district as a whole: burnt red brick features prominently in the façades of Salmisaari, from the old power plant to the beginning of Länsiväylä highway. The factory’s role in this has been described as monumental.
The district of Ruoholahti has undergone a tremendous change as the manufacturing industry has given way to new commercial development in the form of office space for the technology era. Renovated after the turn of the millennium, Salmisaarentalo today is an accomplished and innovative combination of the old and the new.
This culturally and historically significant former factory and company headquarters has been converted into modern business premises in a way that honours the building’s glorious past. The senior executive offices where Alko’s directors once worked represent functionalist style that stands the test of time. They are a prime example of the carefully planned interior design of the late 1930s. The architect Väinö Vähäkallio opted to use Finnish wood such as curly birch, elm, pine root and goat willow burl.
Professor Tuomo Siitonen, who was responsible for the designs for the renovation of Salmisaarentalo, has praised the simple and flexible spaces of the old industrial building as well as its timeless social premises that now house the Helsinki Court of Appeal. With the premises of the Helsinki District Court, the Helsinki Court of Appeal, the Prosecutor’s Office and the Helsinki Legal Aid Office all under one roof, Salmisaarentalo is now home to Finland’s largest concentration of courtrooms and legal offices. These major organisations benefit from the building’s accessibility and effective transport links.
Salmisaarentalo, Porkkalankatu 13
- Constructed in 1940 with Väinö Vähäkallio as Chief Architect.
- The renovation of Salmisaarentalo, one of the largest renovation projects in Finnish history, was completed in two phases in 2004 and 2010 and designed by Tuomo Siitonen Architects Oy.
- Total floor area: 78,551 m2.
- Finland’s largest concentration of courtrooms and legal offices. Also houses business premises.
- The seaside location of Salmisaarentalo is easily accessible by local and regional buses and tram line 8 on the Porkkalankatu side. A pedestrian and bicycle path runs next to the building. The Helsinki metro station and a broad range of services in Ruoholahti are within walking distance. Plenty of parking space and the Salmisaari Sports Centre nearby.