Reflections on Otaniemi Chapel

Designed by Heikki and Kaija Siren in 1957, the Otaniemi Chapel is settled quietly among the pine and birch trees on the Aalto University Campus in Finland. The woodland clearing contrasts starkly with the hustle of the main campus. As this was my first trip above the Baltic, I found all Finnish architecture enchanting. And so it was with the Otaniemi Chapel. Its simplicity of form and material impressed upon me the ideals of early modernism.

The progression to the chapel is carefully constructed to enhance the journey from secular to spiritual. After leaving the central thoroughfare of campus academic buildings, the streets meander eastward towards the water. Along one of those streets, a small path leads up from a parking lot into a partially open courtyard whose pebbled floor is confined by an unfinished wood screen and two parallel brick walls. The chapel fits between two parallel brick walls, forming the fourth edge of the courtyard. Space is distinguished through simple gestures that move from secular to spiritual: the courtyard, social gathering, sanctuary, and the woods beyond are laid out linearly along two parallel brick walls. The social gathering space has a low ceiling that pops up to create a clerestory in the sanctuary. The light-filled sanctuary looks through a glass paneled wall into the forest. A lone cross stands before the forest.

The chapel resonates because its natural materials are organized to heighten the spiritual experience. In the sanctuary, the west clerestory spans across the entire face and allows light to flood the sanctuary from above. The wood trusses in the sanctuary allude to the trunks of the Finnish forest. In the courtyard, unfinished wood is hung to create a screen. The altar is composed of two layers of stacked bricks: the first for gatherers to kneel on and the second for those to serve from.

The Chapel’s deceptive simplicity conveys its overall power, for it distills the spiritual journey to the primacy of nature. And so it will remain for other wandering visitors to enjoy.