Helsinki Olympic Stadium reborn for modern age

One of Europe’s most iconic Olympic stadia has been given a new lease of life thanks to a major redevelopment which officials state make it the crown jewel of Finnish functionalism.

First inaugurated in 1938, the new-look Helsinki Olympic Stadium reopened on August 22 and is currently staging a variety of visitor events to mark the occasion. The four-year renovation project, financed for over €300m (£273.5m/$352.7m) by the city and state, will see the stadium have a new seated capacity of 36,300, with 50,000 spectators being able to attend concerts.

However, at the turn of the century the future looked uncertain for Helsinki Olympic Stadium as it fell into disrepair. While cost estimates returned a price tag for redevelopment that would be equivalent to developing a new stadium, it was decided to respect the history of the venue.

The Helsinki Olympic Stadium is not only a landmark central to the cityscape but also a building of significant national importance. Having declared independence only 20 years prior to the inauguration of the stadium, the venue had been developed with the intention of serving as the centrepiece of the 1940 Olympic Games. The breakout of the Second World War put paid to that, with the then 70,000-capacity stadium eventually getting to host the Olympics in the summer of 1952.

Commenting on the vision behind the project, stadium director Ari Kuokkanen told TheStadiumBusiness.com: “The building was already at the end of its service life in many areas and according to the needs assessment, the entire Olympic Stadium would have been at the end of its service life by 2020 at the latest if no immediate improvements were made.

“The renovation project was based on a condition study completed in 2010, a building history study, the future work of the Stadium Foundation, on-site inventories, 3D modelling of the property, extensive structural studies and openings, geo-surveys and consultations with the stadium’s stakeholders.

“The results of the property condition survey, which was completed in 2010, showed that the stadium needed rapid and complete basic improvement. The concrete structures of the building frame were mainly in reasonable condition and could still be repaired.

“Complementary frame components such as facades and the surface structures, in addition to other building components such as windows, doors, walls and floor coverings required immediate repair and renewal. Also, the whole building services and operations system required urgent renewal. The stadium did not meet modern security requirements.

“The Olympic Stadium is protected by the Building Protection Act of 2006. This had to be taken into account in the renewal project. The construction was carried out with the future in mind, but with respect to the architecture and that the beautiful functionalistic stadium would preserve its important features, despite renewal.”

The architectural design of the renovation was carried out by the consortium K2S and NRT, in cooperation with Swedish architecture collective White Arkitekten and Wessel de Jonge from the Netherlands.

The entire stadium premises, as well as the stands, pitch and athletics track, have been modernised. Moreover, another ‘stadium’ has been built underground, with 20,000 square metres of new underground space doubling the amount of indoor space at the venue. Versatile sports facilities, a tunnel following the track above, a logistics area and a multi-purpose hall constitute a completely new part of the Olympic Stadium.

The Stadium’s 2020 external architecture combines the restored 1930s concrete architecture and the renovated parts of the 1950s with a new North stadium square, where food and beverage kiosks are located.

The renewed wood cover of the façades, made of Finnish spruce and pine timber, conceals new rain shelter structures above the stands. The use of wood harks back to the 1950s, when the material was used to renovate the concrete-structured Stadium to reflect its current appearance.

Kuokkanen said: “The project covers 40,720 gross square metres internally in all, and the new facilities of the plan total 19,290 gross square metres. Moreover, the field area and the track will be renewed as part of the project so the total scope of the project, including the field and auditorium areas, is a large 90,000 square metres.

“There is new visitors’ centre, attractive service and restaurant premises, adequate sanitary facilities, versatile conference rooms and new VIP and hospitality areas. Spectator stands are covered with canopies and the seats have been replaced.

“The exit arrangements and the security of the stadium bowl has been improved by adding new exits. It is possible to circle the whole Stadium in the rear of the spectator stands. Environmental impact reduction by extending the building’s life cycle was one of the fundamental premises for the whole modernisation and updating of the Helsinki Olympic Stadium.

“The Olympic Stadium is a venue that reflects sustainable development and the circular economy in the built environment. The circular economy reduces the need for virgin raw materials and cuts back on greenhouse gas emissions. What is exceptional, is the fact that the 1952 Olympic building is still in active use.”

Although the immediate future for the entire stadium and events industry remains uncertain due to the spectre of COVID-19, Helsinki Olympic Stadium has a business plan that is firmly focused on its status as a multi-purpose venue.

The stadium’s history means it is a popular tourism attraction in its own right, especially given its tower which offers sweeping views of the city from 72 metres above ground. Along with the ongoing reopening events, the stadium’s diary for 2020 also includes Helsinki Design Week from September 10-13 and Helsinki City Running Day on October 3.

The Olympic Stadium will also be the focal point for a major winter sports event in 2021, with Helsinki Ski Weeks due to take place from January 25 to February 28. Kuokkanen added: “Major events in sports, culture and entertainment can take place at the Stadium.

“The Stadium is also in daily use by both citizens and visitors. The renovation gives more options for meetings, tourism, sports and exercise than ever before. The Olympic Stadium is expected to attract about one million visitors every year; half a million for events and the other half a million in daily visitors.

“The Stadium Foundation is not a for-profit organisation but naturally the activities must cover the cost of the property and it is also possible to redirect income back to society. In the operational phase the renovated Olympic Stadium will have a production effect of approximately €132m every year and the event activities will employ some 1,150 people. The aim is to develop activities and become a significant part of society.

“For event activities, year-round use will increase. Next January, for example, Helsinki Ski Weeks will take place. Of course, the Stadium remains the place for games of the Finnish national team in football and track & field events. The Stadium is also in active use for concerts, while we also welcome new kinds of events, for example esports.”

Images: Kuva Stadion-säätiö/Wellu Hämäläinen