1652338236961 Aalto University Dipoli Resized

Otaniemi, Home of Finland’s Architectural Campus

Oct. 3, 2018

Located in the district of Otaniemi, Finland, Aalto University’s campus buildings have undergone big renovations that pay homage to the school’s original designers.


Thriving in the busy metropolis of Espoo, Finland, near the border of Helsinki, lays an innovative hub unlike any other: Otaniemi, home to Aalto University.

Aalto University Dipoli

This parkland-style campus was established in the 1950s and later became the merger of three major Finnish universities in 2010: the Helsinki University of Technology, the Helsinki School of Economics and the University of Art and Design Helsinki.

The overall vision and design of the campus is originally that of the celebrated Finnish architects and designers Aino and Alvar Aalto. Key features designed by the couple include the original layout of the Otaniemi campus, the main building of the Helsinki University of Technology (now the Undergraduate Centre) and the Otaniemi library building.

Aalto’s office also designed other buildings on the campus, including the shopping center, outdoor lighting fixtures (of which there are three kinds) and some of the streetlights along Otaniementie Road. He envisioned a leafy, American-style enclosed campus with paths traversing the yards between the campus buildings. (Photo: Aerial view Dipoli Oct. 2017; Credit: Tuomas Uusheimo)

The main building, known as the Undergraduate Centre, features a striking, auditorium-like roof and is an iconic campus landmark that pays homage to Aalto’s use of indirect natural light.

(Photo: Undergraduate Centre; Credit: Tuomas Uusheimo)

The building is located on one of the area’s seven hilltops, giving it great access to natural light, which is reflected from the skylights first, to the on white ceiling and from it, down to the hall.

In addition to the main building, the Otaniemi campus includes many other buildings housing various departments and units of the schools of technology. (Photo Dipoli; Credit: Tuomas Uusheimo)

ALA Architects, who received Finland’s State Award for Architecture in 2012, designed Otaniemi’s metro station as well as the renovation of the Dipoli building, which was originally designed by Reima and Raili Pietilä.

Dipoli has had an eventful history. Originally, it was built as the student house for Helsinki University of Technology. Now, this historically and culturally significant building has been restored to its former glory and serves as the first main building of Aalto University. (Photo: Dipoli; Credit: Mikko Raskinen)

Brush up on the building’s history with these nine fun facts:

1. Second Place Turned Into Victory

An architecture competition to design Dipoli was held in the early 1960s, after Helsinki University of Technology hadmoved from Hietalahti Square in Helsinki to Otaniemi in Espoo. (Photo: Dipoli; Credit: Tuomas Uusheimo)

The site for Dipoli in Espoo was challenging because of its rocky terrain, and the facilities in the student house needed to be highly flexible, which added to the challenge. None of the entries met all of the requirements specified for the design, so no winner was announced.

Second place was tied between the entries submitted by Reima Pietilä and Raili Paatelainen, and by Osmo Lappo. Eventually, The Cavemen’s Wedding March, the entry by Pietilä and Paatelainen, who later married, was selected.

2. Contradictory Critiques

The radical, sculpture-like architecture of Dipoli, with its copper and granite cladding, was met with contradictory reviews.

According to the Norwegian critic Christian Norberg-Schulz, it represented architecture that takes local values into account, instead of being a work of generic modernism. Juhani Pallasmaa wrote in Arkkitehti magazine in 1967 that the design of the building did not comply with the principles of responsibility.

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Reima Pietilä said that Dipoli “goes against good taste” and defends the right “to be different but still be architecture.” In his opinion, the purpose of Dipoli was to provoke discussion and to further develop over time.

3. A Kinetic Pine Cone Greets Visitors

There is an eye-catching, 7-metre-high metallic pine cone in front of Dipoli. It was Finland’s first major acoustic-kinetic sculpture, with architecture student Reijo Perko as art designer, technology student Heikki Koivikko as structural designer and technology student Philip Donner as sound designer.

The Pine Cone was opened and closed using a coin slot with a markka (Finnish mark) coin. The sculpture was unveiled by president Urho Kekkonen in 1968, during a five-day art event organized by the Helsinki University of Technology Student Union and the National Union of University Students in Finland.

4. Only Two Identical Windows

Dipoli represents organic architecture, a style favored by Reima and Raili Pietilä. In Otaniemi, the couple were inspired by the rock that Dipoli was built on and inside of. The building has only two identical windows, as the rhythm of the windows is in sync with the surrounding forest.

Reima Pietilä became Finland’s most significant architect in the 1980s. In the Finnish construction magazine Rakennuslehti, he was described as follows: “With his Kalevala-style brimless cap, Academic Reima Ilmari Pietilä resembles his ideal, the shamanic Seppo Ilmarinen from Kalevala. As a forest mystic, he resembles his own work. In the early 1960s, Dipoli was an explosion of free expression in Finland for that entire decade.” (Photo: Dipoli; Credit: Tuomas Uusheimo)

5. Seven Fireplaces

The special features of Dipoli include seven fireplaces, all of which are still in use. The most impressive ones are located in the Metso Restaurant on the first floor and in Bistro Tenhola on the ground floor, where the fireplace is equipped with an equally impressive spit.


6. Kekkonen’s Secret Refuge

Rumor has it that during the Cold War, a secret tunnel was built under Laajalahti Bay, from the president’s residence to Dipoli’s basement. Apparently, the idea was that the president would be safe there if threatened during a state of emergency, as no one would be able to work out that he was in Otaniemi. (Photo: Aalto University Learning Centre; Credit: Tuomas Uusheimo)

The existence of such a mysterious tunnel has never been proved. However, there is an extensive network of tunnels under Dipoli and other campus buildings. Their original purpose remains a secret.

7. Management in a Former Strip Club

Dipoli was developed by the Helsinki University of Technology Student Union. Its actual cost of construction turned out be many times higher than the budget, which sent the student union into a deep financial crisis. (Photo: Aalto School of Arts; Credit: Tuomas Uusheimo)

In response to this, the technology students generated new revenue streams by establishing a strip club – probably the first one in Finland – in the Luolamies (Caveman) restaurant.

Today, Aalto University’s management works in these facilities. Another creative revenue stream was the car dealership on the first floor, for which a ramp was built outside the building.

8. The Home of the CSCE

Finlandia Hall became the symbol of the conference of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), which was held in Helsinki in 1975. Most of the preparatory work was carried out in Dipoli, which was leased out by the Helsinki University of Technology Student Union to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Finland for preliminary negotiations for the entire 1972–73 winter season. (Photo: Aalto University Learning Centre; Credit: Tuomas Uusheimo)

A chain-link fence was built around Dipoli, and the facilities were adjusted for meetings using temporary walls, carpet, new furniture, telephone booths and lights.

9. Aalto University’s First Main Building

The renovated Dipoli opened its doors as the main building of Aalto University in summer 2017. Before this, the university, which launched its operations at the beginning of 2010 after being created through the merger of three universities, did not have an actual main building.

Dipoli, which was originally built as a student house and then became a conference center for several decades, has been renovated.

It now serves as a showcase for the university, which is open to all, and as a main building for the entire university, where Aalto University students, lecturers, employees, partners and local residents can meet one another and spend time together. (Photo: Aalto University; Credit: Tuomas Uusheimo)

Its long history as a conference venue continues, as the facilities are available for outsiders, in addition to serving as a venue for university events. Dipoli has versatile and extensive facilities: The building accommodates up to 1,000 dinner guests or 31 simultaneous events.

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About the Author

Adrian Schley | Associate Editor

Adrian Schley is an Associate Editor for i+s, where she has been covering the commercial interior design industry since 2018. Her work can also be found in BUILDINGS and Meetings Today. 

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