The Daring

A division of the Center
for the Study of Diagonality
in World Culture

Daring Diagonal Virtual Museum
Aerial view of a vibrant, green suburban town.
1741 AD
Executed by:

Hamina is a coastal town seventy-five miles northeast of Helsinki. It is on the southern coast of Finland, and a mere twenty-eight miles southwest of the border of Finland with its long-term enemy, Russia. The Swedes and the Russians staged military battles back and forth across Finland from late in the sixteenth century until the early nineteenth century, each country seeking to bring Finland under its rule. During the seven-year period in which Russia overran and looted Finland (I7I3 to 172I), a period known as the "Great Wrath," it also occupied the town of Hamina, destroying it in the process. The Treaty of Nystad (Uusikaupunki), signed in I72I, ceded parts of eastern Finland to Russia, thus making Hamina a town vulnerably close to its on-again, off-again enemy. With a clear need for fortifications, the town was rebuilt by the Swedes as a military center shortly after its destruction.

Hamina's reincarnation as a fort-town is interesting because two important diagonal themes were utilized in creating the town's plan. First is the complex, star-like geometry of the fortification walls on the town's perimeter, which appear from the air like a piece of richly faceted antique jewelry. Second is the town's street layout, which sits neatly and symmetrically within the fortification walls and is based on the shape of an octagon. The octagonal street layout was designed by Carl A. Blaesingh during the period of fortification by the Swedes. The street plan could have taken the far simpler and familiar shape of the 90° grid employed in many Roman forts and countless city plans, but Blaesingh apparently chose to integrate the street plan more intimately with the carefully ordered geometry and defense-driven disposition of the surrounding walls. Blaesingh chose a series of concentric octagon-shaped ring roads which intersect streets that radiate from a large, centrally positioned octagonal plaza and terminate at regularly spaced breaks in the star pattern of the fortification walls. Further research may reveal what appears to be a functional, troop-movement relationship between the radiating streets, a possible command post in the town's central plaza, and the staggered pattern of projecting bastions that seem to be constructed on several levels of the surrounding hillside.

The octagonal street layout still exists with very wide streets based on the Russian model. It is one of the few urban design influences that resulted from Russia's frequent invasions. The wide streets are also dictated by the need to keep the many wooden, inflammable buildings far enough apart to avoid the uncontrollable spread of fire that incinerated many Finnish towns through the centuries. Turku, for instance, was destroyed by fire in 1827 and Helsinki was almost totally incinerated in 1808.

The octagonal street layout in Hamina is not as evident from pedestrian level as it is from the air because of the combined effect of varying building heights, the wide streets, and certain cleared spaces, which make the symmetry and the geometry hard to detect at ground level. Moreover, because most of the buildings are only two or three stories in height, the buildings fail to visually define the street pattern. Further camouflaging the pattern are the deliberately made architectural spaces such as the central plaza which is now dominated by a town hall built in 1798, capped appropriately with an octagonal tower and turret added by the well-known and prolific neo-classical architect Carl Ludwig Engel when he restored the building in I840. But then again, the intent in the eighteenth century was probably not to create a handsome and clearly articulated urban environment but rather to create a defensible outpost. Consequently, intent is important to consider in measuring the success of the layout. It would be interesting to know whether Blaesingh's street plan was conceived concurrently with the design of the fortification walls or whether the plan was made to fit the complex pre-existing perimeter wall conditions. Whatever the case, the layout is ingenious and geometrically successful, with lovely three-quarter views of many buildings that the ancient Greeks would have loved.

this town and grapple with the complex geometry imposed by the street layout and the snowflake pattern of the fortification walls. This "dream" commission would be particularly appealing if the building site were on the perimeter of the town so that the architect would be grappling not only with the constraint of the octagon-based geometry of the streets but also with the design challenges and opportunities associated with the rich permutations of the star-shaped geometry of the fortification walls.


Apparently one late eighteenth-century architect did have such an opportunity. To the west of the central octagonal plaza near the town's marketplace, a charming two-story building was designed in the shape of an octagon. Called the Flag Tower, this quaint missile-shaped building with a curvilinear roof was, in fact, constructed in 1790 on one of the bastions of the fortification walls. Though it obviously echoes the octagonal theme of the city plan, there was certainly an opportunity to make a still richer testament to the strong and challenging geometric order of this old Finnish town. But, once again, intent and the circumstances of the moment must always be weighed in evaluating a creative act.

What is most significant about Hamina from the perspective of Diagonality is the fact that the geometric shape chosen for the street plan of the town occurred at a time when the octagon was beginning to emerge as one of the geometric shapes of choice beyond the time-honored quadrangle. In the century after it was used at Hamina, the octagon rose to a position of architectural preeminence and ultimately led to the flowering of Diagonality in the twentieth century.

Gallery: Ideal Cities 3.4 The Age of Radiance 2.6


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