The architectural heritage of South Karelia

The landscape

Present-day South Karelia is made up of ten municipalities (Imatra, Lappeenranta, Lemi, Luumäki, Parikkala, Rautjärvi, Ruokolahti, Savitaipale, Suomenniemi and Taipalsaari) which geographically form part of the southeastern fringe of Lakeland Finland.  At one extreme of this varied landscape lies the southeastern agricultural zone, whilst to the north, by way of contrast, can be found the lake districts of Savo and Savonselkä and the municipalities of Greater Saimaa.  As a result of great variation in the basic features of the natural environment, South Karelia’s cultural landscape is rich in subtle diversity and marked by significant local differences.


The farmhouse

The 19th century farmhouse in South Karelia was a basic timber-built entity consisting of a through-porch, one main room and two bedrooms.  Cattle sheds, rows of granaries, storehouses and a sauna flanked the farmhouse courtyard. Any outside influences were absorbed but slowly and, to begin with, could be discerned only in the smallest details of the buildings.

However,  at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, fresh stimuli arrived with the urban construction of the day. Examples would include the way that buildings were boarded or panelled in order to imitate the Empire style so prevalent in towns at that time, whilst in the 1920s  the exterior of the farmhouse took on many features of the Classicism typical of that period. Also around that time, as a consequence of the Land Reform Act of 1918 (which sought to address the problem of a landless rural population), many new small-holdings were created. Standardised blueprints were drawn up for the buildings, and the mansard roof which gained popularity in the 1920s was considered an introduction to the countryside of urban styles.  The postwar reconstruction period also introduced into the rural landscape the one-and-half-storey standardized dwellings.

A traditional South Karelian farmhouse with its courtyard and outbuildings can be seen in Suomenniemi at the Lyytikkälä Museum Farm.


War monuments and garrison buildings

Throughout history, South Karelia has almost always straddled borders, so the area is rich with war and battle monuments such as fortresses, fortifications and border signs from across the centuries. Following the Treaty of Uusikaupunki (Nystad) in 1721, Sweden was forced to cede its former fortifications, such as the fortresses of Vyborg and Käkisalmi, to Russia. Founded in 1649, Lappeenranta became a Swedish border town and construction work commenced to fortify the town against the Russians. In 1741, the Russians conquered the town, and in the Peace of Turku in 1743, all areas east of the Kymijoki river, including Savitaipale and Savonlinna, were ceded to Russia and attached to the so-called Old Finland. Russia continued the fortification work in the region, eventually creating a chain of fortifications in South Karelia that consists of the fortress and fortifications of Lappeenranta, Taavetti, Partakoski, Kärnäkoski and Järvitaipale.

Fortified defences  from both World War I and World War II also remain in the area. Trenches from World War I and also from the Finnish Civil War of 1918 are found, for example,  in Lemi, Joutseno  and Ruokolahti.  Impressive sections of the Salpalinja fortifications, which date from World War II and run the length of the eastern frontier, can also be seen here. They consist of machine-gun positions, tank traps, trenches and gun placements. The Salpalinja fortifications can be seen in Luumäki.

Over the course of many centuries the town of Lappeenranta,  in particular,  has witnessed the growth of a garrison settlement which today represents many different  phases of historical development.  The oldest is represented by the buildings of the Fortress itself which were gradually constructed from the end of the 18th century to the beginning of the 20th, and by the Finnish Reserve Company buildings in Huhtiniemi dating from 1882 – 84.

The buildings in Lappenranta’s Rakuunanmäki date back to the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. Those in Opistonmäki, on the other hand, were built between the 1930s and today. The most significant garrison outside of Lappeenranta was built in Immola, in the current location of Imatra. It is a 1930s modern, functionalist garrison area of Airport number 6, built for an air force regiment. The history of the garrisons and fortresses situated in the border region can be explored in the following museums: the South Karelia Museum, the Cavalry Museum, the Fortress and Local History Museum in Luumäki, and the Border Museum.


The Saimaa Canal

Vyborg and Lake Saimaa are separated by a 50 km wide isthmus. Therefore it is not surprising that, from early on, visionaries had schemes for striking a canal from Saimaa shore to Vyborg Bay.  The first attempt to build a canal was made in 1499 -1510 by Eerik Tuurenpoika Bielke. The so-called Pontus Canal (excavations begun by Pontus de la Gardie can still be seen) to the east of the present canal is a reminder of another attempt in 1607-1608; this was not actually built until 1845-56 and sections of it still remain in the Lappeenranta district.  In all, the canal was 36 km long and equipped with 28 locks constructed of granite, and with wooden lock gates.  This new, updated canal was finally completed in 1963 – 68.

Special attention was paid to the canal environment which was planted with beautiful flower arrangements along its entire length whilst houses for lock-keepers and the director of the canal company, adjoining outbuildings and offices were also built. The history of the Saimaa Canal can be further explored in the Saimaa Canal Museum.


The industrial environment

Thanks to its excellent waterways links and plentiful forest resources, South Karelia was able to develop a solid saw mill and wood processing industry.

In the mid-19th century, the most important industrial plants in Lappeenranta were saw mills, mills, docks, distilleries and the limestone quarry in Ihalainen.

After the completion of the Saimaa Canal industrial development really accelerated.  By the end of the 19th century, the most important industrial centres were the Lappeenranta and Lauritsala regions, Honkalahti in Joutseno, Imatra and, later on, Simpele. With industrialisation came the problem of housing  the workforce, a problem which was tackled on the one hand by the provision of company housing, and on the other by independent house building. These measures gave birth to tenement blocks of which only remnants can be seen today.  Among the most homogeneous are the houses designed by W. G. Palmqvist in Lappeenranta’s Kanavansuu, and the areas in Kupari (Imatra), Lättälä and Insinööriniemi. As industrial development progressed other so-called independent suburbs were built.  In Lappeenranta these included the suburbs of Tykki and Hakali.

The history of the woodworking and paper industry features at the Factory Museum in Kaukaa whereas the Industrial Workers’ Housing Museum provides an insight into the living conditions of the industrial working class of the time.


Kaija Kiiveri-Hakkarainen

Updated by Miikka Kurri 10/2012

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