The Lapinlahti former psychiatric hospital stands poised on the edge of Lapinlahti Bay, a naturally beautiful site noted for its richness in biodiversity. Much like the rare butterfly (Depressaria Chaerophylli) that can be found in the area, its future is uncertain, but its history certainly deserves preservation.
The Lapinlahti estate is comprised of several structures, of which the main building was designed by Carl Ludvig Engel, the architect responsible for many of the stately buildings occupying Helsinki’s historic centre.
Of all his buildings it is the one that retains most of its original character, having been left mostly untouched. This, together with its historical significance, explains why the conservation of the building has become a topic of national interest.
The building was completed in 1841, and until 2008 served as Finland’s (and one of Europe’s) oldest and longest functioning mental hospitals. The hospital was built at the initiative of the Grand Duke of Finland, and in many ways was forward-thinking in the approach taken toward mental health.
Not only was it the first hospital in Finland created singularly for psychiatric care, but the natural environment was taken into account when founding the hospital. This was based on the reasoning that it would play a beneficial role in the treatment of the patients, which in those days was quite unconventional.
Dedicating such an expansive and well-cultivated site to the treatment of mental illness (which was still highly stigmatised at the time) was quite unusual. The Lapinlahti estate was significantly larger
Residents at the Lapinlahti hospital have included several note-worthy persons. Aleksis Kivi, who is considered to be the father of Finnish prose, was treated at the hospital in the last years of his life, which sadly seems to have caused far more harm than good. Celebrated composer Jean Sibelius, whose brother Christian was head doctor at Lapinlahti, also stayed there in hiding during the Finnish civil war.
Lapinlahti hospital has survived through several wars, though it was not left untouched. There are visible marks on the red brick walls of the younger Venetsia building, created by the impact of bombs which were dropped during the Second World War.
Today the Venetsia building – so named because of its position at the water’s edge, surrounded on three sides by the bay – houses a Mental museum, dedicated to recalling the hospital’s history. It is an eerily fascinating display, with photos of the children who once resided there, and artefacts such as a straightjacket hung conspicuously in one of the rooms, a vivid reminder of how far we have progressed in the treatment and understanding of illnesses of the mind. The museum is unique – an opportunity to experience an unpolished aspect of Finnish history in a nearly original setting and it is an experience which is certainly different to the norm.
After the psychiatric hospital was relocated to new facilities, the buildings at Lapinlahti fell into abandonment and until 2015 was occupied only by squatters, who left the interior of the Venetsia building in graffiti-scrawled dereliction.
Salvaged from this sad condition, the buildings now house a number of cultural and social activities, and for which it has earned a nomination for the European Heritage Award, which is intended to recognise outstanding achievements in conservation and enhancement of European cultural heritage.
This new sense of purpose can be attributed largely to the activities of the Lapinlahden Lähde, a citizens’ initiative which has championed the cause of making the former hospital a place for the development of social and cultural enterprise and for the benefit of the local community.
Today, the future of the hospital is uncertain, as the city wrangles with the delicate issue of finding the right path forward in light of the many challenges faced in the management and maintenance of the 178-year-old building. An idea competition is underway, out of which it is hoped that a suitable proposition for the use of the property will be found, the result of which is expected later this year.
For the present however, there is much for visitors to see and enjoy. Guided walking tours are available for those wishing to learn more about its history and the evolution of mental healthcare in Finland. Also, in addition to the mental museum there is an art gallery, as well as various shops and eating places.
Maintaining the Lapinlahti hospital area as a centre of wellbeing has been central to the efforts of the current tenants, and it seems quite fitting that the oldest operational public sauna in Helsinki is located there. It is open to the public from Tuesdays to Fridays, and private bookings can also be made. Without doubt, the invigorating effects of the sauna combined with the natural scenic beauty of Lapinlahti can do wonders for anyone’s sense of wellbeing.