Finnish National Theatre’s renovation shows what circularity could mean for the construction industry

Architectural firm aDT has directed the comprehensive project of bringing the theatre’s history into a modern context, taking on matters of sustainability and cultural heritage in the process.
December 21, 2023

The National Theatre stands as an exemplary testament to Finnish architecture. As a mainstay of the country’s cultural life, its stages have seen over a century of performances and architectural expansions, leading to a need for renovations and refurbishments. The first major efforts in that direction were taken in the early 2000s, focusing on the original Main Stage Building. Planning for further renovations of the 1930s warehouse and the 1950s modernist Small Stage Building began in spring 2018, and these have now come to fruition.

Architectural firm aDT has been the one to helm the task of reviving the Theatre’s heritage and bringing it into a new, modern era with the help of thorough renovations and updates to the warehouse, but mainly the Small Stage Building. According to aDT’s co-founder Aki Davidsson, the work has encompassed complexities with the historic architecture alongside what circularity could mean for the construction industry.

The facade of the theatre’s small building.

What are the major changes from before the renovation?

— The theatre has undergone significant transformations with the addition of two new stages, the Sky Stage (Taivassali) and the Paint Shop Stage (Maalaamosali), both situated on the upper floor of the 1950s building. Additionally, the original Small Stage (Pieni näyttämö) has been technically updated and renovated. Street-level enhancements include the café, continuing the tradition of the former theatre restaurant, he says, continuing,

— Collaborating with the Finnish Heritage Agency and Helsinki city authorities, the exterior of the modernist building was restored while still meeting contemporary standards and respecting the original 50s architecture. The theatre’s physical condition has been updated to meet the present requirements, including all technical equipment and systems. Now that the renovation is complete, it will renew and diversify its repertoire with an appreciation for its long national history and support uncompromising artistic work for decades to come.

What has been the most challenging part of this project?

— As with many of our previous projects, the technical update in a listed building posed a significant challenge. Crafting a design solution that aligns with diverse requirements, from usage to cultural heritage, demands time, skill, and endurance. One notable aspect was the renewal of the tiled facades — a painstaking process involving 70,000 tiles individually produced by renowned Finnish ceramists Kati Tuominen-Niittylä and Pekka Paikari.

It’s now often said that ’the most sustainable building is the one already built.’ Would you agree? 

— Yes. Utilising existing buildings is a vital key to mitigating the substantial CO2 impact of the construction industry.  It’s crucial to evaluate each project individually, seeing as many factors have to be considered. 

Is the majority of your work with the restoration and development of existing buildings instead of with new ones? 

— Due to our firm’s almost 40 years of activity, we are specialists in designing and dealing with the problems of listed buildings. Currently, 50-60% of our projects fall in this category. We adhere to strict sustainability thinking and modern guidelines when working with newly built areas.

— We have also recently completed the restoration, refurbishment, and extension of one of Eliel Saarinen’s significant works in Finland — the City Hall of Lahti. This project is a prime example of our design philosophy, which revolves around seamlessly integrating the old with the new.

Looking ahead, what will be the main topic for architecture in 2024? 

— The challenges of implementing circular economy in construction. We are talking a lot about circular economy and its effects and practical ways of doing it, but the discussion of circular economy architecture has been marginal. Our focus is on redefining architecture within a sustainable and circular economy society. What that means for us is a new approach to architecture. For instance with the help of salvaged building parts that seem to be architecturally ’out of place’.