The work-filled and hectic years as the sole architect of Helsinki around 1816–25 left Engel little time for projects outside the capital. Therefore, the Observatory for the University of Turku designed in 1816 was a somewhat exceptional assignment.
It is likely that the simple cross plan with an apsis at the end is a variation of the Observatory in Stockholm (Carl Hårleman, 1753). The need for an observatory was stated already in the 1770’s while still under the Swedish rule. The observatory was to be placed as high as possible for which the solid rock hill of Vartiovuori offered a fine location.
Engel would have placed the building so that the round form of the tower would have provided the town with a pleasant and characteristic view. However, the professor of physics, Gustaf Hällström requested that the tower would face south for operational reasons.
The building represents Engel’s ideas of functional beauty and his impressive sensitivity for decorum, or what is appropriate. As a building designed to serve a rational and scientific purpose, the observatory manifests its function with smooth walls enriched only by simple decorative profiles.
The building served its original purpose for only a bit over 10 years. In 1827, a raging fire dramatically destroyed the central parts of Turku. The observatory was one of the few buildings saved but as the university lost its main buildings, the Russian emperor Nicholas I found enough reason to move the entire Turku Academy to the new capital, Helsinki.
The university’s astronomer Friedrich Argelander used the Turku observatory until the new one in Helsinki was completed in the late 1830’s. Between 1836 and 1967, the Turku observatory accommodated the Swedish Maritime School. For some years after, the building served as a museum. In 2007, the building was purchased by Åbo Akademi University Foundation to function as their headquarters.
text: Kati Winterhalter