In the mid-1960s, officials at the Indian Ministry of External Affairs received an unusual complaint. A serious threat was stalking the lives of those who worked in the Swedish and Swiss embassies in New Delhi. These workers were under constant stress.

The threat, however, was not of political or human kind. Large cobras had made home in the plot of land between the two embassies on Nyaya Marg in Chanakaypuri. The plot was owned by the government of Finland, but it lay vacant, waiting for construction to begin.

The Nordic nation had established diplomatic relations with India as far back as in 1949. It operated its embassy first from a five-star hotel and then moved a few times. The plan was to construct a new embassy on the Chanakyapuri plot in the early 1960s. Acting on it, the Finnish authorities announced a design competition in 1962. Entries came from far and wide, with the majority focusing on the latest trend in Finnish architecture – prefabricated buildings.

Among the bids was a design from a newly-married couple who had been making waves in Europe for their non-standard work. Raili and Reima Pietilä’s aesthetic plan combined Finnish and Indian architectural elements, placing special focus on the nature of the two countries. Their idea, titled “Snow Speaks on the Mountains”, was to depict snow-capped mountain peaks that were a feature of Finland as well as the Indian Himalayas.

“It is a very gestural title, invoking the language exchange by and between inanimate objects,” architect Dorian Wiszniewski wrote in a paper for the Nordic Journal of Architectural Research titled ‘Reima Pietilä and Gesture in Research-by-Design: The Finnish Embassy in New Delhi’. “The title promotes dialogues between drawing(s) and situations, between Finland and India, between landscape and mountains, between some of the oldest Archean Granites (Helsinki) and most recent Cenozoic sandstones (Delhi).”

Not everyone was convinced with the concept framed by the Pietiläs. The embassy officials in Delhi were keener on a standard building that reflected post-war Finland. They wanted a building that would fit in with the surroundings.

“In Reima Pietilä’s opinion, the Chanakyapuri diplomatic district where the embassy is located was visually too incoherent to provide references for design,” wrote Kristo Vesikansa, editor-in-chief of the Finnish Architectural Review. “Therefore, he designed the building as a ‘landscape sculpture.’”

Despite winning the design competition in 1963, the Pietiläs were not awarded the contract. Instead, the Finnish Embassy picked Lauri Silvennoinen, the pioneer of prefabricated elements in Finland. The project faced delays throughout the 1960s, during which time the Finnish Embassy moved from Prithviraj Road to Golf Links. Meanwhile, the Chanakyapuri plot remained vacant, although Finnish officials did try to remove cobras and the occasional encroachers who came to consume alcohol and drugs. When Silvennoinen died at the age of 47 in 1969, the project was frozen.

Storied career

Losing out on the prestigious New Delhi contract did not deter the Pietiläs from pursuing their architectural vision. Born in 1923 in Turku, Reima Pietilä gained recognition across Europe when one of his designs displayed at the Finnish Pavilion in Expo 58 (1958 Brussels World’s Fair) won an award. Three years later, he established an architecture firm with Raili. The couple got married in 1963, around the time the Finnish Embassy in New Delhi announced the competition.

The 1960s were a busy decade for the Pietiläs. Their most famous design from the period was the Kaleva Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tampere, Finland. One of the uniquest religious structures in the country, the flat-roofed church is surmounted by a bell tower in the shape of a cross and accommodates 1,200 people.

Another famous design of the couple was the Suvikumpu Apartment Block – two buildings of nine stories on wooded grounds, built near World War I trenches. “These buildings were characterised by close contact with nature, bold sculptural forms and tactile details,” Vesikansa wrote.

The couple’s designs continued to attract interest in Finland and abroad in the 1960s and ’70s. In 1969, they were invited to help modernise Kuwait City’s older parts. As part of the project, they designed the Sief Palace extension as well as buildings of the country’s council of ministers and foreign ministry.

In July 1974, the Dubai Municipality invited them to take part in a competition to design the master plan for the Deira Corniche. Their plan called for the creation of artificial bays, islands and lagoons. The futuristic vision may not have resonated with the city’s rulers who probably did not expect Dubai to become what it is today. But the designs are still studied in detail by architecture students in Finland.

Revival project

For nearly two decades after the government of Finland bought land on Nyaya Marg for its embassy, the plot remained vacant, although there were no longer complaints about cobras. When the Finns did finally decide to start construction, they got back in touch with the Pietiläs, who by that time had become famous in their homeland.

“Although the programme had to be completely renewed, the Pietilä couple adhered to the basic concept of their competition entry: low-rise pavilions covered by folded concrete slabs,” Vesikansa wrote.

The embassy was finally ready in December 1986. Hailed as a “masterpiece of Finnish architecture”, it had a single stretch of roof that was segregated into six distinct buildings around a common garden area.

Its canopies, comprising of folded white concrete slabs, represented the snow of Finland and the Himalayas. “These canopies are both practical shelters from rain and sunshine and a metaphor for Finnish landscape, characterised by parallel ridges and fragmented coastlines,” Vesikansa said. “On the other hand, many materials and details, such as the sandstone cladding, bay windows and teakwood grilles, create an association to local building traditions.”

This rare example of Indo-Finnish fusion architecture is a one-of-a-kind building. “If we think of the building in its Indian context, we are between an inside of cool Finnish light and white and an outside of hot Indian tropical greens and pinkish browns,” Dorian Wiszniewski wrote. Indian architectural elements were represented in great measure and blended seamlessly with Finnish precision, he said: “The extraordinary stone pattern emanating from Rajasthan, further east on the same Cenozoic strata in which Delhi sits, which may be compared with some of the amazing fretwork fabrications in the historical city of Jaisalmer, is an exercise in exactness.”

The building suffered significant wear and tear over the next 25 years, thanks to Delhi’s climate and pollution. In 2013, a Finnish architecture firm was hired to renovate the buildings and compound. The renovation, which took five years and was undertaken with an Indian partner, laid great emphasis on the energy efficiency of the buildings. Along with restoring the existing facilities, a small gym and gazebo were added to the compound.

The embassy is considered one of the most important works of Raili and Reima Pietilä, along with the main library in Tampere, Finland, and Mäntyniemi, one of the official residences of the Finnish president.

Reima, who passed away in 1993, believed that all his work had to have a distinct Finnish flavour. Wiszniewski’s paper cites Reima’s words on the importance of the Finnish language in his designs:

“I think in my native language Finnish. I talk whilst I draw – the rhythm and intonation of Finnish govern movements of my pencil. Do I draw in Finnish? My language rhythm influences my drawing shapes, phrases my lines, outlines my surfaces. The local cases and regional vocabulary of the Finnish language are the elements of my genuine way to express topological architecture and space.”  

Raili, who passed away in 2021, donated Reima’s drawings to the Museum of Finnish Architecture after his death. Their daughter Annukka later donated the entire remaining Pietilä archives to the museum, which now houses the designs for the Finnish embassy in New Delhi.

As is the case with many diplomatic missions in Chanakyapuri, the embassy of Finland is more or less a mini version of the country. Along with the consular and chancery section, it houses the ambassador’s residence, staff apartments and the most Finnish of all things – a sauna.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.