The island of Harakka was part of the village of Tölö (or Töölö) until the year 1643, when Queen Kristina transferred the land belonging to Tölö Manor by deed to the City of Helsinki. Throughout the Swedish period, Harakka island was clearly part of Helsinki, although initially there had been plans to build a fortification on the island.

Until the end of the eighteenth century Harakka, like many of the other islands off Helsinki, remained uninhabited. In the mid-eighteenth century, the waters between the islands of Långörn (Särkkä) and Lilla Räntan (Uunisaari) were said to be best in the Helsinki region for Baltic herring. 

About the name of the island

Harakka island is mentioned by name for the first time on a mid-eighteenth century map. On some nineteenth century Swedish maps, the island is called Harakka, on others it’s named Stora Räntan. Since the second half of the nineteenth century it has been commonly known as Harakka. According to the Helsinki Nomenclature Committee, the island was probably given the name Harakka (Magpie) because its shape reminded people of a magpie.

 Nineteenth century military history

After the War of Finland, the Russian government carried out major fortification work at Harakka on the land belonging to Helsinki, until finally the State bought the island and its skerries from the city. The batteries with their guns and the housing on the island are all part of the history of this period. The batteries at Harakka gained their present format in the years between 1878 and 1894. The Nikolai batteries and the casemates (munition and gunpowder stores) which were part of the mortar batteries, were restored in 2000, and are now used by the Cultural Centre and the Environment Centre for exhibitions.

Russian period

Three examples of the timber-built houses that were erected here during the Russian period are still in place today. The buildings date from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The telegraph station is used as an exhibition area during the summer months, the Environment Centre’s Nature House is in the barracks by the sea, and the island’s caretaker lives in the former guardhouse. 

From 1920s to 1950s

In 1922, after World War I, the Finnish State took over control of Harakka in accordance with the Dorpat Peace Treaty. The imposing main building on the island, the Finnish Defence Forces’ chemical test facility, seems to have taken over from the rapidly fading traces of the nineteenth century. The building, designed by the architect Oiva Kallio, was completed in 1929 and is a well-preserved specimen of the 1920s classical style. 

The construction and operations of the chemical test facility is described by Erkki Päiväläinen in his book Kemian Vuodet Harakassa, published in 1988. In 1927, an open architectural competition was launched for the chemical facility. Later that year, Hilding Ekelund and H. Holmberg, as well as Oiva Kallio, were invited to submit plans. Oiva Kallio’s proposal won the competition and, based on his submission, architectural plans for the facility were drawn up in 1928. The military look of the project is likely to have pleased the judges but in the final version of the plan Kallio rejected the empire style, although in most respects he retained the original profile of the façade. In the 1929 building plan, the arched portals are retained, although due to shortage of funds this feature was dropped from the plan for the wings. When the building was finally erected, the portals had been omitted.

In World War II, year 1944, during the bombardment of Helsinki in World War II, Harakka was hit by 13 bombs, which damaged the Nikolai batteries and the building’s main façade facing the sea. The latest building work at Harakka, undertaken in the 1950s, included a concrete bunker, which was used mainly to decommission military equipment.

Recreational area

As part of a land swap between the State and the City, Harakka was returned to the City of Helsinki in 1988. In 1989, Harakka opened its doors to the general public for recreational use, and in the same year the City handed over the main building to be used by the city’s community of professional artists. At present, 26 artists work in the main building (the artists’ house) in studios rented from Cultural Centre.