After the Finnish city was razed to the ground by the German army in the second world war, architect Alvar Aalto rebuilt it to a reindeer-shaped

Then Santa came to town …

The Germans [at the end of the Second World War] destroyed 90% of the town – residents recalled returning to a smoking ruin with just chimney stacks left standing. Pekka Ojala, who runs a B&B and sauna near the city centre, still finds burnt wood and metal in his garden. Outside Rovaniemi is a cemetery for the German war dead that contains the bodies of around 2,500 soldiers.

The ruins of Rovaniemi on 16 October 1944.
The ruins of Rovaniemi on 16 October 1944. © FLHC 72/Alamy

This was the scene of desolation that greeted Aalto when he was commissioned by the Association of Finnish Architects to reconstruct the town in 1945. “He saw the burned town as an opportunity,” says Jussi Rautsi, a former planner and researcher at the Alvar Aalto Foundation. Partly inspired by the US president Franklin Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority, Aalto created a plan for all of Lapland – a land mass as large as Holland and Belgium combined.

Aalto started by rebuilding the city with single housing units designed specifically for the climate in Rovaniemi and Lapland so they had as little north-facing facade as possible, and maximum external exposure to the sun in the south-west. In the 1950s his plan expanded beyond the city to include the entire region.

Aalto factored in hydroelectric plants being built on the great rivers of Lapland, and commissioned impact assessments to see what the effect would be on the environment, indigenous Sami, reindeer herds, water basins and microclimate. “Nobody in the world had done such a plan,” says Rautsi. “It had all spatial levels: regional, entire town, parts of towns, neighbourhoods, even peripheral estates. This was the only plan of this magnitude in the world.”


By 1984, Concorde was bringing visitors to Rovaniemi to see the Arctic Circle. That’s when local entrepreneurs created Santa Claus Village. According to Finnish myth, Santa actually came from Korvatunturi (“Ear Fell”), a rock formation shaped like an ear so Santa can hear the wishes of every child in the world. But Korvatunturi is remote and almost inaccessible: more than 200 miles to the north of Rovaniemi, which already had an airport.