Revisit: Lehtovuori House
Architect Olli Lehtovuori’s own house has for already half a century served as a laboratory for residential architecture. Its flexible floorplan based on a traditional two-room farmhouse would be applicable even today.
This series visits sites previously published in the Finnish Architectural Review and looks at how they have stood the test of time.
Finnish Architectural Review 7/1970
When walking around the low-rise residential area of Länsi-Pakila, one can easily miss the single-storey detached house along the street Sysimiehentie. One side of the corner plot is bounded by a high wooden fence and the other side by light-coloured wing buildings. In between them, one can catch a glimpse of one of the gems of 1970s architecture, the Domino house designed by architect Olli Lehtovuori for his family.
Lehtovuori, who turns ninety this year, greets me in the front yard, which is dominated by a large cherry tree. He has had a long career as a town planner, architect, teacher of housing design and civil servant at the National Housing Board and the Ministry of the Environment. Lehtovuori has also written numerous books and articles about residential architecture, curated exhibitions and formulated new models for dwelling.
The originally flat-roofed building later received a hipped roof with long eaves, but on entering the house one feels as if one has travelled back in time half a century. The interior has remained almost unchanged, down to the plastic-impregnated wood parquet flooring, light switches and other details. When looking at old photos, one notices how even many of the pieces of furniture and artworks are still in the same places as when the house was completed.
The Legacy of the “Paritupa”
Seated by the dining table, Lehtovuori talks about the design of the house and the ideas behind it. He describes the building as a laboratory, with the help of which he has studied residential architecture for five decades. For example, Lehtovuori utilised its dimensions when drafting new building regulations at the Ministry of the Environment in 1994.
The Lehtovuori family used to live in Lauttasaari in a rented apartment, which became small as the family grew. Due of the high price of dwellings in apartment buildings and the low availability of rental accommodation, he ended up building a detached house. In the late 1960s, Lehtovuori acquired an affordable plot of land in Länsi-Pakila and started planning a house for his family. At the same time, he wanted to develop a prototype that would be more suitable for low-rise housing construction.
Lehtovuori took as his starting point the spatial layout of Finnish farmhouses and tried to apply them to industrially-produced housing construction. He calls his home the first modern “paritupa house” in Finland: the spacious living room, study and bedrooms are located at either end of the building, and with a bathroom, sauna, storage rooms and a kitchen-dining area between them. The red and white colouring also refers to the rural building tradition.
Later, in his role as a civil servant, Lehtovuori encouraged other private home builders to use a floor plan based on the traditional two-room farmhouse. The concept was applied, for example, in the Kerava house presented at the housing fair in 1974 in Kerava, in the Asunki group houses at the housing fair in Oulu (1976) and in the low-rise rental houses in Petonen in Kuopio (1990, 1992).
Lehtovuori arranged the rooms in the house in an atypical way in terms of orientation: on the south side are only the narrow upper windows of the sauna and washroom and one of the living room windows, while the room-height windows of the kitchen-dining area face northwards. He explains that the rooms stay cool even on hot summer days, and from the dining table one can conveniently see guests arriving in the front yard.
The influences of vernacular architecture can also be seen in the placement of the buildings on the plot. Like farmhouses of Western Finland, the front yard was originally bordered by two “sheds” with a roof between them, which functioned as a shelter for cars rather than farm animals. Another fenced yard is situated to south of the main house, and a lush garden covers the western part of the plot.
Structural Frame Erected in a Day
Lehtovuori built his house using the Domino prefabricated building system, which his acquaintances, architect Raimo Kallio-Mannila and engineer Teuvo Koivu, had developed a few years earlier. In architectural research, the Domino system has been overshadowed by the Moduli system designed at around the same time by Kristian Gullichsen and Juhani Pallasmaa, even though its potential uses were much wider. Domino elements were used to build detached houses, summer cottages, day-care centres, low-rise apartment buildings, shops and restaurants, and by the end of the 1970s there were hundreds of such buildings both in Finland and abroad.
Lehtovuori claims to have “tamed” the modular structural system. Domino’s basic unit was a 2.4 x 4.8 m structural frame, which consisted of steel-wood roof and floor panels and 40 x 40 mm steel columns placed in the corners. Depending on the location, there are thus one to four columns at the intersections of the modular grid. Buildings of different sizes and shapes could be assembled from the frames, just like in a game of dominoes.
Lehtovuori väittää ”kesyttäneensä” modulaarisen rakennejärjestelmän. Dominon perusyksikkö oli 2,4 x 4,8 m kokoinen rakennekehä, joka koostui teräs-puurakenteisista ylä- ja alapohjaelementeistä ja kulmiin sijoitetuista 40 x 40 mm teräspilareista. Moduuliruudukon risteyskohdissa on siten sijainnista riippuen yhdestä neljään pilaria. Kehistä voitiin koota erikokoisia rakennuksia dominopelin tavoin.
The key innovation of the system was the socket joint between the columns and the horizontal panels, which enabled quick construction. Lehtovuori states that the frame of his house was erected in a single day. The load-bearing columns are mostly hidden inside the walls, but Lehtovuori left a few of them visible as a reminder of the structural principle.
When the frame structure was in place, the exterior wall panels were attached to the floor and roof panels with screws. Five different types of panels were used in the house: blank, fully or partially glazed, and those with external doors. As is typical of the Finnish Constructivist architecture of the time, the blank sections are covered on the outside with narrow horizontal boarding, and the openings contain small-pane windows. The inside is lined with pine panelling.
The Domino system did not allow the load-bearing structure to be visible in the facade, but a representation of the structural grid was outlined on the facades by means of vertical strips, indicating the place of the columns as well as the horizontal fascia boards. The solution contradicted the principles of Constructivism, but it has made Domino buildings more durable than other lightweight “stick houses” of that time.
Lehtovuori tells how he initially had reservations about the lightness of the structural system, but his fears turned out to be unfounded. Describing life in the newly completed house in the Finnish Architectural Review in 1970, he states: “For us, the Domino shell is a cubic envelope that protects us from the worst of nature yet ‘breathes’ and comfortably allows through the sounds of the rain.”
To counterbalance the shell assembled from prefabricated parts, the interior has many hand-crated details, some of which are Lehtovuori’s own work. He proudly presents pine panelling made by carpenter Oiva Ojamäki and kitchen furniture drawn by interior designer Lars Gestranius.
typanelointia ja sisustusarkkitehti Lars Gestraniuksen suunnittelemia keittökalusteita.
An Expanding House
The building has served the needs of the family for five decades, but now the 135 m2 house has become too large for a widower. Lehtovuori took into account the possibility of dividing the building into two apartments already in the planning stage by equipping it with two entrances. Adaptability was in any case a key objective when designing the house.
Lehtovuori outlined, for instance, the possibility of extending the building towards the front yard with two small side dwellings. The idea was implemented in a slightly different form in the early 1980s, when he built two small houses, of 39 m2 and 46 m2 respectively, in place of the original outbuildings for his growing-up children. The layout of these two buildings is also an application of the traditional “paritupa” dwelling. As a counterbalance to the lightweight Domino house, their outer walls are made of lightweight concrete blocks.
Over the years, Lehtovuori has also built a smoke sauna and other yard buildings on the plot. He is especially proud of the Grape Vine House, which stands next to a small pond, and which he considers his most successful design work. The archetypal structure with a translucent roof serves as a greenhouse, a workroom and a place to sleep during the summertime, in other words, an urban summer house.
It is easy to fall in love with the 1970s atmosphere and authentic details of Lehtovuori House, but what lessons does it offer for today’s housing design? At least the building proves that a low-rise house can be more than simply the private universe of the nuclear family.
The problem of low-rise housing areas like Pakila is the lack of diversification in the housing stock and the resulting social homogeneity. If clusters of different sized dwellings were to be built among the middle-class family dwellings, then the obvious advantages of low-rise houses, such as a spacious dwelling and a private garden, would become accessible to more people and the areas would diversify. ↙
, pientaloasumisen ilmeiset edut, kuten väljät asunnot ja oma puutarha, tulisivat useampien saavutettaviksi ja alueiden asukaskanta moninaistuisi. ↙
Anna-Mikaela Kaila: Moduli 225. Modernin arkkitehtuurin helmi. Aalto Arts Books 2016.
Raimo Kallio-Mannila & Teuvo Koivu: ”DOMINO elementtijärjestelmä”, Finnish Architectural Review 1/1968.
Olli Lehtovuori: ”Omakohtaisia kokemuksia pientalojärjestelmästä”, Finnish Architectural Review 7/1970.
Pirjo Pennanen-Kaila ym. (eds.): Suomalainen pientalo. Suomen rakennustaiteen museo 1986.
”Talo Lehtovuori”, Finnish Architectural Review 7/1970.
Olli Lehtovuori’s interview 2022.