Published in 4/2023 - Forest


Editorial 4/2023: Master in the Forest

Kristo Vesikansa

The supplement that came with issue 4/1984 of the Finnish Architectural Review presented the results of the architectural competition for the Official Residence of the President of Finland. In Raili and Reima Pietilä’s first-prize project, the windows resembling tree branches allowed “the forest space to continue into the interior spaces”. 

Reima Pietilä, whose centenary celebration took place in August, is known for his extraordinary lifelong work as a defender of architectural diversity, through the roles of architect, public figure and educator. The history of the Finnish Architectural Review would have also been considerably more barren without Pietilä’s contributions over four decades. He wrote his first published text immediately after graduating as an architect in 1953, and his final interviews were included in the memorial issue of 6/1993. In between, there were numerous texts, from project descriptions to opinion pieces and from essays to book reviews.

However, Pietilä’s relationship with the Finnish Architectural Review was not without tension. When his more pragmatically oriented colleagues wanted to get rid of what were considered tedious theoretical articles in the late 1950s, Pietilä and his friends established the Le Carré Bleu magazine as their platform, publishing it in French. A decade later, Pietilä emerged as the most prominent counterforce to the constructivists who dominated the editorial of the Finnish Architectural Review. Despite differing viewpoints, however, his writings and projects were widely published in the magazine, thanks to the open-mindedness of Editor-in-Chief Kirmo Mikkola. In this issue, Reima Pietilä’s significance is examined by two researchers from different generations. His longtime collaborator, friend and confidant Roger Connah reflects on the matter through his personal experiences, while Moisés Royo analyses the enigmatic architecture of Dipoli.

Reima Pietilä repeatedly emphasized the importance of Finnish forests as a source of inspiration.

During the ongoing celebratory year, the importance of Raili and Reima Pietilä’s architecture as built heritage has received surprisingly little attention, especially as the buildings are currently undergoing their first major renovations. In the context of Finnish architectural history, the Pietiläs’ designs have been seen as special cases, but does their restoration ultimately require a different approach than the rationalist buildings of the same era? On the other hand, one of the main characteristics of the Pietiläs’ architecture was the development of each project from its unique starting point. Does their body of work thus form a coherent oeuvre that should be preserved based on predefined principles? To what extent should restorations consider Pietilä’s own interpretations, which often diverge both among themselves and from preserved documents – and when would it be more justified to let the buildings tell their own stories?

Generally, the Pietiläs’ architecture has stood the test of time quite well. Renovations have taken into account the architectural values of the buildings, and of their major works, only the Finnish Pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, originally intended to be temporary, has been demolished. However, losses have still occurred. The most significant of these is the gradual disappearance of the Kuwaiti Ministry of Foreign Affairs buildings, a loss documented by Thorsten Botz-Bornstein in his book Transcultural Architecture. A much smaller but equally regrettable case is the interior of Brander’s Café in Tampere, demolished in 1984, just a couple of decades after its completion.

Mäntyniemi, the official residence of the President of Finland. The plan was published in the supplement that came with issue 4/1984 of the Finnish Architectural Review.

Paradoxically, the Pietiläs’ last works are the ones that are currently under the greatest threat. For example, the retirement home Himmeli, completed in Pori in 1990, has stood vacant for some time, as plans to transform it into a social services and geriatric centre were abandoned after the nationwide health and social services reform. The ongoing preservation process may ensure the building’s survival but does not resolve the issue of its use. Similarly, the Taikurinhattu daycare centre located on the same site, one of the small gems of the Pietiläs’ career, is in active use but in urgent need of refurbishment.

In his writings and interviews, Reima Pietilä repeatedly emphasized the importance of Finnish forests as a source of inspiration. Pietilä can indeed be seen as a pioneer of a mindset that recognized nature’s intrinsic value on par with that of humans. He emphasized the importance of ecological viewpoints in urban planning as early as the mid-1950s and later introduced concepts such as local architecture, cultural ecology, genius loci and nature architecture. However, it is also important to not exaggerate his pioneering role. The implementation of the Pietiläs’ designs often involved the use of tons of carbon-intensive materials, the lifespan of which is often shorten by typical design errors of their time.

The use of forests has been a highly debated topic in recent political discussions. The different camps have struggled to reach a consensus on whether forests should primarily be seen as carbon reservoirs, raw materials for industry, protectors of biodiversity, building land, or recreational areas. In the articles included in this issue, the question is examined from the perspectives of land use, materials and the nature experience. The featured projects showcase various trends in contemporary timber architecture. They include buildings of different sizes, from summer cabins to multistorey schools that are located in both pristine natural environments and evolving urban areas, as well as technical solutions ranging from traditional log construction to 3D-modelled CLT panels. ↙