Published in 1/2024 - The Heart of the City


In Memoriam: Juha Leiviskä (1936–2023) Was Both Expressive and Low Key in His Work

William J. R. Curtis

Juha Leiviskä in the Vallila Library. Photo: Rauno Träskelin

“I believe in the permanency of the basic features of architecture, the so-called eternal values. I do not therefore believe that there has been anything in recent years which could revolutionize the basic tenets of architecture and its central task.” – Juha Leiviskä

The passing of Juha Leiviskä is a loss to the culture of Finnish architecture but also to the world of architecture in general. His architecture emerged from a deep understanding of local climate, society and history, but aspired to a universal dimension cutting through space and time. Leiviskä’s work runs like a silver thread from his formative buildings to his most recent creations. He extended precepts and principles of Alvar Aalto and the contrary values of Aulis Blomstedt into new expressive territories, achieving a synthesis of opposites. Few figures over the past half century have touched the expressive heights of Leiviskä’s churches which fuse light, space and musical rhythms in a sublime synthesis touching the mind and the senses of the observer. Without being ponderously monumental, they establish points of intensity in landscape or city.

But there is also a lower key, almost understated Leiviskä, the architect who endowed buildings like public libraries and universities, social housing and private villas, with a touch of magic through his subtle handling of space, materials, scale and views. Leiviskä was attentive to details of everyday life such as stairs, shelves, ledges, door handles, handrails, tables and chairs. He was a master of transitions between outside and inside, and between one interior and another.

Few figures over the past half century have touched the expressive heights of Leiviskä’s churches.

Leiviskä’s buildings with their overlapping planes and stratified forms resemble abstractions of landscape or luminous forest clearings, while his interlocking voids and abstract plans call to mind the paintings of de Stijl artists like Piet Mondrian and Theo Van Doesburg. His constant touch-stone in the past was the Bavarian Baroque as exemplified by the sublime light and layered surfaces of the Neresheim Monastery Church from the mid-18th century by Balthasar Neumann. For Leiviskä the past was ever present, a fund of knowledge, memories and impressions to be metamorphosed in his own art. He aspired towards what he felt were timeless values in the history of architecture.

Leiviskä constantly compared architecture to music in its structure, multiplicity and articulation of themes. He translated ideas and images into complex unities: polyphonic sequences of high and low volumes experienced over time. Leiviskä often said that he had initially hoped to be a professional pianist but instead became an architect channelling music into another medium and another art form. As it happens several of his buildings provided chambers for performance where musicians and instruments like grand pianos were very much at home. In his churches the vertical striations of organ pipes – sometimes designed by him – harmonized with the stratifications and vertical planes bathed in light. He was fascinated by the idea of the “Gesamtkunstwerk” or “total work of art”, fusing architecture, abstract painting and music, and immersing the visitor in atmosphere. Whole and parts, forms and details, were fused together in perceptible hierarchies.

The work of Juha Leiviskä evades facile historical and critical categories. Over the sixty years of his career, he established a recognizable family of forms, a personal style, but on the basis of this he generated a wide range of buildings each with a unique identity of its own. Some of these have entered the annals of world architecture as masterpieces – one thinks particularly of his Myyrmäki Church at Vantaa (1984) or his Männistö Church at Kuopio (1992) – both distinguished by their sublime fusion of light, sacred space and geometry. But Leiviskä worked up and down the scale from small residences to collective housing, from the German Embassy in Helsinki (1993) to the Dar al-Kalima Academy in Bethlehem (2003), from the Villa Lepola at Espoo (1998) to the Swedish School of Social Sciences in Helsinki (2009). On each occasion he has sought an appropriate character for the human activities enclosed and for the place where the building stands.

Myyrmki Church, Vantaa 1984. Photo: Simo Rista

Leiviskä’s understanding of the role of modern architecture in establishing a vital relationship with the existing is summed up in his own words: “Architecture is closer to music than to the visual arts. To qualify as architecture, buildings together with their internal spaces and their details, must be an organic part of the environment, of its grand drama, of its movement and its spatial sequences. To me a building as it stands ‘as a piece of architecture’ is nothing. Its meaning comes only in counterpoint with its surroundings, with life and with light.”

Architecture speaks its own language in silence, touching the mind and the senses directly through the impact of space, form, light, material and an underlying sense of order. Writing about Dante, the English poet T.S. Eliot asserted that genuine poetry communicates before it is understood; perhaps the same can be said of genuine architecture? 

I first entered the world of Juha Leiviskä by accident in the summer of 1991 while visiting the Lutheran Church at Nakkila (1937) by Erkki Huttunen as part of a tour after the Alvar Aalto Symposium. The church was from the so-called functionalist period and possesses an impressive abstract tower which dominates the landscape. Intrigued by the low volumes of the adjacent Parish Centre, I wandered inside and was immediately captivated by the lucid atmosphere of the interior space with its white wooden slats activated by daylight. This humble building, without pomp or show, so appropriate to a Lutheran congregation, radiated tranquillity through its rhythms, voids and intervals. I later learned that the building had been compared to a piece of chamber music. 

But I had no idea who the architect was or when the building was designed. I was informed that the architect was a certain Juha Leiviskä and that the building was designed twenty-five years earlier. It was suggested that I should make a point of visiting his Myyrmäki Church near Helsinki before leaving Finland. I did so, was overwhelmed by the sublime light and vibrant space, and was convinced that it was a masterpiece. I remember visiting the place with Balkrishna Doshi, the Indian architect, who was also overwhelmed and said: “Why is it that we do not know more about this architect? It is so much better than most of what is going on.”

“Why is it that we do not know more about this architect? It is so much better than most of what is going on.”

Through writing on Finnish architecture and also Leiviskä’s projects, I gradually got to know Juha personally in this period and feel in retrospect that it is a pity that some of these conversations, including ones by telephone, were not recorded for they revealed his piercing architectural insights, his puckish sense of humour, and his obsession with music. He came back time and again to the importance of experiencing buildings on their sites and urban spaces. Even late in life he was haunted by memories of his childhood in Tampere, the city’s special topography, and the rural buildings in the surrounding areas, especially the farms with their barns and animal pens defining accretion of spaces with fences and poles: configurations which one rediscovers abstracted in his own buildings. Then there were student travels with Professor Nils Erik Wickberg which led him to another obsession, the spatial intensity and sublime control of reflected daylight in the Bavarian Baroque. 

I have a vivid memory of visiting Leiviskä’s Vallila Library (1991) with Leiviskä, and being struck by the restrained way that it was inserted into a context of old wooden houses, while still exploring overlapping geometrical and structural themes of great complexity – with subjacent memories of the Late Baroque Library Hall in Schussenried Abbey, mid-18th century, by the Zimmerman brothers. I was intrigued by Leiviskä’s way of sketching ideas as rapidly executed diagrams summing up the core intentions of a scheme and its basic spatial ideas. Physical models were crucial in studying both urban and rural contexts. 

In the mid-nineties Juha came to France where I live and gave a rambling talk on his work at the Societé Française des Architectes in Paris, lacing it with his usual free association sense of humour which was somewhat lost in translation on his over serious audience. Several of us were lucky enough to have rare access to Le Corbusier’s Maisons Jaoul (1954). Juha savoured every moment, spending a long time studying the wooden fenestration system and the manner in which Le Corbusier placed stairs in space. Stairs and steps were among his obsessions and of course we came back time and again to the masterly stairs of Aalto’s Villa Mairea (1938) with their flanking vertical struts setting up a foreground to the tree trunks of the forest in the background and that miraculous curved bottom step turning the descending human figure and anticipating the biomorphic geometry of the pool in front of the sauna outside. Leiviskä had an eye which remembers, constantly observing, absorbing, analysing, transforming. 

Fast forward to November 2020 when I received a message from Juha and Elina Standertskjöld, explaining that they were organizing a book on the works from 2000 onwards: would I like to contribute a text? I replied positively with great enthusiasm and explained that my idea would be to explore the basic principles and long-term themes of Leiviskä’s architecture. During the awful Covid period when we were putting together this monograph Juha Leiviskä 2000–2022, all the contributors worked at a distance by Skype and email.

Dar Al-Kalima Academy, Betlehem 2005. Photo: Jari Heikkinen

The one building that Juha Leiviskä designed outside Finland was the Dar al-Kalima Academy in the Old City of Bethlehem: a cultural institution fostering social activities in the Palestinian community but open to all. Leiviskä conceived this as sort of urban landscape of terraces and skylights skilfully attuned to the stone buildings and the local climate which required shade and protection against the sun. Juha himself referred to the project in moving terms: “On a personal, emotional level, it is perhaps my most important achievement. I left my heart in Palestine.”

In recent months I considered on several occasions the possibility of coming to Finland to visit Juha but every time his health seemed more delicate. I learned that he was thrilled with the newest book. Meanwhile war had once again broken out in Israel and Palestine. When I was told that he was in hospital I addressed him and several other Finnish friends a letter entitled “Architectures of Peace and Reconciliation”. It was read out to him several days before the end. The last part of the letter was as follows:

And so my dear friend Juha we come to your marvellous building in Bethlehem the Dar al-Kalima Academy… more than just a building it is a piece of city and a social landscape conceived in a spirit of peace and exchange. Soft light, honey coloured stone, the whispering of pine trees, the aura of an ancient Biblical site.

And it works, it brings people of diverse backgrounds together for all sorts of cultural events in a tranquil setting with terraces and views onto the old city and the surrounding landscape.

But so far, I have not been able to experience it first-hand. I very much wish to, but can only imagine the strange atmosphere of the occupied West Bank, the walls, the barbed wire, the checkpoints of an occupied territory.

Even so, architecture can contribute to the well-being of a society and that is what I think you have succeeded in doing in this case dear Juha as in so many other cases in Finland.

In recent months I have enjoyed going through the projects in our book, walking through the drawings as you would say.

Keep well and hopefully we can meet again soon.


WILLIAM J. R. CURTIS is a historian, critic, painter and photographer and Juha Leiviskä’s friend.

The Finnish Architectural Review published a special issue on Juha Leiviskä in 2004. Read the issue →