2 / 2014 - alvar aalto, modernism repaired

Are we protecting Aalto to death? This is what Aalto researcher and Yale University Professor Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen asks. She warns us about unnecessary sterilisation and turning buildings into empty museums. When the protection of buildings is taken to extremes, instead of remembering our history, it can cause us loss of memory. Pelkonen reflects upon the criteria that set Aalto’s buildings above other endangered architecture. “Aalto primarily designed buildings with the user in mind. Let them be filled with life.” Architects Sirkkaliisa Jetsonen and Jonas Malmberg also write about Aalto’s legacy and its significance today.

The history of modernism is regarded from various points of view. Italian professor Silvia Micheli writes about Erik Bryggman, ‘the architect of Turku’, and defines his role in relation to Aalto. Film director Jari Halonen criticises modernism saying that architecture should not just be about creating more clarity, especially in Finland where there is plenty of space and things are, on the whole, in good order. “Our aesthetic tradition is markedly cold and forbidding. It begs the question, how much true happiness has an Alvar Aalto house ever brought anybody?”

The issue presents renovations of modern architecture. The Viipuri Library, an outstanding work from Aalto’s early career, and the Helsinki House of Culture from his redbrick period have been meticulously repaired. Emanating the faith in the future felt in the 1960s, the Sampola School in Tampere has been renovated to an art oriented high school. An Art Nouveau hotel in Hanko that was ‘modernised’ in the 1960s has now been refurbished respecting the original architecture.


Three experts look at Alvar Aalto's built heritage from different perspectives. Sirkkaliisa Jetsonen and Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen have written books on Aalto, and Jonas Malmberg works at the Alvar Aalto Foundation Architectural Heritage Department. Here below is Pelkonen's article.

Preserving Aalto to Death?

After listening to my presentation on Alvar Aalto at a major midwestern university in the United States a few years ago, a distinguished American professor of architectural history and theory came up with a question I was quite unprepared for: “Are all Aalto buildings worth preserving?” The question took me by surprise; after all, wouldn’t everybody – especially an architectural historian – consider buildings by a modern master like Aalto worth saving for future generations?

As the conversation continued, I figured out the subtext to that question. To a promoter of a more global perspective on architecture like himself, Aalto embodied all that was wrong with the 20th century architecture culture: a focus on Western Europe and the national patrimonies of the individual countries in that region, at the expense of the rest of the world. Preservation, from such a perspective, can be seen as a guardian of a rather limited and insular viewpoint not only of architectural history but of the world at large. After all, there must be important historical buildings and sites in danger of decay and destruction everywhere in the world but nobody seems to be concerned about their fate.

The professor in question certainly despises the attention given to celebrity architecture in general, which has led architects to shy away from addressing larger social and political issues. Indeed, who in their right frame of mind would care about preserving Villa Tugendhat, for example, when there are people lacking basic services and shelter all around the world? One could well continue to argue that preservation tends to focus exclusively on the aesthetic and material aspects of buildings at the expense of the political and social narratives that many buildings and sites witness during their lifetimes. On the whole, therefore, preservation can be criticized for keeping insular western values in their place, for hindering people from seeing beyond their own backyards into the wider world, and for a kind of historical whitewashing by turning buildings into timeless neutral objects. Just in the same way as preserving the fruits of the summer, preserving buildings is aimed at preventing the natural ageingprocess by insulating them from time. A preserved building looks exactly as if it had been built yesterday.

The professor was not the first to be suspicious of preservation and preservationists. In his book Architecture and Disjunction (1996) Bernard Tschumi famously observes how “Those who in 1965 visited the then derelict Villa Savoye certainly remember the squalid walls of the small service rooms on the ground floor, stinking of urine, smeared with excrement, and covered with obscene graffiti. Not surprisingly, the long campaign to save the threatened ‘purity’ of the Villa Savoye doubled in intensity in the months that followed, and finally succeeded.”1 He laments the loss of life, obscenities and all.

Rem Koolhaas echoed Tschumi in his 2004 exhibition Chronocaos, which he curated in collaboration with his partner Shohei Shihamatsu, by putting forward an apocalyptic view of clueless preservationists striving obsessively to preserve celebrity architecture, sterilizing and anaesthetising buildings and whole urban districts for the benefit of wealthy inhabitants and the tourist industry, without any concern for either the local population or the historical memory particular to that site. In his trademark provocative manner, Koolhaas thus pointed out the ultimate paradox of preservation; in its attempt to preserve history it actually ends up producing historical amnesia. Rather than remembering the past, the result is actually the opposite: creating a distance between past and present.

The Herculean efforts to save the Viipuri Library (1935), spearheaded by a group of Finnish architects, could be used to illustrate Koolhaas’ point. Liisa Roberts’ beautiful documentary “What’s the Time in Vyborg?” shown at the 2000 Whitney Biennial poignantly demonstrates the historical amnesia affecting both Finnish and Russian stakeholders. At one point, the film crew follows retired Finns visiting their old homesteads, being shown around by young tour guides who have not even the slightest clue that Vyborg was once a part of Finland, let alone the significance of the building itself. For the former occupants, the library and the city are rooted in the pre-war period while for the city's contemporary Russian residents the building is a part of their daily lives, the Soviet Union and subsequently the Russian Federation having been the building's owner for the past seventy years or so. The incongruity of past and present does not come as any surprise; after the area was ceded to the Soviet Union at the end of the Fenno-Russian Continuation War of 1941–44 both the building and the city itself were off-limits for foreigners, the place only existing in the memory of the now elderly former residents of the city. Some Aalto literature even goes so far as to state that the building was in fact destroyed during WWII.2

At the beginning of the preservation project the library was found to be in almost complete decay. Certainly the Soviet era had not been kind; leaking roofs and missing windows had exposed the building to the elements. By the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union the building had not functioned as a library for many years. Alterations had not all been faithful to the original design. Indeed, the restoration efforts could be compared to bringing a dead person back to life. Returning the building to its 1930s glory certainly implies a political subtext.

Other recently restored Aalto buildings share the same dilemma between past glory and contemporary reality. Aalto’s National Pensions Institute building (1956), once visited on a daily basis by hundreds of elderly people applying for and collecting their social security benefits, no longer serves that purpose, since most business can now be conducted online. The main hall, the most prominent space of the building, which originally housed the client consultation booths, now stands more or less empty. Many other programmatic changes have also taken place since the 1950s. The gardens that were initially accessible to the public are now out of reach, behind locked gates. In addition, the building which was once occupied by 700 people at its peak in 1957, now houses only a few hundred. As a result, a building once buzzing with life stands currently half empty, a monument to its architect.

Similar destinies have befallen Maison Louis Carré (1959) and Aalto’s own house in Riihitie (1936): no longer serving their original functions, respectively as a private home/gallery and a home/office, both buildings have been turned into destinations for architectural tourists. These examples make one wonder: what are we preserving when we preserve architecture? Are we saving them for architectural tourists or do we still believe that the buildings have the power to engage and activate life?

The bottom line is that buildings only survive if they are in active and meaningful use. If one takes the long view when considering the history of architecture, architecture has never been frozen in time. The Pantheon has survived to the present day only because it was converted into a church. I recently visited the Cathedral of Siracuse, in Sicily, that has similarly served several different religious communities during some 3000 years; built originally as a Greek temple, it was later turned into a mosque and subsequently a Christian church. These different occupants have each recycled and reused parts of the existing building while at the same time imprinting their own architectural stamp: Classical, Romanesque, Arabic, Baroque. The building's beauty and uniqueness are what emerges from this mix.

Please don't get me wrong; I still believe that all Aalto buildings should be worth preserving. They are great buildings and we can learn from them. I love to visit them as often as I can – the spaces make me happy. I simply want to warn against sterilizing them and emptying them of life and function. Unlike some of his contemporaries (think Le Corbusier) Aalto designed buildings with the user in mind. Let them be filled with life.


1 Bernard Tschumi: Architecture and Disjunction. MIT Press, 1994. p. 73.

2 This misinformation was first published in Karl Fleig: Alvar Aalto. Complete Works. Artemis, 1970–1978, and subsequently in Malcolm Quantill: Alvar Aalto. A Critical Study. Schocken books, 1983.

Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen is Professor at Yale School of Architecture and researches the theories related to the origins and preception of form.


architects Marja-Riitta Norri, Irma Verhe, Ilkka Andersin, Reeta-Maria Laine, Tuuli Kassi
address Torikatu 2, Merikatu 1, Hanko
gross area 2 665 m2 + 2 420 m2
completion 2012 (new apartment building 2011)
original building Lars Sonck 1900

review Miia Perkkiö

Photos: The original hotel in 1900, Hotel Regatta before and after repair and the new apartment building in 2012.

Erik Bryggman, "the architect of Turku", has been overshadowed by his friend Alvar Aalto in history writing.

Erik Bryggman is one of the chief protagonists of modern architecture in Finland. Many of his works such as the Turku Cemetery chapel (1941) are renowned also at the international level. Despite the recent research on Bryggman’s architecture the architect’s work has remained without an overall interpretation in the history of Finnish architecture.

This is partly due to the wide attention given to Alvar Aalto, whose work garnered much international acclaim. But as argued by Kyösti Ålander in 1956, Aalto represents “a good example of Finnish architecture, a brilliant exponent, but not typical”.1 In an article published a year later, Reyner Banham seemed to develop Ålander’s view, questioning the idea that Aalto can be given full responsibility for the success of Modern Finnish architecture.2 It was also Aulis Blomstedt, Pauli E. Blomstedt, Elsi Borg, Erik Bryggman, Aarne Ervi, Hilding Ekelund, Erkki Huttunen, Yrjö Lindegren, Oiva Kallio, Otto I. Meurman, Viljo Revell, Uno Ullberg and Martti Välikangas who contributed to make Finnish architecture worthy of note within the European scene during the first part of the 20th century – a view that even Aalto shared as a general understanding of Finnish architectural culture at that time.3

Decades have passed since the publication of these interpretations and Aalto’s enlightening experience is now recognised as a distinctive episode, but the contribution of some of the ‘other’ Finnish architects is still hidden in the folds of history. Although Bryggman and Aalto shared some common roots, the analysis of Bryggman’s ouvre offers the opportunity to reconsider the history of modern Finnish architecture through specific themes, presenting the historical context from another perspective.

Collaboration of Aalto and Bryggman

Erik Bryggman (1891–1955) graduated from the Helsinki University of Technology in 1916 and Alvar Aalto (1898–1976) in 1921. Both young architects had experienced Armas Lindgren’s vision of architecture: Bryggman collaborated with him between 1921 and 1923, whereas Aalto was his student at university. Bryggman toured in Italy in 1920 and Aalto in 1924. They both visited central Europe at the end of 1920s and were fascinated by the work of the Swedish architects Gunnar Asplund and Sven Markelius.

In June 1927, after receiving first prize for the competition of the Finnish Agricultural Cooperative (1929), Aalto moved from Jyväskylä to Turku, where Bryggman had already opened his own practice in 1924. As soon as the young Aalto arrived in Turku, he was intrigued by the personality of Bryggman. Göran Schildt pointed out that “Bryggman was the only architect of equal stature with whom Aalto worked during his whole life. No doubt the explanation partly lies in Bryggman’s tactfulness and his charmingly bohemian attitude to life, which appealed to Aalto”.4 Aalto himself expressed his admiration for his colleague, recognising his influence at a national level.5

Bryggman and Aalto never worked in the same office, although this did not prevent them from tackling some fundamental issues together in such a decisive moment for the development of modern architecture in Finland. They animated the debate on funktionalismi and activated the process of revision of the architectural language used during the period of Nordic Classicism. Their affinity of intentions emerges from the similar architectural solutions adopted in the projects for the Suomi Ltd building (1929) designed by Bryggman and the Turun Sanomat building (1930) by Aalto. They often took part in the same competitions, setting up a healthy rivalry, but also worked together, as on the staging of the Turku fair (1929), as well as cooperated on the Minimum Apartment Exhibition in the Helsinki art hall (1930). The pavilions of the Turku fair, with their smooth aesthetic and prefabricated timber elements, represent the culmination of three years of intense collaboration destined to radically innovate the way architecture was conceived in Finland.

Despite the successful architectural results achieved in Turku, Aalto decided to move back to Helsinki in 1933. In point of fact, during the years spent in Turku, Aalto did not receive many private assignments – Aalto’s buildings in and around Turku, such as the Finnish Agricultural Cooperative and the Paimio Sanatorium (1933), were mostly the outcome of national competitions. In 1932, Aalto’s office had to endure difficult economic conditions resulting from the 1929 financial crisis that had also affected Finland.6 In these same years, in contrast, Bryggman received substantial private assignments in the Turku region including Villa Solin (1929), Hotel Seurahuone (1928), the funerary chapel of Parainen (1930), and Villa Warén (1933). While Aalto’s move to Helsinki was certainly motivated by his ambition to establish bonds with more powerful industrial clients,7 it was also due to the difficulty of carving out an appropriate professional position in Turku, a city that developed a consolidated trust in Bryggman’s work.

The architect of Turku

By contrast, Bryggman, who lived in Turku until the end of his career, did a remarkable job in understanding the character of the city and in the advancement of its architecture, reshaping a seemingly undistinguished urban texture. His apprehension of the city is substantiated, for instance, in the well-structured urban contexts evident in the proximity of the Atrium residential building (1926) and the Hotel Hospitz Betel (1934) as well as in the respectful closeness of the Swedish University Chemical laboratories building (1952) located next to Turku Cathedral.

Bryggman also well interpreted the aspirations of Turku’s upper-class – narrow, well cultivated and underpinned by its ancient Swedish dominated heritage – that was different from Helsinki’s bourgeoisie, whose strength was based on the industrial development of timber and who controlled the political power of the country. The fascinating villas built in the Turku archipelago are among the outcomes of the close relationship between Bryggman and his clients. They are the perfect synthesis of the modern architectural language with vernacular architecture, capturing the aspirations of their owners.

Villa Warén in Ruissalo, with its niche that protects a pre-existing tree and its essential plan organization, well communicates Bryggman’s understanding of the character of the place. For dimensions, building techniques, level of details, spatial organisation and ways of use, Villa Warén differs from Villa Mairea (1939), built some years later by Aalto in Noormarkku for Maire and Harry Gullichsen, revealing the distinctive paths undertaken by the two architects. After 1933, Aalto chose to interpret the ambition of Helsinki’s bourgeoisie, leaving Bryggman to his natural role of ‘the architect of Turku’.8 It is not surprising that in 1938, Bryggman won the competition of the Turku Cemetery chapel. A building that, with its complex space and fine details, is the culmination of the architect’s journey – and at the same time a monument to his city.

1 Kyösti Ålander: “Tipologia dell’architettura finlandese”, Casabella-continuità, 211, 1956. pp. 35–36.

2 Reyner Banham: “One and the few: the rise of modern architecture in Finland”, The Architectural Review, 723, 1957. pp. 243–248.

3 Kenneth Frampton: "The legacy of Alvar Aalto. Evolution and influence" in Peter Reed (et al.): Alvar Aalto. Between Humanism and Materialism. MoMA, 1998. p. 119.

4 Göran Schildt: Alvar Aalto. The decisive years. Rizzoli, 1986. pp. 29–32.

5 Alvar Aalto: "Turun Arkkitehti" in Uusi Suomi, 1928. The newspaper cutting is kept in the Bryggman archive at the Museum of Finnish Architecture, Helsinki. For its English version, see Alvar Aalto: "The Turku architect", Abitare la Terra, 23, 2009. pp. 42–43.

6 Göran Schildt, pp. 85, 102, 238.

7 Pekka Korvenmaa, “Aalto and Finnish industry” in Peter Reed. pp. 71–92.

8 Alvar Aalto: "Turun Arkkitehti".

Silvia Micheli is an architect and researcher and has a PhD in History of Architecture and Urbanism (IUAV, Venice). She teaches currently at the University of Queensland, Australia.


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