Friday, 28 January 2011

Going After Aalto

Last fall's exhibition and symposium on Alvar Aalto's architecture at New York's Museum of Modern Art so charged me up that I vowed to treat myself to a trip to Finland this summer to see the masterworks in 3-D. I was not disappointed. It was one of the most serendipity-laden odysseys I have ever made. Even my mistakes seemed to enhance the adventure.

So because I misread the Swedish train schedules and could not take the trip up around the Gulf of Bothnia (that train didn't run on Saturday, the very small print in Swedish read!), I was forced to take the ferry to Finland. And take the train from Vaasa to Jyväskylä, the town where Aalto was educated and first worked as an architect, and where the Alvar Aalto Museum attempts to use the master's example for a worldwide dialogue on bettering the man-made environment.

The train stations along the route, as well as the farm houses and barns that adorned the landscape of birches and pines and water, were folk architecture of the highest order. Their wood stake style, the fine tuned scale of their window placement, their gingerbread garnishes were stunningly and unexpectedly beautiful. They were, in fact, the sources that nurtured Aalto's own muse, making him prefer a modernism of wood to the usual vocabulary of steel and glass.

When I recounted my delight to the director of the Museum, he shared my excitement by disappearing into his outer office to return brandishing a brand new book, "Railway Architecture, 1857-1941," published last year by his office. I said I thought the 400 people who will attend the triennial Aalto symposium this August 12-14 should be counseled to come "the hard way," via Vaasa and the Silja Line Ferry from Sondsvall to Vaasa ($16).

Finnair, in fact, has just inaugurated a 15-day pass for $250 that allows the curious to see everything important that Aalto ever built, from Lappland in the far North to Helsinki in the South, from Turku on the Western border to Lahti in the East. The Museum has cannily laid on two trips after the symposium, one concentrating on his Finnish work, the other exploring Vyborg which the Russians took over after World War II.

For full particulars on this Third International Alvar Aalto Symposium (the theme is "Modernity and Popular Culture," with cult architect Michael Graves giving the keynote address), write the Alvar Aalto Musuem, Seminaarinkatu 7, SF 40600 Jyväskylä, Finland. The fee is $100; lodging costs range from 40 Finnmarks a night ($6.50) at the Save the Children youth hostel (a ten minute woodsy walk from the Museum), to standard hotel prices (architecturally most interesting is Finnair's new Cumulus Hotel).

Aalto insisted that a museum named after him should deal with more than his work, in fact be a full-service art center. It is. Still there is a fine swatch of mural-size photos with text giving an overview of the Finnish architect's achievement in the back gallery, a space that is itself one of the man's finest jobs. Next door is his Central Finland Museum with brilliantly displayed artifacts from pre-history to the present from the region. Even the birchwood display cases are by the master. This museum will shut down for two years in December to allow for expansion, an addition that will be supervised by the old firm now run by his widow.

A few blocks down the street is the Handicraft Museum of Finland, now running a special show on the revival of wool as a material in Finnish design. It is an eye boggler. The Tourist Office, two blocks from the station, has two free brochures, one an architectural map of the town with all its important buildings indicated, the other a handsome guide to Aalto's work there. He laid out the site plan for the University and did several of its larger buildings himself.

The most remarkable thing about architecture in Finland is the high level of understanding among the general public. To wit, on the train ride of five hours from Vaasa to Jyväskylä, in a train compartment holding six people, three of the riders--a young photography store attendant, a middle-aged housewife, and a recent architecture graduate (she was designing her first house for a Helsinki firm)--were veritable founts of information on the history and current prospects of art.

Indeed, when I got turned on to those railway stations along the route, I hung out the window and quizzed the railway dispatchers about the dates of construction of their stations. Half the time they knew exact dates! 1894. 1899. And so on.

I asked the young (37) director of the Aalto Museum, Markku Lahti (himself a scholar in French literature and British fin de siècle stage design) how he could account for this high level of popular consciousness about architecture in Finland. "C. F. Engel" was his short answer. Engel drew up the city plan of Helsinki while Finland was still a grand duchy of Imperial Russia and designed most of the major public buildings there. Beleaguered by its former Swedish overlords on the West and erratically hassled by its czarist rulers to the East, Finland indeed tried to create and maintain a national identity through its architecture.

Lahti's long answer was "competitions." "When Aalto was beginning his career in the 1920's, he must have entered as many as fifty competitions for public buildings." These public rituals were pedagogic in a very fundamental way. Lahti deplores, by the way, the fact that there are almost no architecture critics in the media in Finland. It seemed to me that the competition process may be even more productive of understanding. And a public that cares about buildings gladly pays the taxes to put them up.

Which reminds me of another serendipity. In Tampere, Finland's number two city, I was walking down the boulevard to the city's Art Museum when I caught in the corner of my eye a strange building under construction behind a protective fence. The construction sign was in Finnish so I went behind the fence to see if I could find out what this copper-roofed structure was for and who designed it. As I approached, a laborer with a hard hat exclaimed, "Oh! You're the journalist from San Francisco. Would you like to look around?" He resolved the mystery of his knowing who I was by saying that he had overheard a conversation in the bar on the ferry from Sweden a few nights before!

He spoke perfect English (because he had worked for several years in Alberta), and he understood architecture--I guess because he's a Finn. In short, for the next two hours I was taken on a tile by tile, wall by wall explication of the new $10 million public library by the First Couple of Finnish architecture, Reima and Raili Pietilä. (They have recently won the most prized competition of recent history, a new "White House" for the president of their country.)

The thirty-year-old worker translated my questions into Finnish so that the fifty-two-year-old chief construction engineer of the City of Tampere could answer them. It was an epiphany-filled encounter. As I left, the chief presented me with a twelve-page, four-color bilingual brochure on the building we had just been exploring together. "Why is it in English?" I asked. "Because there are so many architects who can't speak Finnish," he smiled.

"The basement cladding and the steps to the library," the Pietiläs explain in the brochure, "are of a richly patterned 'Viborgite' granite. The facades and curving eaves are of copper; the windows are of greenish pine. The window sections possess the roundness of a branch, thereby giving the impression that the external space continues into the large main hall. The interior space forms a winding and changing series of segmental vaults, thus conjuring up the image of wind-filled spinnaker sails." When I got to the roof, the construction engineer laughingly pointed out the playful muse of the Pietiläs: the image formed is that of a wood grouse in heat, spreading out his feathers in a courting display!

So I was not surprised at all when I finally got to Helsinki to discover that the summer exhibit at the Museum of Finnish Architecture is a major exploration of--who else?--the Pietiläs. If you can't get to Finland this summer, do yourself a favor of ordering the catalog (it's not only bilingual, but the Pietiläs' drawings are brilliantly evocative of their fresh thinking about building, probably the most eloquent architectural aphorists since the late Louis Kahn. (PIETILÄ: Intermediate Zones in Modern Architecture, Alvar Aalto Museum, 125 FM.) And right behind the Museum of Finnish Architecture (a ten-minute walk from the Central Station, itself a masterpiece by Eliel Saarinen) is the Finnish Museum of Applied Art, with a suite of rooms illustrating the history of the last century of Finnish design, the furniture and the objects that enhanced the interiors of those buildings.

And across the street from the legendary Stockmann's Department Store (whose new annex has just been the result of a competition on view this summer at the Aalto Museum!) is the main salesroom of ARTEK, the firm which has been selling Aalto's furniture and glass for the past fifty years. (They'll be celebrating that anniversary in October with a major exhibit at the Museum of Applied Art, and related corporate hoopdeedoo.)

Meanwhile, across the water in Stockholm, the Moderna Museet is celebrating the centenary of the first "modern" Swedish architect, Gunnar Asplund, the one who, in fact first, turned Aalto on to functionalism in 1927. Indeed, Asplund turned all of Scandinavia onto the fast track of modernism with his groundbreaking Stockholm Exhibition of 1930, which did for the cold Nordic North what the Paris Expo in 1925 did for the bottom half of Europe.

In short, there's never been a better time to savour the pleasures of Scandinavian design. The national railroads are even offering a variety of passes (regional variations on the Eurail scheme) to make it cheap and convenient to treat your eyes to the glories of the North. You'll be as pleased as I have been if you make that move.

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