Naturally great building

“As we all know, around 1900 Finnish architecture became a topic both in the national project of constructing Finnishness and in the international project of defining modern architecture”. So writes the authoritative voice of architectural history, Riitta Nikula, in a chapter called ‘On the Finnishness of Modern Finnish Architecture’, in this book.

Maybe those she is writing for do “all know”, but it’s probably fair to say that she’s addressing a pretty narrow “we”. The “we”, however, of people in Finland who consider architecture and design to be areas where Finland excells and where there is something natural about this presumed excellence, is substantial. Those of us born in the fifties and sixties and probably later, have indeed mostly been brought up in a beautiful built environment, at least if we are from Helsinki, and we have had it drummed into us that Finnish design is brilliant and irreducibly FINNISH, and that its creators are national heroes.

This blog is just a tiny window onto the wonderful things that Finland’s builders have given us as a place to call home. Like the Railway Station by Eliel Saarinen, opened in 1919, which surely deserves most of the praise it gets – though it didn’t deserve to have its main restaurant brutalised by some nonsensical 21st-century interior design better suited to a motorway service station. (Hence no illustration).

(The image above left is from this book).

One of the reasons, according to Nikula, why Finnish architecture developed as rapidly and in as exciting a way as it did in the early part of the last century, was the combination of international travel by architects who spoke many languages and the lack of an old guard. It meant that international innovations were easily accepted and developed further. It helped too that overseas commentators like Sigrfied Giedion and later Kenneth Frampton, were so generous in their praise of Finnish architecture. But as she points out, their view of buildings was always overshadowed by their obsession with the “naturalness” of Finland and Finns. Giedion, she writes, said of Aino Aalto, professional collaborator and first wife of Alvar, that she was “as quiet as the Finnish lakes and forests from which she has sprung, active only in an unobtrusive way, as Nordic women often can be”!! Elsewhere he noted that civilisation was late in arriving here.

Nikula notes that in books on 20th-century Finnish architecture, you almost get more pictures of unhinhabited woods and lakes than of constructions!

What about the rest of us? I think it’s fair to say that most Finns believe, and not unreasonably, that Finnish worksmanship has a solid tradition, and that one of the delights of a Finnish urban environment compared to many others, is that it’s so well built and solid even when it’s human scale. Tourists often believe Finland needs buildings to be solidly constructed because of the cold. Probably true, but it’s also true that for “us” there’s simply something  insulting about haphazard detailing, about right angles that aren’t at 90° (unless you’re talking really, really old, like something in Porvoo, left) about rendering that’s shoddily applied and weathers badly, windows that don’t shut properly, facades that make no sense and all the other hallmarks of cr*p architecture. (The kind that Brits get so much of and that makes so many of them hate modernism!)

Here’s a (Finnish, obviously) detail that makes me go all gooey inside, and not just because it’s probable that it has been gripped by Saint Alvar himself, it is, after all, from his old home on Riihitie.

For fans of Finnish building and architecture, the heroes aren’t just the designers but those who implement it. And so it is sad to read that with the loss of an apprentice system and the arrival of lots of money, shoddy workmanship arrived and flourished here too. Still, YLE blames it squarely on the boom. So things’ll be OK now we’re bust, no?

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Naturally great building

  1. Very interesting blog. Its funny but the Station is one of my favourite Helsinki buildings so it was great to read some insight 🙂

  2. Pingback: Interiors beyond the law « Jees Helsinki Jees

  3. I wonder if you shouldn’t also mention one aspect of Finnish architecture that compares so favourably with British ‘starkitechture’ — that is its being fit for purpose.

    As you probably know, far too many British buildings are designed to achieve the wow factor but are completely hopeless in terms of the function for which they exist — why let the needs of scruffy humans spoil a good artists impression?

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