Playing the Aalto Card

Saloila daycare centre, Oulunsalo, photo Anni Vartola 2011. Architects Ilpo Väisänen and
Kyösti Meinilä, 1987

In the aftermath of Alvar Aalto’s death in 1976, a conflict broke out over the great Finn’s legacy and the future of Finnish architecture, with adherents of both Postmodernism and the Finnish modernist tradition claiming him as their own. It was, as Anni Vartola, explains, one which loomed large among the Oulu School.

play the — — card - to introduce a specified issue or topic in the hope of gaining (esp. political) advantage, by appealing to the sentiments or prejudices of an audience.

1. Introduction

During the excitable postmodern 1970’s and 80’s, the case was repeatedly made for the existence of an inherently Finnish architectural style: functionalism, or more generally, modernism. Within this debate, Alvar Aalto was eagerly deployed as a weapon to discriminate between proper and improper viewpoints. Interestingly enough, he was used by both camps. For both Modernists and Postmodernists, Aalto was an exemplary figure, but depending on the agenda, his example was turned towards different directions, giving him a versatile role in the Finnish architectural community’s discourse through the 1970–90's.

The cover of the Arkkitehti magazine 3/1978 featuring the
purchased competition entry for the Nordens Hus, Faroe
Island by Juhani Pallasmaa. The title of Helin's essay makes
it to the cover: "Irti modernista" [Away with the modern]
Postmodernism can be interpreted in different ways. Three identifiable strands have been influential. These include a period characterised by double-coding, irony and ambiguity and a transition to a post-industrial or late-capitalist social order in Western culture in the late 20th century. It is also understood as an orientation of thought and as a concept, acting as a headline for a number of critical perspectives towards 20th century modernism, principally phenomenology, semiotics, structuralism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, feminism, Neo-Marxism and Pop Art. Finally it is also known as a distinctive architectural style, Aka, Po-Mo Proclaiming the death of modern architecture, architectural Postmodernism underlined the role of architecture as a form of symbolic communication, and experimented with the neglected elements of architectural expression such as Classicism, kitsch, eclecticism, and the vernacular.

In Finland, the Finnish Architectural Review Arkkitehti had begun giving space to new, postmodern projects and theories in the 1960's, continuing in the 1970’s to introduce the Finnish architectural community to the ideas of Team 10, Christian Norberg-Schulz, Robert Venturi, Christopher Alexander, Rob Krier, Charles Moore and Aldo Rossi. In the 1980's, Arkkitehti also published interviews with key international figures of the postmodernist scene: Michael Graves, Kenneth Frampton, Richard Meyer, Maurice Culot, James Stirling and Charles Correa to name a few.

One of the earliest domestic overviews on postmodern thought was architect Pekka Helin's article Away with the modern: contemporary views in architecture published in Arkkitehti in 1978. Here, Helin criticised dogmatised functionalism and introduced Arkkitehti's readers to recent tendencies such as eclecticism, neo-traditionalism and collage. For him, however, post-modern as a concept did not define a trendy style, but acted as a label for an existing "reactionary chaos" that sought new ideological basis from Venturi's 1966 gentle manifesto, Complexity and Contradiction and Charles Jencks's pluralism. Helin ended his article, by addressing the question of the direction of Finnish architecture with a reference to an Aalto article from 1940. Helin argued that the Finns should oppose architectural trends, stay true to the principles of Aalto's architecture and follow his path to 'true functionalism': "Instead of following pragmatically and humbly the international trends, Finnish architecture could take off by trusting in Aalto's heritage and seek its strength within 'true functionalism'. Our time demands a discussion on architecture's future programme: how do local and special aspects relate to the international and universal experience; what is the relationship between a historical experience with contemporary development; and what are the means of architecture to respond to the new social demands and to reflect the reality of today" (Ibid.: 37).

2. Aalto, 1976, and the kaleidoscope of attributes

The death of Alvar Aalto's in May 1976 coincided with the ideological turbulence of the time, marking a symbolical moment: one era had ended, a new one was beginning to be created, looking forward towards a prosperous future. Roger Connah quotes Reima Pietilä's description of the atmosphere after Aalto’s death in 1976. It was as if a huge tree with a dense and dark shadow had fell and left a vast, empty, and unnerving clearing in the thicket. "The shadow was gone, the forest open. A silence followed. Initially there was dancing in the architectural offices. Momentarily few grieved, but only momentarily. The gatherers could re-group. History and individuals realigned themselves, opportunities shifted ground; the legend could be reconstructed" (Connah, 2005: 244).

The first flood of reflections on the Aalto heritage were published in the special Aalto issue in Arkkitehti, comprised of 24 essays by a variety of esteemed architects, theorists and critics who all underlined Aalto's influence on both Finnish and international architecture. The domestic writers included Kirmo Mikkola, an erudite and angry young leftist and former editor-in-chief of Arkkitehti; Hilding Ekelund, the grand-old-man of architettura minore and sober functionalism; and Reima Pietilä, altogether more of an undefinable individualist. Among the international contributors, the most prominent figures were Robert Venturi, Alison and Peter Smithson, Oswald Mathias Ungers and Christian Norberg-Schulz.

The choice of contributors in the Aalto issue reflected an amazing open-mindedness and impartiality on the part of the editor. In this issue we can see how versatile Aalto’s name could be used to promote various ideologies and how open his architecture was to a multitude of interpretations. Each contributor moulded Aalto to fit his own approach to architecture. The Norwegian phenomenological theoretician, Christian Norberg-Schulz essay focused on the genius loci of Aalto's architecture. Norberg-Schulz saw Aalto's architecture as a form of poetry that exemplified perfectly what he meant by the Heideggerian Dasein and by his reading of the purpose of architecture to concretise the existential space of the human being. "The role of the architect is to make people see the special nature of the location", Norberg-Schulz wrote. "Aalto was a singer; he expressed a dream and gave us roots" (Arkkitehti 1976: 50).

By contrast, the harbinger of the postmodern turn, Robert Venturi, read Aalto through the dual lenses of complexity and contradiction, underlining the tensions and the openness of interpretation in Aalto's architecture. Its human qualities showed in his free plan and the use of natural wood and red brick. For Venturi, Aalto was a Palladio of our time. His architecture used conventional elements but they were organised in an unconventional way; it was based on tension rather than serenity or drama of consistency; and it derived from exceptions or distortions to the order. As Venturi wrote, "Aalto himself has become an Andrea Palladio of the Modern movement, a mannerist master but in a low key (…) The quality of Aalto's elements comes not from their originality or purity, but from their deviations – sometimes very light, sometimes gross – in their form and context", (Ibid.: 66).

Early postmodern thinking for modest and humane architecture. Törnävä chapel and crematory,
Seinäjoki, photo Anni Vartola 2011. Architect Heikki Taskinen / Arkkitehtitoimisto Arktos 1979,
competition 1972
Norberg-Schulz and Venturi attested to the openness of interpretation in Aalto's architecture. Amongst those writing for the domestic architectural readership, Aalto was increasingly given more the role of the guiding light of Finnish architecture. This is well shown in Kirmo Mikkola's contribution. Mikkola had earlier accused Aalto of favouring the individual instead of the democratic collective and for his preference of artisan techniques over industrial methods. In a special Finland issue of Le Carré Bleu in 1971, Mikkola had criticised the housing project of the Sunila pulp mill as an attempt to cherish "a garden city idyll in the forest" rather than an attempt to seek a universally applicable solution to large-scale housing problems (Mikkola, 1971). In an unpublished lecture from 1969, Mikkola stated Aalto had even succumbed to a "baroque manner of expression" (Mikkola, 1971: 4)during his late years and thus become "such an institution that he has little influence on the direction of development… a respectable figure but not a role model".

In the Aalto issue of Arkkitehti as well as in his later works, however, Mikkola portrayed Aalto as an intuitive artist and a prominent intellectual. He admired Aalto's individualism, his love for the 'little man in the street', his ambivalent attitude to politics and how his architecture was uniquely Finnish in feeling, yet lacked any nationalist endeavours (Arkkitehti 1976: 20–21).

The change in Mikkola's thinking is striking, but can be explained with the situation in the mid 1970's. Modern architecture was in a state of utter confusion, postmodern thought was putting pressure on reinvigorating both architectural thinking and expression, while the 1960 New Left ideology was unable to digest postmodernist ideas associated with consumerism, capitalism and the emerging Neo-Conservatism. For the leftwing Mikkola, who had already favoured constructivism, and called for an architecture with a social mission, Aalto's architecture, despite being viewed as individualist, elitist and expressive, also represented an uncompromised architecture unaffected by fashion, and that was functionalist and humane. Just as in the Helin quote above, Mikkola saw Aalto's value in how Aalto had early on pursued his own path, which was best expressed in "his architectural philosophy, his wise and humane views of the relations between architecture, nature and man."

3. The Oulu School and Aalto's regionalism

In the late 1970's, the emergence of a spirited Oulu School of architecture established around the then professor Reima Pietilä at the Oulu University Department of Architecture brought a new perspective to the debate. The young Oulu graduates described the Finnish scene as an academic, theoretical and "bigoted strive to express the Spirit of the Age" (Niskasaari et al., 1981: 40). Their interests were focused on regionalism, postmodernism and Karelianism, with a principle mission to develop a new relationship between architecture and the public: to listen to the public’s needs and heed their values. Besides Aalto, their idols were Reima Pietilä and Frank Lloyd Wright (Ylimaula et al., 1993: 11).

The icon of the Oulu School: Oulunsalo town hall, photo Anni
Vartola 2011. Arkkitehtitoimisto NVV: architects Kari
Niskasaari, Reijo Niskasaari, Kaarlo Viljanen, Ilpo Väisänen
and Jorma Öhman, 1982
Pietilä himself had for long opposed the Miesian box-and-the-grid paradigm prevalent from the late 1950's onwards. He called for a more liberal and variegated architecture. For Pietilä, "architecture should promote local ties; architecture is various degrees of continuation of nature and it should correspond to the symbolic function of dependence" (Pietilä, 1967b: 24).He saw Aalto as an example of how to promote innovative, idiosyncratic and ever-up-to-date good and real architecture. In order to survive as an architect in an ever-changing world, he believed the architect should not hide behind dogmatic stylistic norms (Pietilä, 1967a; Pietilä and Connah, 1981)

If Aalto served as role model of true functionalism for the Helsinki based modernists, for the Oulu School, Aalto provided a model for a less severe, regionalist and humanist architecture in a situation where contemporary modernism was "not even a style but an intolerant attitude" (Niskasaari et al., 1981: 41; Ylimaula et al., 1993: 88–94). The Oulu School was inspired by Aalto's use of brick, sense of tradition and landscape, and organic form language. Aalto's architecture, such as the Finlandia Hall (1971), also seemed to enjoy public appreciation whereas the establishment often took a more scornful attitude especially towards Aalto's late projects.

Kiuruvesi town hall, photo Anni
Vartola 2011. Arkkitehtitoimisto
NVV: architects Kari Niskasaari,
Reijo Niskasaari, Kaarlo Viljanen,
Ilpo Väisänen and Jorma Öhman,
competition 1979, finished 1984

The Oulu School's form of post modern and regionalist argument was soon attacked as un-Finnish and inauthentic. Despite the Oulu School's interest in Pietilä and Aalto and the regionalist and vernacular overtones of Finnish postmodernism in general, architectural postmodernism was regarded as – quoting Markku Komonen, the editor-in-chief of Arkkitehti in the early 1980's – "a purely American phenomenon, which cannot reasonably be exported elsewhere as a style" (Komonen et al., 1980: 24). Such a reading of postmodernism as an imported style tuned the question of contemporary architecture into a question of deviation from or allegiance to the modernist canon of Finnish architecture. Juhani Pallasmaa, the then director of the Museum of Finnish Architecture, pronounced plainly that "our future lies in modernism": "In the Nordic countries (…) modernism has become a tradition – one might even say an attitude to life – which it would be senseless to question (…) In response to the question of how to invigorate architecture in its evident state of stagnation, Pallasmaa turned away from the postmodernist option, calling instead for a softer and less alienated modernism: "We do not need an architectural revolution; on the other hand, an enriching and deepening of stereotyped modernism is necessary also in Europe" (Pallasmaa, 1980: 48). In 1981, following a seminar on the future of modernism, a group of esteemed Finnish architects published a solemn public statement rephrasing Pallasmaa's view. It appealed to the Finnish national sentiment and emphasised the deep-rooted position of modernism typical for the Finnish lifestyle and culture. The correct path, in short, was not postmodernism but the reinvigoration of modernism. "The Modern Movement is a firm tradition in its own right and is capable of further reformation, transformation and refinement. The means of modern architecture are being liberated to meet the challenges of our time" (Gullichsen et al., 1981).

A postmodern offshoot of the modernist tradition interpreting
the traditional Finnish way of building; organic constellation
of small scale blocks around a courtyard, slanted roofs, red
ocher clapboard with white corner boards. Onnimanni
daycare centre, Säkylä, photo Anni Vartola 2011.
Architects Kari Järvinen and Timo Airas,1980

How then could one build on the modernist tradition and yet meet the challenges of our time? Although Venturi had, as quoted above, described Aalto as Palladio of our time, the Finnish modernists did not see the connection but wanted to develop something that would be more "neo-Aalto rather than neo-Palladio". The 'less is more' -ism of modernism contained the risk of reducing architecture down to nothingness. The 'more is more' -ism included a risk of overloading the environment with too much stimuli (Gullichsen, 1980).

Aalto himself had already side-stepped the dogmatic canon of functionalism in the 1930's. Now, this uncontaminated Aalto tradition, together with its organic form and language, empathic humanism and modest rationalism would provide a perfect formula. Pekka Helin's wording for this interpretation was 'polyphony': "Part of another kind of modernism, the architecture of Alvar Aalto has a substance of a polyphony very much alive, a polyphony which could show architecture the way out from the dead end it hovers in today" (Helin, 1981: 146).

Kenneth Frampton's essay Towards a critical regionalism: six points for an architecture of resistance provided further methods to weave the way through the demands for a more regionalist and meaningful architecture. For Frampton, critical regionalism involved a more direct dialectical relation with nature than the more abstract, formal traditions of modern avant-garde architecture allowed. However, Critical Regionalism would diverge from the "simple minded attempts to revive the hypothetical forms of a lost vernacular" that was taking place within postmodernism. Frampton emphasised a reading of the architectural experience as a bodily and tactile, and not just a visual one, with Aalto's Säynätsalo Town Hall presented as a brilliant example of such tactile sensitivity (Frampton, 1983: 21, 26, 28–21, 26, 29). More accurately, if we infused the functionalistic package with postmodern thought such as phenomenology, then we would have the perfect formula for new Finnish architecture.

4. The cool Helsinki school

Steven Holl Chiasma Helsinki Museum of
Contemporary Art
The interior of the Toholammi town hall A lobby becomes a
picturesque street with postmodern articulation. Toholammi
town hall, 2nd floor, photo Anni Vartola 
Arkkitehtitoimisto NVV: architects Kari Niskasaari, Reijo
Niskasaari and Jorma Öhman, 1987
By the early 1980’s Aalto's architecture was being applied as a safeguard and a reference point, spurring a trend of directly referencing or alluding to Aalto in new building. This was not welcomed: architecture should not succumb to too direct an imitation; this was exactly what postmodernism had been censured for. Kenneth Frampton recognised the problem in the second edition of his Modern Architecture a Critical History in 1985 as he identified "a painstaking elaboration and inflection of Aaltoesque organicism" (Frampton, 1992: 331). A more successful route to 'neo-Aalto' resided in neo-functionalism: the revival of the aesthetics of early modernism. The Architectural Review celebrated the emergence of the "cool Helsinki school" in a theme issue in March 1990. The issue presented recent works by contemporary offices and the "project of revivifying Modernism. It looks as if Aalto's mighty presence has at last been re-assessed: contemporary architects are no longer in rebellion against a father figure but can draw from his work without being overwhelmed."

In his critique of the Poleeni Civic Centre at Pieksänmäki, Colin St. John Wilson praised Kristian Gullichsen's reading of the tradition of 65 years of Modernism as an intellectual and artistic goldmine. According to Wilson, "in so far as the work of Aalto and [Erik] Bryggman contributed its own inflection to that rapidly evolving language, so the claim by the current generation of architects in Finland to draw upon the ensuing tradition at source has the simple authority of a birthright." Undoubtedly, neo-functionalism inspired a few fine new buildings, but still, would a return to early Aalto and the early 20th century architectural style really be the solution for Finnish architecture? Architect Markku Komonen, one of the doyens of Finnish architecture of the 1990's, found it necessary to remind the Finnish audience about the uncompromising progressive qualities of Aalto’s spiritual heritage. His short commentary entitled Our problem: Alvar Aalto was published in 1991. Komonen found it tiresome to see his colleagues continuing to dwell on Aalto and functionalism "as if they would be some sort of a complex or a personal problem". In his view, the essence of functionalism was fundamentally optimism and a willingness to tackle contemporary problems. As a style, neo-functionalism would be as banally eclectic as any other neo-style.

At the beginning of the 1990's, though, it was finally time to leave the past and move on. The last time Aalto was exhumed from his grave was in 1993. This time, the Aalto card appeared in the debate around Steven Holl's winning proposal 'Chiasma' for the architectural competition for the Helsinki Museum of Contemporary Art. "Holl's Helsinki banana" was regarded to be too "object-like, introverted and theatrical" and as such, it did not fulfill the functional requirements of an art museum. Most appallingly, Chiasma was seen to violate the historic principles of openness in the Helsinki urban structure, which were fixed by Aalto's Helsinki Centre Plan for the Töölö Bay area in 1961. The master was consulted once again. This time, however, the magic no longer worked.

The spell was broken.

University of Joensuu, lobby,
photo Anni Vartola 2011.
Architects Jan Söderlund and
Erkki Valovirta, 1979

Poleeni Civic Centre, Pieksänmäki, view from the lobby, photo Anni Vartola
2010. Architects Gullichsen – Kairamo – Vormala, 1989
Government Office Building, Rauma, photo Anni Vartola 2011. Architects
Olli-Pekka Jokela and Pentti Kareoja, 1992

Anni Vartola is an architect, critic and a freelance journalist and a member of the Aalto University School of arts, design and architecture.

This is an edited version of a research working paper written as part of the Alvar Aalto Researcher's Network. Download pdf of Original Version.


1 "play, v.". OED Online. December 2011. Oxford University Press. (accessed 1802.2012).
2 Timo Koho addresses the old tree metaphor to Juhani Pallasmaa and his essay in the
Byggekunst magazine 7/1986. According to Koho, Pallasmaa referred to Aalto as a protective father figure but also as an 'old oak' that had cast its shade over the younger generation.See Koho, 1995: 7.3 See also Pietilä, 1971; Mikkola, 1974.
4 Unpublished section of a lecture "Suomalaisen arkkitehtuurin ajankohtaisia pyrkimyksiä" [Contemporary goals of Finnish architecture] (1969) in Mikkola, 2009: 19, 22.
5 See e.g. Mikkola, 1978a; Mikkola, 1985.
6 Mikkola's preface in Schildt et al.,1981. See also Pietilä, 1971; Mikkola, 1978b; Mikkola and Kairamo, 1980.
7 See also e.g. Pietilä, 1983; Pietilä, 1967; Pietilä, 1971.
8 "To my understanding, the Finnish public regards Hvitträsk [Gesellius, Lindgren, Saarinen 1903], Dipoli [Pietilä 1966] and
Finlandia Hall [Aalto 1971] as quality architecture, while I have personally heard professor of architecture claim that Finlandia Hall is an unfinished work of undeveloped scope." Reijo Niskasaari in Ylimaula et al., 1993: 97. See also Koho, 1995.
9 Pallasmaa's essay related to two connected events to outline Finland's position amid the Euro-Atlantic battle: the America  Draws exhibition displaying drawings by 26 American architects, and the so-called Schooner Symposium entitled The Future of Modern Movement on the Gulf of Finland.
10 Frampton's essay was published in Finnish in 1989: Frampton, 1989.
11 For examples, see e.g. Koho, 1995: 83–87.
12 Colin St. John Wilson, the Modern Tradition: Three recent urban buildings by Gullichsen & Kairamo & Vormala in Davey et al., 1990: 39. A slightly different version of the text was also published as an introduction to the office monograph Güell, 1990.
13 The Chiasma debate took place on various platforms; see eg, Helsingin Sanomat newspaper between 19 June 1993 and 5 July 1994. Part of the debate also took place in the Architectural Review. See issues between September 1993 and January 1994. The quotes are from Norri, 1993.



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