On the trail of buildings by Alvar Aalto, Heidi Sherman Mitchell discovers how Finland's stark landscape informs its structural aesthetic

May 08, 2009

As I head north out of Turku, red wooden farmhouses forming a visual Morse code on the roadside, I'mtallying what Americans believe about Finns: They love saunas; they make Nokias; they are designgeniuses. And while names with too many vowels—Aalto, Saarinen, Sipinen, Pietilä—have become familiarto anyone who has flown out of JFK airport, I'd never actually seen Finnish architecture outside amuseum. So here I am, making a pilgrimage through the Finnish hinterland.

A few months before landing on the western shore of Finland, I'd seen a memorable exhibition in LosAngeles; among scale structures and blueprints signed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, and otherAmerican architects were a disproportionate number of works by Finnish designers. Their angular modelshad hard-edged surfaces of copper and stucco; inside were wood-lined rooms so warm and organic theyseemed to glow. What would these creations look like, I wondered, in their intended settings—theirivories, browns, and greens echoing white birch, fallow fields, and leaves?

One day after my ship from Stockholm docked, I've already discovered that I yielded a little hastilyto the romantic notion of a living architectural display. Finland is a country of barely 40 people persquare mile, almost three-quarters of it covered by virgin forest—so much for my vision of spectacularbuildings everywhere. But two structures in Turku caught my eye: the town's medieval castle and AlvarAalto's Turun Sanomat newspaper headquarters, its remaining stepped-steel pillars trapped behind thelockers of a gleaming new gym. The city's attempts at restoration were so flawed, almost every slab ofconcrete in town looks like a relic from Warsaw circa 1960.

On the advice of a history student I meet at the Pharmacy, an artist's hangout on the Communistbloc-style main square, I ask Lena Salminen, the manager of the Quality Hotel Ateljee, for a tour ofher once-grand building, designed by Aalto in 1928. At the top of a spiral staircase with astitched-leather banister, she unlocks three restored guest rooms; inside are woven-fabric chairs andblock-print curtains, telltale signs of Aalto. "You have to go to Jyväskylä, where Aalto grew up, tosee his best work," she says.

After a history of Swedish and Russian rule, the agrarian Finns finally gained independence in 1917,and with it, the freedom to escape the Neoclassical style. Aalto had fought in a bloody civil war onthe side of the independents, and his distaste for ostentatious ornamentation led him to the spareFunctionalist aesthetic. So I aim for the Lakeland region, where Aalto began his career, tracing myway from Turku up the E63 highway, through the port town of Tampere. Turku's few houses—ocher-colored,with lacy, carved lattices—are the last vestiges of Mother Russia on the way to Jyväskylä, and onceI've passed them, there's little to look at except for birches, their peeling bark reflecting silver inthe afternoon light. The land is so flat and flooded, the pavement seems to float on top of the shapelesswaterways. At times, I can actually see where the earth curves downward. Not even an anthillinterrupts the horizon.

By morning, I've gained more insight on the Finns, thanks to some new friends I've met at the MemphisBar & Restaurant, housed in Aalto's 1952 Workers' Club building. According to Annika, Finns areintensely introverted (much like their former Russian sovereigns) and suffer from an inferioritycomplex that comes from centuries of subjugation. They come alive in the warmer months, however, whentheir gregarious Swedish side shines in the sun and they escape to summer retreats. Everyone Iencounter—especially at the Aalto Museum in Jyväskylä, which chronicles the architect's work from hisfamous bentwood Paimio chair to Helsinki's Finlandia Hall—is shy and self-deprecating. The Finns arewell-mannered people who follow the rules, but, like their postwar buildings, they radiate a sense ofhope for the future. The country helped create the European Union, and their negotiating skills withthe recalcitrant Russians are often in high demand. Their technological superiority (Nokia was one ofthe fastest-growing companies in the world in the late nineties) has propelled the nation into theglobal economy. It's hard for most Finns these days not to feel just a little proud, despite pride'staboo status here.

Ten miles south of Jyväskylä on the island of Säynätsalo, a two-story building rises above the trees,its patches of haphazard bricklaying adding texture to a barren landscape. In 1952 Aalto designed thisbuilding, now a town hall for the small island village, and though pride is an emotion most Finns arereluctant to feel, the civil servant giving me a tour isn't ashamed to show some. She points out anelevated courtyard with a pitched ceiling held aloft by a spider-like truss; meeting rooms were builtaround it. There are even two spartan but well-designed guest rooms named for Alvar and Elissa, hissecond wife (they go for just $25 a night).

The Säynätsalo hall, the crown jewel of Aalto's red-brick phase, is the embodiment of post-World WarII Finland, when creativity and a break from tradition were at their peak, and that sense of optimismand confidence permeates every wooden panel and slatted window. It makes a strong aesthetic statement,but an even more powerful political one. Modern public buildings in America often tend to functionwithout flair; artistic expression is generally reserved for private dwellings or corporate ventures.In Finland, the reverse is true. Architects elevate their craft to art when designing civic centersand universities, not houses. The themes of community, small-scale democracy, and harmony with natureare celebrated in Finnish public buildings, each idea channeled into an object of beauty.

Inspired by the town hall, I turn southeast on a road so close to the Russian border, I pick up RadioSputnik (106.9 FM) in my rented Ford Mondeo. I had tried to negotiate my way across the border to seeAalto's Viipuri Library; the area changed hands in 1940 when the Finns lost the Winter War to theSoviet Union. But land crossing, it turns out, is prohibited. Passing signs painted in unpronounceableFinnish and unreadable Cyrillic, I drive at a glacial pace, pulling over now and again to watch theclouds moving over the ground, their reflections in the obsidian lakes.

It's dusk when I arrive in Imatra at the Church of the Three Crosses; the white bell tower pierces thedarkening sky. Like many of Aalto's other works—Finlandia Hall in Helsinki, especially—the 1958 churchis asymmetrical; only two of its 103 windows are the same shape. Inside, three different ceilings foldinto one another, a design Aalto invented to perfect acoustics from the pulpit.

On the road an hour later, I head to Porvoo, where little of Finland's postwar Modernism hasflourished. There are more red wooden houses here; they teeter on the edge of a river, giving theimpression that not much has changed since they were built in the late 1700's.

Back in the car, I span two centuries in 30 miles, arriving at the town of Espoo and its fabledTapiola Garden City. The development was built in the early fifties on a strict architectural plan andlooks like a space station. Futuristic towers and curvy domes dominate the skyline, their footprintsfloating on a rectangle of water. Nokia's headquarters are also in Espoo, as is Otaniemi TechnicalUniversity, another exposition space for "monumental artists" (Aalto's favorite phrase for hisprofession). In 1966, the husband-and-wife team Raili and Reima Pietilä created the sinuous DipoliConference Center out of copper, rough-hewn stone, and wood. Dipoli's cantilevered roofs and flowinglines remind me of Wright, Gehry, and the exhibition that brought me here in the first place.The land is perpetually flat and almost hypnotic on the return drive to Helsinki. As the boundlessplain of trees, rock, and earth extends in front of me, it's clear how the Finnish design aestheticevolved. Reima Pietilä once wrote that "through our use of building materials, we imitate theauthentic impressions we derive from nature." In a country so unforgiving, nature is more thanomnipresent, it's omnipotent. To grasp the Finns' affinity for the land—the last observation I'll take home with me—I had to see their buildings nurtured by their trees.

Heidi Sherman Mitchell is an associate editor at Travel + Leisure.

Itinerary

With such a short tourist season—July through September—there are few hotels in central Finland. B&B's and summer inns tend to be booked months in advance, so reserve early. Day 1: Arrive in Turku, Finland's first capital. Tour the castle, the Turun Sanomat newspaper building, the old Russian-style quarter, and the Alvar Aalto-designed Quality Hotel Ateljee. Day 2: Follow the E63 highway northeast through Tampere to Jyväskylä, the town where Aalto grew up. Eighteen of his buildings were erected there, including the Aalto Museum and much of Otaniemi Technical University's campus. Head south on Route 611, turning east toward Säynätsalo Town Hall. Day 3: Take Route 23 to Pieksamaki, then go south on Route 72 toward Mikkeli. From there, head southeast on Route 62 to Imatra and Aalto's Church of the Three Crosses. Take Route 6 southwest through Lappeenranta and Kotka, then on to Porvoo. Day 4: Pick up the E18 all the way to Helsinki.

The FactsWHERE TO STAY

Quality Hotel Ateljee Doubles from $80. 7 Humalistonkatu, Turku; 358-2/336-111
Säynätsalo Town Hall Two apartments: Alvar and Elissa. Doubles $25. 358-14/623-800
Villa KärkiSaari A former summer house on an island. Doubles from $100, including breakfast. 60 Kärkisaarentie, Kotka; 358-5/260-4804

WHERE TO EAT

Rocca Artfully presented dishes—including grilled leveret (young hare) with turnip-and-potato cakes—are served in this restaurant along the Aurajoki River. Dinner for two $80. 55 Lantinen Rantakatu, Turku; 358-2/284-8800
Memphis Bar & Restaurant Basic fare like burgers and salads. Aalto's signature "wave" carpets cover the floor. Dinner for two $25. 30 Kauppakatu, Jyväskylä 358-14/338-2740
Hommanäs This 1735 farmhouse offers simple meals: roast beef, shortbread. Lunch for two $40. 98 LÖfvingintie, Porvoo; 358-19/543-026

Memphis

Café Löfving at Hommanäs

Rocca

Villa KärkiSaari

Quality Hotel Ateljee

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