As I head north out of Turku, red wooden farmhouses forming a visual Morse code on the roadside, I'm tallying what Americans believe about Finns: They love saunas; they make Nokias; they are design geniuses. And while names with too many vowels—Aalto, Saarinen, Sipinen, Pietilä—have become familiar to anyone who has flown out of JFK airport, I'd never actually seen Finnish architecture outside a museum. 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 Los Angeles; among scale structures and blueprints signed by Frank Lloyd Wright, Frank Gehry, and other American architects were a disproportionate number of works by Finnish designers. Their angular models had hard-edged surfaces of copper and stucco; inside were wood-lined rooms so warm and organic they seemed to glow. What would these creations look like, I wondered, in their intended settings—their ivories, 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 hastily to the romantic notion of a living architectural display. Finland is a country of barely 40 people per square mile, almost three-quarters of it covered by virgin forest—so much for my vision of spectacular buildings everywhere. But two structures in Turku caught my eye: the town's medieval castle and Alvar Aalto's Turun Sanomat newspaper headquarters, its remaining stepped-steel pillars trapped behind the lockers of a gleaming new gym. The city's attempts at restoration were so flawed, almost every slab of concrete 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 Communist bloc-style main square, I ask Lena Salminen, the manager of the Quality Hotel Ateljee, for a tour of her once-grand building, designed by Aalto in 1928. At the top of a spiral staircase with a stitched-leather banister, she unlocks three restored guest rooms; inside are woven-fabric chairs and block-print curtains, telltale signs of Aalto. "You have to go to Jyväskylä, where Aalto grew up, to see 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 on the side of the independents, and his distaste for ostentatious ornamentation led him to the spare Functionalist aesthetic. So I aim for the Lakeland region, where Aalto began his career, tracing my way 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 once I've passed them, there's little to look at except for birches, their peeling bark reflecting silver in the afternoon light. The land is so flat and flooded, the pavement seems to float on top of the shapeless waterways. At times, I can actually see where the earth curves downward. Not even an anthill interrupts the horizon.
By morning, I've gained more insight on the Finns, thanks to some new friends I've met at the Memphis Bar & Restaurant, housed in Aalto's 1952 Workers' Club building. According to Annika, Finns are intensely introverted (much like their former Russian sovereigns) and suffer from an inferiority complex that comes from centuries of subjugation. They come alive in the warmer months, however, when their gregarious Swedish side shines in the sun and they escape to summer retreats. Everyone I encounter—especially at the Aalto Museum in Jyväskylä, which chronicles the architect's work from his famous bentwood Paimio chair to Helsinki's Finlandia Hall—is shy and self-deprecating. The Finns are well-mannered people who follow the rules, but, like their postwar buildings, they radiate a sense of hope for the future. The country helped create the European Union, and their negotiating skills with the recalcitrant Russians are often in high demand. Their technological superiority (Nokia was one of the fastest-growing companies in the world in the late nineties) has propelled the nation into the global economy. It's hard for most Finns these days not to feel just a little proud, despite pride's taboo 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 this building, now a town hall for the small island village, and though pride is an emotion most Finns are reluctant to feel, the civil servant giving me a tour isn't ashamed to show some. She points out an elevated courtyard with a pitched ceiling held aloft by a spider-like truss; meeting rooms were built around it. There are even two spartan but well-designed guest rooms named for Alvar and Elissa, his second 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 War II Finland, when creativity and a break from tradition were at their peak, and that sense of optimism and 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 function without 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 centers and universities, not houses. The themes of community, small-scale democracy, and harmony with nature are celebrated in Finnish public buildings, each idea channeled into an object of beauty.