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Finnish Architecture Tour

Inspired by the town hall, I turn southeast on a road so close to the Russian border, I pick up Radio Sputnik (106.9 FM) in my rented Ford Mondeo. I had tried to negotiate my way across the border to see Aalto's Viipuri Library; the area changed hands in 1940 when the Finns lost the Winter War to the Soviet Union. But land crossing, it turns out, is prohibited. Passing signs painted in unpronounceable Finnish and unreadable Cyrillic, I drive at a glacial pace, pulling over now and again to watch the clouds 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 the darkening sky. Like many of Aalto's other works—Finlandia Hall in Helsinki, especially—the 1958 church is asymmetrical; only two of its 103 windows are the same shape. Inside, three different ceilings fold into 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 has flourished. There are more red wooden houses here; they teeter on the edge of a river, giving the impression 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 fabled Tapiola Garden City. The development was built in the early fifties on a strict architectural plan and looks like a space station. Futuristic towers and curvy domes dominate the skyline, their footprints floating on a rectangle of water. Nokia's headquarters are also in Espoo, as is Otaniemi Technical University, another exposition space for "monumental artists" (Aalto's favorite phrase for his profession). In 1966, the husband-and-wife team Raili and Reima Pietilä created the sinuous Dipoli Conference Center out of copper, rough-hewn stone, and wood. Dipoli's cantilevered roofs and flowing lines 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 boundless plain of trees, rock, and earth extends in front of me, it's clear how the Finnish design aesthetic evolved. Reima Pietilä once wrote that "through our use of building materials, we imitate the authentic impressions we derive from nature." In a country so unforgiving, nature is more than omnipresent, 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.

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