Long thought lost, Alvar Aalto's 1935 Viipuri Library—a paragon of Modernist form and function—is back in circulation

Like a long-overdue book that's suddenly found in the back of a drawer, the Viipuri Library in Russia, an early masterpiece by Finnish Modernist architect Alvar Aalto once thought to have been destroyed in World War II, has been "rediscovered" and is now undergoing extensive renovation.

The library was completed in 1935 in the town of Viipuri—renamed Vyborg after the war, when Finland ceded it to the Soviet Union—some 75 miles northwest of St. Petersburg. Foreigners' access to the area was restricted during the Cold War, leading Western historians to believe the library had been all but razed. In fact, it had survived without major damage, but suffered in later years from Soviet neglect and clumsy repairs.

The building reemerged after the easing of East-West tensions, and an international campaign to restore it began in 1992. I. M. Pei, Frank Gehry, and Richard Meier are among the prominent American architects backing the project, estimated to cost up to $8 million. The World Monuments Fund has placed the library on its list of the 100 most endangered sites.

The building's interior is arranged on multiple levels, with a lyrically undulating ceiling over the lecture hall. Aalto also created the clean-lined furnishings, including his often reproduced molded-plywood chairs and stackable stools. And the central reading room is lit by large round skylights, designed by Aalto to leave readers undisturbed by shadows or direct light.