The photographic exhibition Alvar Aalto – A Gentler Structure for Life by photographer Maija Holma was the first exhibition of Finnish architecture ever to be held in Iran. Maija Holma talks about the contents of the exhibition, which was favourably received by the Tehran public, as well as her experiences in the encounter between Finnish and Iranian culture.
Photographic exhibition: Alvar Aalto – A Gentler Structure for Life
Artists’ Forum, Tehran, Iran, 12.–19.2.2014.
Alvar Aalto – A Gentler Structure for Life
I feel that there are many situations in life where the organisation is too brutal, and the architect’s task is to provide a gentler structure for life.
— Alvar Aalto, 1955
The photographic exhibition Alvar Aalto – A Gentler Structure for Life presents Aalto’s architecture from the 1930s to the 1970s. The earliest project included is the Aalto family home on Riihitie in Munkkiniemi, Helsinki, from 1936, which nowadays functions as a home museum. The Riihitie house’s more famous contemporary, Villa Mairea, is presented in several photos. Aalto’s 1950s redbrick period is represented by Aalto’s summer residence, the Muuratsalo Experimental House, as well as the Säynätsalo town hall and the campuses of the University of Jyväskylä and Helsinki University of Technology. Of the work of his later period, included are Rovaniemi Library, the Aalborg Art Museum in Denmark as well as the posthumously completed Riola church in Italy.
The Aalto exhibition came about in 1988 from material in the Alvar Aalto centenary book of the same name. The more extensive version had toured together with the exhibition Alvar Aalto and Red Brick in Central and South America in 1998–2004. Before arriving in Tehran, the present version comprised of thirty images was shown in, among other places, Slovenia, Romania, Norway, Ireland and the Canary Islands.
The exhibition images are hand-printed silver-gelatin prints and chromogenic colour prints made by myself. My approach to photography is simple: I try to use my senses and my tools to convey to the observer the feeling of the location and space. Architectural images are means to an end, and I have been somewhat critical of placing them in the context of photographic art, so to speak. The exhibition seemed, however, to work well as a short introduction to Aalto’s architecture and to convey information in an aesthetically appealing format. The photographs convey, on the one hand, the marks of life and, on the other, the timeless form language of the buildings, the feel of the material, the interaction between architecture and nature, and a delicacy intertwined with modernist severity.
Also included in the exhibition, organised by the Finnish Embassy in Iran, were photographs of Finland by the architect couple Najmeh Motallaei and Ehsan Ranjbar, who had studied in Finland for a year, as well as exhibits of Finnish industrial design. The Iranians’ photos provided an interestingly curious outsider viewpoint of Finnish urban space. The wall of an apartment block in Hervanta and a snowy bicycle path, or a shoreline in summer and teenagers sat on the edge of a Tampere pavement were something new for the inhabitants of a city of 16 million – especially since the cultural exchange between the two countries had been particularly minimal since the 1970s when Alvar Aalto was working on the designs of the Shiraz Art Museum.
The exhibitions attracted already on the opening day a large turnout, even to the point of crowding. A pleasant surprise was a gentleman who introduced himself as the court architect of the Empress Consort of Iran, and who talked about his meeting with Aalto in connection with the Shiraz project. Immediately on disembarking from the plane, Aalto had begun to devise a method by which the heat of the sun could be reflected away from the building so that it would not bother people, yet nevertheless allow the beautiful light to radiate on to the ground, just as it does normally.
Mahmood Mashreghi writes in the web publication Parsine that for the Iranian observer the presence of nature amidst both new and old architecture was particularly interesting in the image of Finland as conveyed in the exhibition. According to him, in Iranian urban planning nature is more often moved aside than retained as a companion to the built environment.
The exhibition location, the Artists’ Forum, is a cultural centre with seven galleries, two auditoriums, a shop and a vegetarian restaurant recommended by the Lonely Planet guidebook. Conferences, workshops and theatre productions are held in the auditorium, as well as showings of films not selected for general cinema distribution. The building is situated in a park area dating from the reign of shah Naser al-Din Shah Qajar at the end of the 19th century. During the Second World War it was a base for the allied forces, and even after the war it remained a military area until the end of the 1990s when the city of Tehran converted the building into a cultural centre.
Cultural life in a society that is under pressure to change has a much more intense meaning than it does for us Finns. For example, contemporary Iranian theatre does not avoid topical subjects, but rather acts as an important forum for social debate. In the evening, we walked passed the city theatre and noticed a lively bustle by the entrance and the public square surrounding the theatre. A mosque – interesting in terms of its architectural design – was under construction next to the theatre. However, its placement next to a public square, which has become established as a secular meeting place, has raised a heated debate.
Unfortunately, during my brief visit I had little opportunity to see any visual art. The spiky abstract sculptures both in public places and the second gallery of the Artists’ Forum, which I took a brief tour of, made a good impression. I used my only free day to explore the city and its parks. Perhaps the galleries would have been closed anyway because that particular day was also the anniversary of the revolution and a public holiday. People spent the day hanging out or being active in the parks, and taking loads of photos of each other. Also singing and playing music seemed to be an integral part of Iranian outdoor life; during the day I encountered several spontaneous singing performances.
The atmosphere in Tehran was relaxed and spontaneous, and I felt safe walking the city; people readily offered help when asking for directions, they were welcoming and happy to chat. A three-day glimpse into the ancient Persian culture and present-day reality left me eager to return. Finland’s ambassador in Iran, Harri Kämäräinen, seemed to have the motivation and ideas for increasing cultural exchange between the two countries. I wish every success in such an endeavour. Iranians seem to be well aware of a certain Iranophobia that Europeans suffer from. Surprisingly, the strongest impression from my trip was to discover that phobia or prejudice in myself, despite embarking on the trip with an open mind.
Text by Maija Holma.
English translation by Gareth Griffiths.
More Maija Holma’s images from Tehran:
Photographs from Najmeh Motallaei’s and Ehsan Rajnbar’s contribution to the exhibition: www.parsine.com/fa/news/182164.