It’s August 2012 and I’m in Helsinki, a capital city on the edge of Europe. The 12th Alvar Aalto Symposium is opening tonight, marked by a gathering at his studio / house complex, now a museum. I’m nervous. Who holds a conference in August? Everyone is on holiday! Yet there are plenty of people at the party – they can’t all be organisers, and some I vaguely recognise. I have built up an email relationship with the impeccable organisers and I am scruitinising everyone’s face to see if any of them recognises me from the photo I sent for publicity purposes. It’s all very informal, but I’m wandering around not really knowing who to approach, wondering if the Finn’s legendary shyness is going to be a characteristic of this event.
Then the speeches are made, and the cast of characters begins to fall into a kind of order. I meet journalists, Aalto specialists, foreigners, students, bright young lions, and a range of speakers that have been flown in from all over the world. I wander around the house and grounds, recalling a visit made a few years ago, in November, when we were the only two visitors. Now rather suburban, the neighbourhood feels isolated from the city and I am beginning to think about how I am going to get back to the hotel. It is still a bit light when we leave, although it’s quite late. We have an early start the following morning. We are going on a magical mystery tour that will take us to the conference venue.
After breakfast we pile into a coach and set off. I have no clear idea where we are going. The landscape opens out into rolling green fields and woods, dotted with water. By late morning we arrive at a small town situated on a lake. Upended boats lie on the beach and there is a small vessel moored up onto which we clamber. I am beginning to enjoy this. The boat sets off and I realise we are on a sort of cruise which will deliver us to our destination by water. With five hours to idle away on board, this is a wonderful ice-breaker for the conference participants.
The boat is a retro-inspired mini-liner, reminiscent of the 1950’s, though I can’t date it. We are served a hearty lunch at tables covered in red gingham tablecloths. There is a tiny bar room crammed with passengers drinking vodka. People move around the boat chatting and watching the scenery unfold around us as we glide slowly northwards. The sky is grey and so is the lake water. If I were a birdwatcher I could probably spot some amazing species, but I’m not. Time drifts and I speak to as many people as I can. Architects and journalists hold court, telling anecdotes. There are some that have been on this trip before, some several times before, and many know one another, so it feels slightly clubby. Others have links to Scandinavia, and have brought friends or loved ones along for the ride. The sense of returning to something aboriginal is palpable.
At last we arrive at Aalto’s house, hidden within the wood not far from the lake edge. We all pile off and are ferried to the shore on a floating flatbed. The boat floats off and I feel oddly stranded. We are admitted to the great works we have studied in books. The party swarms over the site, photographing everything. The genius loci gently pervades, but with all these people it is difficult to register. The setting of a building is essential for understanding the whole conception. Sometimes I have found myself disappointed, but the experience is always informative. There is another welcome speech, and homage paid, with all of us standing in the courtyard.
Another coach and we are at Säynätsalo Town Hall. Then we are finally deposited in our hotel by the lake at Jyväskylä. I am struck by how discontinuous is the urbanism here, each building relatively isolated from its neighbours. It feels more like an English village. Yet this is one of Finland’s most important towns, Alvar Aalto’s native town and an outdoor museum containing some 22 of his buildings, including the university. I start to wonder if I am about to be suffocated by Aalto. How do young architects escape the stranglehold of the great master? Is it a good thing to have such a dominant reference point? And, when design suffuses every aspect of life in Finland, why is one person’s career so prevalent? Surely the bounty could be spread around?
There is another welcome party at the Worker’s Club (an early, Classically-inspired, work by Aalto), and a reception at the Town Hall, also by the master, but with the familiar flowing foyers and easy going stairs. This conference is proving extraordinarily generous and hospitable, and I am struck that the Finns obviously know how to enjoy themselves. The conference takes place in the Aalto Auditorium. One by one the speakers make their presentations. Very few of the architects address the conference theme, giving the usual sales pitch. I have witnessed some of these before.
I am mainly captivated by the younger generation of Finns working in a variety of materials and escaping the weight of Aalto’s influence to produce a wide range of interesting work across all building types. But the journalists are interested in the stars, who perform to order. One keynote, a couple, have made their life into a work of performance art. They and their children wear signature primary coloured shirts & socks, paired with black trousers. I wonder if they sleep in the same colours, or argue about their allocated hue. How long will this drama last? Do they get tired of the role play? I think probably not, because their business cards are colour-coded too.
On our return to the capital I am pleased to have a day or two to wander again around some real urbanity, and revisit sites of interest that I’d seen before, such as the Temppeliaukio rock church. A journalist I’d met at the conference offers to show me some new housing, as we have a housing scheme on the drawing board in our office. We spend a long afternoon and evening hopping on and off buses analysing what works and what doesn’t. I am seduced by the Käpylä housing scheme, with its mature landscape, beautiful planning, and simple, varied house types that dignify everyday life.
But I am drawn inexorably back to the city centre, with its quayside flattered by clear blue sea-reflected light, its neoclassical order and urbane, simple blocks. I even love the exuberant Finnish expressionist architecture of the early 20th century. Confident yet searching, of the place but communicating with broader narratives, the home-grown architecture understands where it is and what it has to do. The edge of Europe is a good place to survey the frenetic activity at the centre, and take a measured view of what’s important. To my mind the margin is always more interesting, and you don’t have to look far in Finland to prove it.