The small exhibition hall of the Museum of Finnish Architecture has presented three inspiring architects from the Art Nouveau era. The curator, PhD Eija Rauske at MFA writes about Usko Nyström, Albert Petrelius and Vilho Penttilä and the meaning of their career for Finnish architecture.
Expertise, skill, style – Presenting Usko Nyström–Petrelius–Penttilä
The small exhibition hall of the Museum of Finnish Architecture currently presents three architects from the Art Nouveau era. Usko Nyström (1861–1925), Albert Petrelius (1865–1946) and Vilho Penttilä (1868–1918) are known for designing many Jugendstil buildings in the very centre of Helsinki. The three combined forces in 1894 in editing the journal Suomen Teollisuuslehti [Finnish Industrial Magazine] and from 1895 to 1908 they had a joint architectural firm Arkkitehtuuritoimisto Usko Nyström–Petrelius–Penttilä, the first distinctively Finnish-language architect collective.
In addition to their design work, the trio also had an impact in numerous other ways in their field. Nyström, the oldest and most experienced of the trio, was the firm’s figurehead and his long teaching career in the Polytechnic Institute spanning over three decades began already in 1892. From 1908 onwards he had a regular post as a lecturer when the Polytechnic Institute changed its status to become the University of Technology. Petrelius and Penttilä were staunch proponents of the Fennoman movement. Petrelius, who had qualified as both a master builder and architect, worked from 1893 onwards in the service of Pohjola Fire Insurance Company. For the entire duration of the joint office, Penttilä was the editor-in-chief of Suomen Teollisuuslehti and was one of the most important architect-writers in Finland.
In spring 1895, having received the commission from Ant. Wuorinen for a large apartment building in Helsinki, on the present-day Viiskulma street junction, the three architects founded a joint architectural firm. The sharp-cornered building, constructed between 1895 and 1898, dominated the entire urban block and was as an impressive advertisement for the new architectural firm that quickly earned a respected position. In addition to apartment buildings, they also designed, among other things, industrial and administrative buildings, churches, schools, banks, hotels and villas in different parts of the country, on top of which they also participated in architecture competitions. Their works were presented in Suomen Teollisuuslehti and on the pages of the sections Rakentaja [Builder] and Kotitaide [Domestic Art]. Newly qualified architects and master builders sort employment in the firm; among his students, Nyström was able to recruit the best. Around the drawing tables of the office new architectural collectives were born, such as von Essen–Kallio–Ikäläinen.
Traditional log construction was a passion of the young Vilho Penttilä. Already in 1894 he began his campaign in the columns of Suomen Teollisuuslehti to create a new Finnish style wooden architecture. Wooden buildings by the trio completed during the first years of the 20th century include: the mansard-roofed Villa Suviranta for the artist Eero Järnefelt designed by Nyström; the Hollolla Municipal House, using notched corner joints for the logs and perceived as the most Finnish of architecture; and the Savonlinna Tourist Hotel, representing the lively wooden Jugendstil architecture. The drawings of the hotel were signed by Nyström, who was later known as the architect of the Imatran Valtionhotelli hotel.
The key works in the architectural firm’s production were the 18 apartment buildings designed for the growing Helsinki. Several of them were situated on corner plots and boldly dominated their surroundings. The earliest of the apartment buildings, such as the Wuorinen building, were still characterised by historicist thinking. In its facades render was combined with brick, the latter perceived as an “authentic” material. The trio’s first Jugendstil apartment buildings materialised after the turn of the century, the most impressive of which was the one designed by Nyström for H. W. Schalin on the corner of the streets Tehtaankatu and Kapteeninkatu, with its corner dome and oval-shaped salons. The architect decorated the rendered and unpainted facades with stone mosaic, which became a sort of trademark for him. A similar decoration using pieces of green glass can be found in a school building in Kotka, from 1905.
The firm’s most important client became the pro-Finnish Kansallis-Osake-Pankki bank (KOP) from which they received their first commission for a bank building in Oulu in 1898. The bank buildings designed for the KOP bank include some of the most impressive masonry bank buildings of the time, of which the Vyborg bank building, completed in 1901, was among the first buildings in Finland with a soapstone façade.
After the joint office came to an end in 1908, Penttilä, who had become KOP’s trusted architect, designed for them five further bank buildings between 1910 and 1913. Three of them were clad in granite, which was favoured by those with capital and which was felt to represent permanence and stability. Penttilä, who of the trio had the most notable career as a practicing architect, also designed numerous apartment buildings in Helsinki. His signature can be seen in particular in the Eira city district.
Many schemes remained only on paper. The most important of the unrealised dreams was the Vyborg Town Hall, which Nyström and Penttilä had won in an architecture competition in 1899. The project remained on Nyström’s drawing table until the beginning of the 1920s. One can see from the sketches in the Museum of Finnish Architecture archives how Nyström fleshed out a gradually larger complex. The scheme developed from the Neo-gothic of the competition proposal into a completely different direction. The building design received a more classicist appearance, eventually transforming into a grandiose civic centre comprising three urban blocks. The totality was crowned by a tall building on Katariinankatu (nowadays Krepostnaja ulitsa) which borrowed its shape from American skyscrapers, while still preserving something of the decorativeness of Jugendstil.
The most important commission during the last years of Nyström’s life was the reconstruction of the medieval Lammi Church, which he received in the spring of 1918 following the Finnish Civil War. His former partner Penttilä had already died from the bullets of the “Reds” when German troops fighting alongside the “Whites” burned down the church. The work must have meant a lot to Nyström, who had devotedly measured French churches during his youth. The architect who had given thought to the properties and advantages of reinforced concrete could finally realise his ideas. The fire provided an opportunity for artistic freedom that would not have existed in a traditional restoration project. Nyström made use of reinforced concrete and designed the interior as a space covered by vaults and domes, conjuring up an oriental exoticness.
In the exhibition most attention is indeed paid to Usko Nyström, the beloved teacher of many generations of architects, and who is remembered in particular for his exceptional drawing skills. It is from his notes, sketchbooks and photo albums that many a young architect sought inspiration. Nyström, who at the time of his death was preparing a book on the history of styles, died suddenly in January 1925. Fortunately for the following generations, some of his writings were published in the Tietosanakirja [Encyclopaedia], a major project in ten volumes when published in the 1910s. For a supplement published in 1922, Nyström wrote the descriptions for almost 300 entries.
In addition to the buildings designed in the Usko Nyström–Petrelius–Penttilä office, the exhibition also presents works from each of the architects’ early years up until the beginning of the 1920s. In addition to original ink wash drawings and photographs belonging to the museum’s collection, there is also material borrowed from private patrons and public institutions. Many of the drawings are now on public display for the first time. Of the old photos, some are taken by Nyström himself. Like his well-known photographer brother Into K. Inha, he also walked around from his youth onwards with a camera on his shoulder. The donations of drawings from the Nordea Bank from 2008 and 2013 have been of considerable help when assembling the exhibition. Among the hundreds of drawings acquired last autumn by the museum are drawings of KOP Bank buildings in Lahti and Hämeenlinna appreciated even by Penttilä himself. He had put these on display exactly 100 years ago in the second exhibition of Finnish architecture held at the House of Nobility in Helsinki. In the mind of the exhibition organisers there already beckoned the idea of a museum of Finnish architecture.
Text: Eija Rauske.
Translation into English: Garreth Griffiths.
The exhibition Usko Nyström–Petrelius–Penttilä – Tribute to an architect trio is open 9.4.–11.5.2014 at the Museum of Finnish Architecture, Kasarmikatu 24, Helsinki.