The World Monuments Fund has given significant recognition to the Finnish Committee for the Restoration of Viipuri Library and the Central City Alvar Aalto Library for the renovation of the library. In their statement explaining the basis for awarding the 2014 World Monuments/Knoll Modernism Prize, the parties involved in the restoration are praised for their long-term tenacious work in saving the building that is considered a major work of international modernism.
The Central City Alvar Aalto Library is an iconic modern structure and we are delighted to witness its successful restoration through an international network of funders and professionals. It speaks to the fundamental mission of WMF, which was founded on the belief that international cooperation can play a catalytic role in saving important historic sites around the globe.
— Bonnie Burnham, president, World Monuments Fund (WMF)
Following the announcement of the awarding of the prize, Architecture Information Centre Finland met up with the chairman of the Finnish Committee for the Restoration of Viipuri Library, Eric Adlercreutz.Trailer of a documentary of the library and the restauration project. The film was screened at the Alvar Aalto Museum in Jyväskylä during the summer exhibition about the library in 2014.
Congratulations for the esteemed recognition. What does the prize mean to you?
The World Monuments Fund was very important to us already from the very beginning of the restoration project. They maintain a list, The World Monuments Watch, which is updated every two years, and which comprises cultural heritage sites around the world that are considered the hundred most endangered. The Alvar Aalto Library in Vyborg was on the list twice, from 2000 to 2004.
It was from this premise that we were able to start, that is, to apply for funding from the World Monuments Fund. Through the Robert W. Wilson Challenge to Conserve Our Heritage, which operates under the World Monuments Fund, we were able to repair the roof of the library, which saved the building. The World Monuments Fund is a well known international operator, so their recognition is in a sense also a valuable award. The recognition has, of course, been given to both the final result and the entire restoration process.
In their reasoning for awarding the prize, the World Monuments Fund emphasises the role of the library restoration committee in the renovation project. How has the committee operated over the years?
The work for the Alvar Aalto Library began already in 1995, albeit more loosely organised. Several parties participated, such as the Ministry of the Environment, SAFA, the Ministry of Education, the Museum of Finnish Architecture, the National Board of Antiquities, and the National Board of Building, as well as private persons, particularly former employees of the Alvar Aalto office.
When the actual renovation work began, in 1994 if I remember correctly, a project group was set up, for which I became the chairman. Up to that point Kristian Gullichsen had been the chairman. The suggestion to establish a registered company came from the Ministry of Education, from whom we had applied for funding. Consequently, the Finnish Committee for the Restoration of Viipuri Library was founded in 1997, the operative organ of which was the board of the committee.
In the actual restoration work architect Tapani Mustonen has acted as principal designer; also architect Leif Englund has been involved. Maija Kairamo became a central figure during the 2000s. She retired from the National Board of Antiquities at the end of the 1990s and was a veritable godsend, in that she was able to use her time and expertise for the benefit of the library. Here I want to emphasise that the prize is awarded also to the library itself. Its management has supported us 100% during the whole process.
The long restoration work has demanded enormous amounts of tenacity and voluntary work spirit. Would you like to elaborate?
Yes, in retrospect I even wonder how we could have maintained such an optimistic frame of mind. In the beginning the work was very slow and at that speed the project would have lasted at least fifty years. It was important that there would be no breaks in the restoration work because then people easily lose faith. We tried to keep the work going the whole time, and we were indeed fairly successful in that. We continuously received small sums here and there for the repair work. There were also positive aspects to the slowness: apart from the very final repair stage, it was possible for the library to remain operating during the whole period.
When the roof repair work was set in motion in 2002 we finally achieved visible results. Following the roof, the newspaper and magazine reading room was repaired, and with funding from the Alvar Aalto Society in Sweden also the lecture hall. When the lecture hall was inaugurated in November 2010 we were informed that the Russian Federation will pay for the remaining repair work. This was serendipitous because everybody had been impressed by the repaired lecture hall and its furniture. Artek indeed had an anniversary fundraising, which was so successful that we were able to furnish the entire lecture hall in the original style.
The whole process has been a very exiting experience. It is almost as if we would have thrown a rock into water and the ripples would have gradually begun to have even surprising effects. The friendships with people in Vyborg and the library staff, with all the participants, have been very important. The head of the library, Tatjana Svetelnikova, has been a most central figure. And she speaks English so fluently that she was able to act also as an interpreter.
Why was the renovation of the Alvar Aalto Library all in all so slow and difficult?
The main reason was the lack of money on both sides of the border. The issue was also politically sensitive. Why would Finland set out to save a building that is falling apart on territory belonging to another state? There were also a lot of people who were of the opinion that renovation would be pointless because it would just decay again immediately. There were also a lot of people expressing the viewpoint that the library should be rebuilt somewhere in Finland. We tenaciously kept replying to texts published in the newspapers and emphasised how the library is tied to the location. There were also many stories claiming that material would continuously be stolen from the library and its building site.
Gradually increasing support and interest from abroad led to a reduction in critical opinion. An important turn took place at a conference held in the Rautatalo building in Helsinki when we received public support from such heavy-weight politicians as the then prime minister Paavo Lipponen and president Martti Ahtisaari.
Political changes such as the fall of the Soviet Union were probably also important?
In a way, yes. Borders opened up, and in Russia there were no objections to cooperation. The working methods developed gradually. For example, there were always three parties in the renovation negotiations: the library, the contractors and us. The role of the library was all in all the most central, and also the so-called “Putin’s money” was channelled via the library.
Occasionally there were, of course, some problems. For example, we felt the need to remark about the quality of the work of a particular St. Petersburg contractor, where our authority to order the work to be redone was at stake. Gradually also there people understood the importance of the quality of the repair work and what a significant building the library is, and how important it is to follow the Docomomo restoration principles. Russia took from the very beginning a positive approach to the restoration project and gradually money started to come in from that side too: the City of Vyborg, the St Petersburg cultural administration and then also the Ministry of Culture. These were not large sums, but nevertheless demonstrated an interest. Locals also helped us with the bureaucratic problems that we faced.
Did the anti-Aalto sentiment that sometimes manifests itself in Finnish architectural circles have any effect?
Opposition to the repair of the library was, in my opinion, not linked so much with any anti-Aalto sentiment. The Viipuri Library was an internationally recognised landmark building of modernism and its significance in Aalto’s career is also undisputed. Nevertheless, for instance in the journal Arkkitehtiuutiset there were texts claiming that the restoration of the library would be a waste of money.
In the restoration of the Aalto Library in Vyborg the recommendations of the international organisation Docomomo have, as you stated, been followed. Regarding the library, it is probably not a case, however, of conservation?
The building was in a bad state and in particular a lot of the surface materials had already been removed or they had been covered under new layers. The previous, cheaply made, renovation from the 1960s had been carried out without drawings. Thus a lot had to be redone from scratch. The principle was, however, that everything that could be saved was saved – also some alterations and additions from the Soviet era. This is in a way part of the restoration ideology: to indicate the historical layers.
What next should we preserve or restore?
Russia indeed has many buildings from that period in danger of falling apart, but we are more moved by the fact that the state of the overall building heritage in Vyborg is virtually catastrophic. Also in Finland we have plenty of work to do with Aalto’s buildings. The attitude to Aalto’s heritage is fortunately fairly positive and the Alvar Aalto Foundation is active in this regard. On the whole the situation in regard to the modernist heritage is, in my opinion, no longer as serious as it was at an earlier point. Valuable sites are being fairly conscientiously listed.
The 2014 World Monuments Fund/Knoll Modernism Prize will be awarded in New York in December. Have you already decided who will hold the acceptance speech and who will receive the gift that forms part of the prize, a Barcelona chair designed by Mies van der Rohe?
Representatives of both the board and the design team will travel there. Maija Kairamo, Tapani Mustonen and myself will speak in turn. I will speak first, and then Maija will tell about the idea and significance of the building and finally Tapani will talk about the actual restoration. The chair will of course go to Tapani.
Text by Anni Vartola / Archinfo.
Translation by Gareth Griffiths and Kristina Kölhi.