Otaniemi Chapel by architects Heikki and Kaija Siren. Competition in 1954, completed in 1957. Photo: Marc Goodwin.
Otaniemi Chapel by architects Heikki and Kaija Siren. Competition in 1954, completed in 1957. Photo: Marc Goodwin.

Materiality and the Magic of Light. Wolfgang Jean Stock on sacral architecture in Finland in the 21st century

Wolfgang Jean Stock, the German historian and architecture critic and esteemed scholar of Finnish architecture, has recently published a book about Finnish churches and chapels of the 21st century. By courtesy of the Finnish Architectural Review 2/2015, we are proud to re-publish his article discussing contemporary religious architecture in Finland.

Materiality and the Magic of Light

All great Finnish architects of the era of modernity have turned their skills to church building, from Alvar Aalto and Erik Bryggman to Aarno Ruusuvuori and Juha Leiviskä. Their churches and chapels are pinnacles of modern architecture. But also in the early 21st century, Finnish architects are fascinated by sacred buildings. They are continuing a great tradition, since unlike other regions of Europe, church building in Finland has continually evolved as an expression of the ceremonial and the sublime until the present day.

In books resulting of my research on European 20th century church architecture, works by several Finnish architects are presented.(i) In addition to the architects mentioned above I have introduced churches by Lars Sonck, Erkki Huttunen, Kaija and Heikki Sirén, Raili and Reima Pietilä and Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen. On my travels I have observed that in Finland the development of modern architecture is much more closely associated with sacred buildings than in other countries. (ii)

Photo of the interior of the Männistö Church designed by Juha Leiviskä.

Männistö Church, interior. Architect Juha Leiviskä with Pekka Kivisalo, 1992. Photo: Anni Vartola.

View of the interior of the Lieksa church by Raili ja Reima Pietilä (1982). Photo: Anni Vartola.

View of the interior of the Lieksa church by Raili ja Reima Pietilä, 1982. Photo: Anni Vartola.

Internationally speaking, church building has played a similarly major role only in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Continental Europe did nonetheless witness an era of forced modesty: rather than symbolic churches, after 1970 most constructions were flat parish centres, often of an anonymous nature since towers were also dispensed with. In 1988, St. Benedict mountain chapel by Peter Zumthor in the Swiss canton of Graubünden was in a way a turning point. This small but striking construction decisively championed the return of the sacred character of churches in continental Europe.

In architecture, I regard ‘little’ Finland as being, to this day, a superpower.

The church as a place of cult and culture

Zumthor‘s chapel unites three fundamental criteria of the reclaimed sacredness: the interaction with the location, heightened spirituality brought about by ingenious usage of light and the sensual presence of the material. In Finland, these criteria did not need to be re-discovered, since sacredness had never been absent as a criterion. Continuity is provided above all by the magnificent churches of Juha Leiviskä, which provide a link to earlier Finnish sacred buildings. In 2010 when I set about starting a series of exhibitions on 21st century European sacred buildings in the gallery of the German Association for the Sacred Arts, the choice for the third region, after Bavaria and Austria (iii), went to Finland as being representative of Scandinavia. In architecture, I regard ‘little’ Finland as being, to this day, a superpower.

Well prepared by my talks with Professor, art historian Riitta Nikula and the documentation in The Finnish Architectural Review, I made trips to visit new Finnish churches and chapels. I spoke to the architects, but often also with parish representatives, because I wanted to know how the buildings have worked in everyday life. On my travels between Oulu and Helsinki I found out that the churches are well-liked places where people meet for social and cultural activities as well as for church services and festivals.

One evening I arrived unannounced in Kuokkala Church (Anssi Lassila, Teemu Hirvilammi, 2010) in Jyväskylä. The festive, joyous atmosphere was overwhelming and at the same time surprising because a small female choir was rehearsing, accompanied on the piano. The next day, in Klaukkala Church (Anssi Lassila, 2004) in Nurmijärvi, a similar experience: a young female pianist playing Russian romances on the piano. With the exception of the cemetery chapel, Chapel of St. Lawrence (Ville Hara, Anu Puustinen, 2010) in Vantaa and Kamppi Chapel (Kimmo Lintula, Niko Sirola, Mikko Summanen, 2012) in Helsinki, the new sacred buildings have an attractive dual character – they are both places of worship and places of culture.

Interior of the Klaukkala church designed by architect Anssi Lassila.

Klaukkala Church. Architect Anssi Lassila / OOPEAA, competition in 2000, completed in 2004. Photo: Jussi Tiainen, by courtesy of OOPEAA.

Interior of the Klaukkala church designed by architect Anssi Lassila.

Klaukkala Church interior. Photo: Jussi Tiainen, by courtesy of OOPEAA.

Detail of the Kamppi Chapel of Silence. Architects K2S, 2012. Photo: Anni Vartola.

Detail of the Kamppi Chapel of Silence. Architects K2S, 2012. Photo: Anni Vartola.

Kuokkala Church by Lassila Hirvilammi Architects, competition in 2006, completed in 2010. Photo: Jussi Tiainen, by courtesy of OOPEAA.

Kuokkala Church by Anssi Lassila / OOPEAA, competition in 2006, completed in 2010. Photo: Jussi Tiainen, by courtesy of OOPEAA.

Kuokkala Church interior. Photo: Jussi Tiainen, by courtesy of OOPEAA.

Kuokkala Church interior. Photo: Jussi Tiainen, by courtesy of OOPEAA.

fresh winds are blowing in Finnish architecture

Descendants of Alvar Aalto

In the book for the 2014 exhibition I explained at length why it was titled Materiality and the Magic of Light. The calculated usage of light in the new churches and chapels serves to heighten the effect of these works of art, which are of differing quality. However, the fittings, lighting and equipment in all the buildings play a central role. All the objects are reduced to the bare essentials. The guiding theme was evidently the old Finnish saying that a thing should “rather be simple than poorly embellished”.

In an interview in 1969, Alvar Aalto said: “Modern architecture does not mean using immature new materials; the main thing is to work with materials towards a more human line” (iv). The architects of the 21st century sacred buildings are his descendants, so to speak. They have latched on to Aalto’s idea and put it to work, above all in the constructions built of wood, a re-discovered material. Thanks to them, fresh winds are blowing in Finnish architecture.

Alongside the end-of-the-1980s rationalism of the ‘Cool Helsinki School’, as Peter Davey characterised it at the time (v), another, more open creative trend has arisen. And it is in the new wooden churches, where tradition and modernity come together in very different ways, where Finland‘s unbroken line of sacredness is carried into the future in a fascinating way. The many visitors to our exhibition in Munich saw them as icons of Finnish architecture rather than just some contemporary designs. And there was a clear favourite: the shingle church in Kärsämäki (2004) designed by Anssi Lassila.

Cover of The Architectural Review, March 1990.

Cover of The Architectural Review, March 1990.

Kärsämäki Shingle Church by OOPEAA Office for Peripheral Architecture, completed in 2004. Photo: Jussi Tiainen, by courtesy of OOPEAA.

Kärsämäki Shingle Church by Anssi Lassila, completed in 2004. Photo: Jussi Tiainen, by courtesy of OOPEAA.

Kärsämäki Church interior. Photo: Jussi Tiainen, by courtesy of OOPEAA.

Kärsämäki Church interior. Photo: Jussi Tiainen, by courtesy of OOPEAA.

 

Text by Wolfgang Jean Stock. Originally published in the Finnish Architectural Review / Arkkitehti 2/2015. Re-published by courtesy of the author and ARK.

stock-coverWolfgang Jean Stock: Lichtzauber und Materialität. Kirchen und Kapellen in Finnland seit 2000 / Materiality and the Magic of Light. Churches and Chapels in Finland since 2000. DG Deutsche Gesellschaft für christliche Kunst, Deutscher Kunstverlag, München 2014.

Footnotes

(i) Wolfgang Jean Stock. Europäischer Kirchenbau 1900–1950. Aufbruch zur Moderne / European Church Architecture 1900–1950. Towards Modernity. Prestel, 2006.

(ii) Marja-Riitta Norri, Elina Standertskjöld, Wilfried Wang (eds.). 20th Century Architecture: Finland. Museum of Finnish Architecture. Deutsches Architektur-Museum, 2000.

(iii) Wolfgang Jean Stock. Spiritualität und Sinnlichkeit. Kirchen und Kapellen in Bayern und Österreich seit 2000. DG Deutsche Gesellschaft für christliche Kunst, Deutscher Kunstverlag, 2013.

(iv) Alvar Aalto. “The Relationship between Architecture, Painting and Sculpture”. In ETH Zürich (ed.), Alvar Aalto Synopsis. Painting. Architecture. Sculpture. Birkhäuser, 1980 (1970), p. 26. Göran Schildt (ed.), Näin puhui Alvar Aalto. Otava, 1997, p. 269.

(v) Peter Davey in The Architectural Review, March 1990.

 

Content collaboration