Alvar Aalto

I beg you do not forget playfulness. – Alvar Aalto

An architectural pilgrimage is never just about seeking out masterworks. It’s about what happens along the way, and all the joyous whirling that goes on in the brain after you return home.

I had dreamed of travelling to Finland for many years, to see the mythical giants holding spherical lamps at the entrance to the Central Railway Station (1909), designed by the great Eliel Saarinen in Helsinki, and to experience the architectural humility and humanity of the legendary modernist Alvar Aalto, who turned 16-year-old Frank Gehry onto architecture when the Finn lectured at the University of Toronto in 1946. Gehry has since travelled to Finland seven times.

And so, as part of my journey, I walked through a forest along a meandering path to the experimental summer home created by Aalto and his second wife, architect Elissa Makiniemi, in 1953 on the island of Muuratsalo, about 270 kilometres north of Helsinki. I also ate homemade pea soup and a pancake – a traditional military meal – at the Helsinki University of Technology, recently renamed Aalto University, and met students from Alaska, New Zealand and England who have come to practise working with wood during an intense one-year graduate program.

The Finnish approach to architecture is a sobering yet exhilarating antidote to a world gone mad for excessive and absurdly expensive design. Aalto fit his buildings to the scale of the human body and the natural world around them. Budget-restricted architects trying to breathe inspired life into their work need only to study the great Finnish master. Instead of travertine, he created stairs of brick or wood. For the graceful, big curve of his Helsinki studio space, first completed in 1955, he used insulation paper because of its interesting ribbed pattern, then applied thin, vertical ribs of wood and painted it all white. Inexpensive, and stunning. The studio now houses the Alvar Aalto Foundation, which organizes the International Alvar Aalto Symposium that takes place in the city of Jyvaskyla every three years.

Aalto devoted much of his energy to capturing natural light, cutting rows of round skylights in lobbies or cafeterias. In universities and the compelling National Pensions Institute in downtown Helsinki, he used thick structural columns with vertical rows of curved ceramic piping. Aalto was playing, albeit seriously, all the time.

Harry and Maire Gullichsen were among the wealthiest people in Finland when they commissioned Aalto to design their Villa Mairea during the Depression, but there are rattan mats on the floors rather than Persian carpets. There are flagstones on the ground and columns resting on small boulders at the front entrance. I am amazed by balustrades and arbours made of spruce saplings. In a home filled with Picassos and Fernand Legers and Alexander Calders, there are bookcases on the study walls made of birch plywood – nothing fancy, just engaging and warm.

Aalto had an imperfect aesthetic. When other international modernists such as Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius were creating highly modular, mathematical designs, Aalto expressed something of an absent-minded hand with irregularly placed columns in his buildings, creating architecture that gave voice to gentle curves and locally found materials such as granite and pine. He wrapped slender steel columns in rattan, the better to mimic the rough texture of pine bark. At every one of his front doors, he reached out to the hand of the visitor – his custom-designed handles were rendered as boomerangs or animal bones, easy to grasp, comforting to hold.

It’s rare to find an architect who can produce work that’s so magical and mysterious, and so alive. Before travelling to Finland, I imagined this might be the case with Aalto, but it was during a night when I slept at Aalto’s celebrated Saynatsalo Town Hall (1952) that I was truly convinced of the ethereal qualities of his architecture. My bedroom was part of a housing wing at the public building. Children could be heard playing down the hall, and a man with a crooked, weather-beaten face greeted me while carrying laundry back to his apartment.

My room was simple and spare, outfitted with furniture classics by Artek, a Finnish manufacturer of chairs, tables and fabrics founded by Aalto, his first wife Aino Marsio (also an architect) and their friend, the aforementioned Maire Gullichsen.

The wealth of the space comes from the view to the grassy courtyard, imagined by Aalto as a public gathering plaza. I pushed the tall wood-framed windows open to let the sound of the fountain in the reflecting pool fill the room.

The town hall launched Aalto’s red brick portfolio of work. Inspired by Italian hill towns, he arranged the buildings around an artificially created hill. The volumes look like earthen red sculptures, with the council chambers presenting a sharply angled primitive mask within the complex. Within the mask, there is a pair of fantastic exposed ceiling trusses that Aalto called, appropriately, the butterflies. This was Aalto’s gift to a pulp-and-paper community of 3,000 people: timeless architecture.

Though the connection is rarely acknowledged, there’s much that is shared between Canadians and Finns. The omnipresence of granite in Finland mimics the humps of the Canadian shield. And there was an important migration of Finns to Canada after the two world wars.

One of Frank Gehry’s best friends in Timmins was a Finn, and Gehry has visited Finland not only for its architecture, he tells me, but also for the company of Esa-Pekka Salonen, the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which performs at the Gehry-designed Walt Disney Hall. Last year, Gehry visited Finland to celebrate Salonen’s 50th birthday, and enjoyed a sauna at a shared artist’s compound designed in the early 1900s in the National Romantic style by Eliel Saarinen.

The place is a muscular work of wood and stone set on a lake outside of Helsinki – designed as a mythical work of art, with ancient Nordic motifs painted on the ceiling. This is where I first tasted reindeer carpaccio. At the edge of the lake is the sauna. This is where, after taking in the heat, Gehry rolled in the snow and was in the middle of making an angel, buck naked, when somebody took his picture. It hasn’t been circulated.

“Finland was a place that was kind of my own for a while,” Gehry says during a telephone conversation a couple days after my return from Finland. “Aalto taught me humanity, how to make tough architecture with humanity. And I still think that he’s the master of that – nobody has ever made it to that level. The closest building I’ve done as an homage to Aalto is the Princeton Science Library.”

The Finns I met failed to uphold the reputation that precedes them. I’d been warned of people who rarely laugh and are so utterly reserved as to look at their shoes while speaking to a visitor. What I encountered was old-world charm, hosts who would wait on the sidewalk in front of their offices or institutions to greet me before ushering me inside to talk over coffee and elaborate treats – a regular Finnish custom. The language is half spoken, half sung. One of my hosts, Vilhelmiina from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the agency responsible for organizing my trip, breathes out the language in a whisper. Because of this and her pale eyes and bleached white hair, I’m convinced that she has another life as an elf in Kalevala, the epic Finnish poem.

The whirlings carry on. I’m writing this while listening to the driving, wind-swept ballad of Jean Sibelius’s Karelia Suite . Thinking back to a few days ago, I can almost feel what it was like travelling by train to Finland’s western coast to see Villa Mairea, past granite outcrops and fields and forests. The landscape registered on my video camera as patches of black and endless streams of green. The images stayed this way for a long time under the midnight sun.

Lisa Rochon
The Globe and Mail