Published  15/08/2005

Finland: Modern Architectures in History – book review

Finland: Modern Architectures in History – book review

Roger Connah. Modern Architectures in History Series. London: Reaktion Books, 2006
£16.95 ISBN 1861892500

The awakening of Modernism in the 1880s in Finland, as in other European nations, was first felt through the visual arts and literature, manifested (post-Charles Darwin) as a growth in interest in Naturalism and the perceived effects of an increasingly industrialised society. Awareness, for instance, both of the writings of Emile Zola and of Leo Tolstoy spread through the intelligentsia, stimulating concepts of social equality and of universal education. Finland, as with other northern countries, keenly received ideas of national identity and of regeneration of society. For example, the Finnish Literature Society, of which Johan Wilhelm Snellman had been a co-founder (as Professor of philosophy at Helsinki University) in 1856, helped foster this spirit of Realism and Naturalism - powerfully expressed by poets such as Pentti Saarikoski. Female artists including Fanny Churberg and Helene Schjerfbeck exaggerated human types appropriately for a new age: Schjerfbeck and Greta Hallfors chose to depict the extremes of human depravity.

The growth of Modernism in architecture in Finland stemmed out of such pressures. Sigurd Frosterus, a major thinker, commentator and architect in Helsinki (but not much translated even today, sadly) from 1904, grasped the essence of urban industrialisation from a period spent in London as an admirer of CFA Voysey and the architect, CH Townsend, and brought back his reactions. These were expressed in the somewhat romanticising text he wrote, London Rhapsody (1903), within which lay a powerful cautionary strain for Finns about over-rapid industrialisation, seeing through the burgeoning romanticism at home. Helsinki was not to lose, in his view, her true identity as a city in the process, but architects should still graft on international ideas. Such was to be the 'future conditional' of Finland's own modernismus. Frosterus, and his colleague Gustaf Strengell, led the way bravely yet cautiously forward. Architects were emboldened to take control of all future planning, and of building and urban design at this time, to Helsinki's exceptional long-term benefit. Roger Connah points up such key issues thoroughly.

Roger Connah has grounded his study appropriately in the 19th- and early 20th-century cultural developments. His study is revealing in terms of what else was happening subsequently apart from Aalto, upon whom alone international commentators inevitably focused after Sigfried Giedion's promotions of his work in the period from 1935 onwards. What has been been needed is precisely the placing of such developments in the broader context: so Connah also plots the patterns of post-war dissent that harried Aalto in his homeland, and so reveals the new 'shoots'; (which included Juhani Pallasmaa and Kristian Gullichsen - although neither merit mention themselves surprisingly) that emerged in the following two generations. Nor is any reference made to the important role of Colin St John Wilson, the British architect who best understood and promulgated Aalto's work outside Finland in the period after his death. Such omissions one must assume to be unfortunate oversights on the part of the author. Nonetheless, before and after Aalto are stages that are here, for the first time thoroughly and effectively analysed and summarised in one edition. Nor is it truly accurate not to mention, in the overall development of Finnish Modernism from the beginning, as in painting, the important role of women architects in this gestation and consolidation, as typified by Aalto's own partnerships.

Michael Spens

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