January 1999                       

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Aalto, Sibelius and the New York Finnish Pavilion, 1939

Sixty years ago, two famous Finnish creative geniuses helped to draw the world’s attention to the dangers which their country was facing. Sarah Menin analyses how the work of the architect Alvar Aalto and the composer Jean Sibelius served Finland’s national interest at that crucial moment.

Although they never met personally, on the eve of the Winter War, when the Russian Bear threatened to sit on its diminutive neighbour, there was an incidental creative duet between Aalto and Sibelius.

At the opening of New York World Fair Finnish Pavilion in 1939, a broadcast of Sibelius conducting his Andante Festivo in Helsinki wafted in the undulating forested interior. At this moment the creativity and fame of Finland’s two cultural ambassadors was called on to draw the world’s attention to the plight of their far off land, which found itself between a rock and a hard place.

The political moment was critical – Finland must project herself favourably to the Allies despite the country’s leaning towards Germany. Aalto’s expression was crucial, both economically (the projection of the natural and commercial fecundity of the forest) and creatively (the pavilion interior demonstrated a germ of his maturing creative genre). Sibelius’s contribution was more patriotic than it was a true creative peak. Had Tapiola been broadcast instead, Finland would have been broadcasting the ache of a vulnerable soul (perhaps both of her octogenarian cultural god, and indeed of the nation itself), brilliant and moving as that would have been, rather than the stirring romanticism of Andante Festivo, which could be relied on to stir the hearts and then the purse strings of the free world, and particularly the neutral states.

After 1925 Finland, and the world, had waited for Sibelius to pen a path beyond Tapiola. However, it could be said that he was lost (both spiritually or musicologically) in the forest – having found a fully integrated sound world. The Finnish Pavilion of 1939 demonstrated a moment when Aalto joined Sibelius in Tapio’s realm in aesthetic and symbolic terms, yet it was Aalto’s multi-cellular architecture (such as libraries and accommodation buildings) which are closer to Sibelius’s preoccupation with compositional structure and growth.

Thus, Sibelius’s musical utterance was incidental musicologically (he may not have suggested the piece himself) but crucial politically. On the other hand, Aalto’s spatial statement was both creative and political. He spoke in architectural detail of the economy, culture and nature of Finland, but also of his own nature. That machines featured in the enormous exhibition photographs was crucial to Aalto – his pavilion was not an ethnological specimen reassembled from the backwoods. His piece represents a sometimes lonely path between the unhoned stones of romanticism (and Finnish Jugenstil), and the hard metallic place of machined Modernism. Aalto’s capacity to relate economic and political realities in a way which was aesthetically and indeed humanely pleasing was a key skill.

In their most mature works the two Finns can be said to be seeking to draw disparate elements into a complex whole. Therein small elements may be said to ‘grow’ into complex yet harmonic entities, which often comprise extraordinary boundaries, junctions and interfaces between compositional elements (e.g. 7th Symphony and Baker House Dormitory, M.I.T.). Ironically, these difficult joinings are often the most profound moments of harmony in their work, and it should be recalled that ‘harmony’ is rooted in the Greek word harmos – which means joint.

Both Aalto and Sibelius had a deep ‘urge’ to relate the disparate. Both sought to bring life and art closer together, and even, perhaps, a regenerative artistic form which might revisit and redress severed elements (of themselves and the world in which they worked).

However, the stirring patriotsim of Andante Festivo did not do Sibelius justice. His calling was more challenging musically, and indeed, emotionally. In his greatest work form sought out difficult unities and raw humanity gaped – like the wound soon to be exposed on Finland’s eastern border. In requisitioning aspects of the backwoods for his "symphony in wood", Aalto was both pinning Finland’s heart to a tree, and, with its remarkable architectural form, yoking Finnish culture to the heart of the twentieth century – with its progress and its grief, both.

Thus in the New York Finnish Pavilion, Finland desperately waved to the world, Aalto threw down the gauntlet to Modernists, retreating in personal terror of the war to a Stockholm hotel, and Sibelius, somehow above it all, drowned in the silence of Tapiola’s wake.

Dr. Sarah Menin is a lecturer at the Department of Architecture, University of Newcastle. She specialies in the creative parallels between Aalto and Sibelius.

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