Finnish architecture at the turn of the 20th century: archaisms, avant-garde and regionalism

By Pekka Korvenmaa, University of Art and Design

The case and the context
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Architectural development in the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland from the middle of the 1890s to the First World War and the ensuing rise to independence presents a condensed sequel of events where many variables of artistic, cultural, economic, social and political nature created a synergy catalysing an architecture rich with innovation.

The period witnessed the first inroads being made by Finnish architecture into the nternational consciousness, having previously been of a peripheral nature and mainly a receiving partner in the exchange of artistic influence. At the same time the collegial body of domestic architects were able to organise themselves into a clearly defined profession with a strong cultural role in the nation-building process which Finland was going through in the crucial years at the turn of the century. An economic upswing, which lasted without any major interruptions from the end of the 1890s to the middle of the First World War gave rise to a building boom which enabled the architects to get their ideas realised rapidly and on a broad scale.

Centre, periphery or province?

Finland's architectural tradition had historically been based on the country's position on the very fringe of Continental European civilisation. Hence, the permeation of innovations from the great style-creating centres such as Rome or Paris via Stockholm through to Finland was slow. The first academically trained architect to practise permanently in Finland was Carl Ludwig Engel, who at the beginning of the 19th century immediately lifted Finnish architecture to a level on a par with the Continent.

Towards the end of the century, the rapid development of the chemigraphic press opened the way for printed photographic images. The numerous architectural journals meant that the latest innovations were being brought swiftly to the attention of Finnish architects. Also travelling had become easier. The new generation of Finnish architects, who started their careers in the mid-1890s, was fully prepared to operate on a real-time basis with the rest of the world, without the time-lag so typical of the earlier phases.

But in order to create something independent, a mechanism of both assimilation and conscious processing of received material is needed.

Finnish architects at the turn of the century used a polycentric approach, consciously selecting material from the international avant-garde and synthesising this with a regional approach. Hence, the peripheral position, previously a hindrance was turned into a positive asset.

How to produce distinctively regional architecture?

As we know, the politically precarious situation at the time in question raised a strong patriotic fervour which was also felt in the cultural sphere. The nation-to-be needed demonstrations of indigenous culture that would serve as a testimony to modernity and autonomy vis-à-vis the previous dominance of the Continent and especially the East, Russia.

In architecture, as with other arts before, local history, embodied both in historical monuments and the vernacular tradition of the peasants, was now used to gain cultural distinction. The mediaeval churches and castles, so familiar to the architects from the excursions from their years of study, served as one source for rejuvenation and re-orientation. The tradition of building in timber, on the other hand, provided an opportunity to return to the roots, to the most typical mode of building in the region of the Grand Duchy. Exoticism and primitivism bound to a wooden culture was found in Eastern Karelia, in the mythical sites where the poems of Kalevala had been collected. The tradition of building in wood, eulogised now in its ancient, "original" appearance, was elevated from the sphere of peasant reality to serve the ideological purposes of the cultural-architectural elite.

The regional past, the architectural heritage of the nation was used as one ingredient in the synergy where the international present was fused with localisms of an already mythologised history. It must be stressed that the use of historical material was very free, in contrast to the canonised modes of referring to specific monuments and stylistic periods typical for the late 19th century. The production of a cultural identity via architecture used a vast array of material where the associations were purposely diffuse.

Ancient yet modern!

Because the new generation, which took command of architecture around 1900, the generation of Eliel Saarinen, Lars Sonck, Armas Lindgren, stood in opposition to the historicism of their predecessors, they also wanted to break ranks with the classical tradition. Anti-classicism, individualism, picturesque effects and asymmetry were the new parameters. In their quest to reform, to purify the architectural coding they turned to the primitive, the archaic. Impulses from Mycenae, Egypt, Babylon and the Early Romanesque transplanted the idiom derived from the High Classical and High Gothic periods.

In this way the tectonic order, the post-and-beam construction was reduced to its basics, stripped bare of straightforward historical and stylistic references. The medium for this was stone, granite. The facades and constructions in natural stone that were erected at the beginning of the century bore allusions to locality, granite being the "national" material, and to the origins of Western architecture. Innovations towards modernity were achieved through archaisms. This was deliberate and also noticed by the critics of the international press, who mentioned this mix of paraphrasing the local past while at the same time being "très avant-garde".

What was achieved?

The rapid cycle of architectural innovation, resulting in buildings that tantalise the laymen and experts alike even today, slowed down after the hectic and revolutionary years in the early 1900s. Finnish architecture had come of age, and was nationally respected and internationally renown. Extremities were no longer needed. Architectural independence had been won, and this artistic and cultural process had served the wider aspirations for a national independence.

Dr Pekka Korvenmaa is the Research Director at the University of Art and Design, Helsinki. He spoke at the Finnish Institute Study Day on Finnish Architecture in March.

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