Waving from the Periphery

By Sarah Menin

In 1935, in the southwest corner of Finland, close to the feisty Soviet Union, a statement of the new Internationalism was drawn. The architect of Viipuri Library, Finland's second White Modernist building, had heard the Word of International Modernism, and prostrated the Hellenic nature of his original design before the White clad priests of the New architecture. Stripping away stylistic analogies and details, such as Greek columns and friezes, Alvar Aalto seemed to offer the people of Viipuri the chance to bathe in the ascetic Purism of Universality.

At this time the Russian Bear, who had been breathing down the neck of little Finland since the October Revolution, was waiting for the Finnish workers and radicals who had fostered Lenin during Csarist purges to awake, and arise, and see the Red light. Finns, however, had absolutely no intention of becoming a Soviet nation (as the gargantuan efforts of the Winter War of 1939 were to show).

Indeed, their artists (such as Ekman, Runeberg and Blackstadius) had been requisitioning illusions of being the Greece of the North for a hundred years in the effort to defy the efforts of Csarist and then Soviet Bear to suffocate both its nationalism, its aesthetic aspirations and its industrial progression towards nationhood and windows open to Europe. It was in the hope that something of such Hellenic greatness would rub off on far off frozen Finland that, along with other Nordic classicist architects, the young Aalto had desired to create a new classical palazzo-like library in Viipuri to rival the classical corridors of neighbouring Leningrad.

The coming of Modernism, and its associated stringent aesthetic and political philosophies, was therefore quite a challenge to many Finnish patriots, first exposed to such aesthetics in Aalto's Paimio Sanatorium, two years earlier. Thus they were primed to read the Viipuri Library's eventual form as 'White Box' architecture (to borrow Tom Wolfe's appellation)(1) and concomitantly as Bolshevik aesthetic poverty, although, ironically, the actual volumes were not hugely different to its classical predecessor. They were literally vestigial classical volumes. Yet they were also very Modern, simplified, stripped, and made ascetic in formal, detail and textural ways which actually seem aesthetically appropriate in the ascetic, even harsh climate of Finland.

The fearful Finns need not have worried that the young architect had signaled an invitation to Soviet aesthetic imperialism, because in the long lecture room at the heart of this cubic Modernist building was a Wave.

And the Wave was in wood.

Wood was not Modern.

Steel was Modern, and hard, and cold, and unnatural. Yet wood came to be Aalto's favoured material, with which he waved, so to speak, at "little man", (2) as he caringly called the eventual users of his buildings, thus cocking a snook at the stylistic dictators elsewhere. By so doing Aalto was relating Modernism and the forest, progressiveness and Finland's back-woods ethnology. The culture of wood was marching on the corridors of aesthetic dictatorship of, say the Bauhaus; by this time decamped to a factory in Berlin, in which the actual sound of Nazi jack boots were heard stamping.

"Insight into the world of the forest - forest wisdom - is at the heart of everything Aalto created, a biological experience which never allows itself to be overpowered by technocratic civilisation or short-sighted rationalism. This is not a matter of romanticism or mysticism, but of their opposite, an extreme sense of reality, a sharing in Nature's own wisdom and rationality." (Schildt, 1984).(3)

A Wave was also not Modern.

The rectilinear was Modern, straight, logical and unfeeling. Yet the undulating, intuitive, expressive and even feminine Wave, too, became Aalto's favoured trademark; again one with which he addressed the most important part in his buildings; the people. Importantly the word for wave in Finnish is aalto.

Over time this Wave came to represent all that was particular and indigenous to Finland, not universal and Soviet (although this particular Wave was soon ubsumed into the expanding sea of the Soviets when Finland ceded territory, including Viipuri, to the Russians in 1940, after the Winter War). Thereafter, the Wave began to flow through Aalto's work, representing his humanist drive to soften Modernism, and also metaphorically acknowledging the nature of Finland; a patchwork of many tens of thousands of lakes and archipelagos, intermingled with the granite rock of islands, forested with what has been the stuff of life for Finns (i.e., trees).

As a ship gliding over open water in the archipelago approaches a forested shore - and sinks into it - into a narrow channel that opens astonishingly between the trees, curves past the headland tip [...] - the ripples, the shivers on the water's settling surface. (Lassi Nummi, from As a Ship Gliding, 1980)(4)

Water and wood have provided the sustenance for body and soul in the often harsh history of Finland. Salted fish and bark-bread sustained back-woods Finns in the depths of their poverty, and the pagan rituals, recorded by Lönnrot in the Kalevala (and now long absorbed into the Lutheran society through rituals such as midsummer celebrations), lifted the spirits above the dense forested interiors and frozen lakes. Indeed, huddled figures fishing through the ice, then shoveling snow to melt to drink, or boil for porridge, represent the complete reliance on the lakelands when animal life in the forests was dormant for so much of the year.

The lakes and the forest seem to heave with grief for a people suppressed politically, yet one free in the natural elements to fight for life.

"A puzzling grieving in the forest while the village is sleeping. A frail puzzling grieving like a child's weeping. You open the door. You listen. Nothing. You close the door. It's there again. Who's out there all alone? Who's been abandoned in the darkness? Who's going under the water? A long puzzling grieving, like a memory that weeps, or a shadow, or an echo all over the water. (Eeva-Liisa Manner, A Puzzling grieving over the Water)(5)

In Aalto's case the grief was also deeply personal. Having lost his mother when he was eight, with whom he had an intimate physical relationship, he was left with a deep scaring trauma which manifested itself in long bouts of severe hypocondriachal illness, depression, and acute bouts of virtual psychosis, such as that triggered by the onset of the Winter War, in 1939. Aalto's, a land surveyor in Central Finland, took the boy on long trips into the heart of the natural environment of lakes and forests, during which they hunted, measured and studied. His father was caring, but cold. Thus Nature became a refuge for the young boy; a place with the capacity to hold the gaping psyche of a child, and in which he could rage and scream without disturbing the embrace.

"Through the alder branches across the grey air to the silk water surface fingered and poked by rain

I'm looking into my infancy's daylight."

(Lassi Nummi, Through the alder branches)(6)

Aalto's designs are rooted in his love of nature and its infinite variety which he co-opts into architecture to ensure the same variety and flexibility. His determination to make architecture lift the spirit also derives from his experiences of personal sufffering, as he described in his writings.(7) Yet his work is not anti-progressive. On the contrary he was a forward looking functionalist, but one who believed functionalism must be "enlarged to cover even the psychological field" (8), and hence his infusion of variety into his designs in terms of forms, spaces, materials etc. His designs seek to offer the individuality and flexibility inherent in nature's ordering processes. His multi-occupancy buildings, such as Baker House Dormitory, MIT (1949), flex towards the sun or the view, challenging the conformity of much modern accommodation architecture, and imbuing as many of the living spaces as possible with individuality and character; an incidentally hugely confusing and challenging the alumni who commissioned it, and who expected a contemporary (boxy) statement of European Modernism.

"True architecture exists only where man stands in the centre. His tragedy and his comedy, both" (9). In light of his own deep trauma, these seemingly self-evident words of Aalto's become quite profound. It was his capacity to draw on, or wave from, his own tragedy, that signalled his ability to relate to the same, sensitive parts of the lives of others for whom he designed, seeking to address the reality of their lives in both the corporeal and metaphysical realms. The significance of Aalto's Wave is thus deep. Amongst other things it acknowledges; the non-rational vulnerabilities of 'little man'; a 'feminine' characteristic of subordinate peripheral culture surfacing to challenge the big men of Europe; and an emergent counter culture to the dominant Modernism.

The flexing of the plans of many such buildings, be they accommodation buildings or libraries, results in something of a Wave formation. In The House of Culture in Helsinki this is justified by a desire to create an amphitheatre form; in Seinäjoki Library the Wave provides expanded shelving areas. In the planning of his buildings the use of the Wave is never willful, but rather is justified by what can be described as circumstantial planning or content-derived form (10); a notion that draws functionalism towards the whims and intricacies of human nature.

The Wave also appears in ceiling and wall formations such as in Viipuri Library and the Architecture Lecture Theatre at the Otaniemi campus, justified by acoustic modeling; in his standard bronze door handles, justified by ergonomics; in chair designs, justified by both ergonomics and the manipulation of the structural capacity of plywood.

The Wave also appears in his work in less rational ways, as in the plastered Wave on the side of the fireplace, the library partition, and the plunge pool at Villa Mairea; in his glass vases; and, importantly, very early in his Modern career, in the entrance canopy at what has been described as the finest Modernist building in Scandinavia, Paimio Sanatorium (1933), begun after the Hellenic Viipuri project, but finished before the inauguration of the wooden Wave (1935).

Such expressive uses of the Wave are not less functional than the foregoing ones if Aalto's own definition of function is used, but rather they act as a type of signature. This play on his own name, aalto or wave, is not purely self-referential. Indeed, neither does it refer to something as representational as a wave or a lake formation. Aalto, in typical subversive fashion, named his original waving Savoye glass vase An Eskimo Woman's Leather Breeches. For many the Wave has come to signify something primary in the Finnish identity, something about the very nature of Finland. Hence, for instance, the iconographical status of the Aalto vase.(11)

Therefore many of the above examples are both technically and psycho-spiritually functional. They work efficiently, they are beautiful and they act as signifiers of the relationship between people and the nature of their country; the nature of land and water. Indeed the bounding of the water, the solidity which challenges the Wave, has an important correlation in Aalto's compositions (and indeed in life). The spaces in his buildings which house the 'essence' of the brief, such as the performance space in a concert hall or the book shelves and reading spaces in libraries, often find an expressive, flexible, waving form at some level. On the other hand, the service areas, be it offices, storage, toilets etc., are very often housed in rigourously rectilinear forms. These spaces act like granite shores which challenge the waves. Here Aalto demonstrates the collaboration of the intuitive and the logical (and arguably an integration of the feminine and the masculine). This may be said to be his most important contribution to twentieth century architecture. The fact that this contribution is most often made tangible through the use of a waving formation, sometimes in the natural flexibility of wood or brick work which directly challenged Modernist materiality, but sometimes subversively infiltrated into an otherwise Purist White volume through details such as undulating plaster work.

By the time Aalto's Modernism was made personal in the eyes of his dogma-driven International colleagues, it was also made phenomenally regional in the eyes of his compatriots, symbolising something of the watery plains of Finland, and was thus no longer being a threat to their identity, aesthetically or politically. Indeed, the Wave came to be adopted as the epitome of Finnishness, and thus in the often insecure minds of patriots many vestigial Hellenic motifs were decommissioned. Ironically, however, such vestiges of Ancient Greece were to reappear with great subtilty in Aalto's own architecture in the form of grass covered amphitheatres and fragmented columns, never with direct metaphorical urgency, but as if to suggest that an essence that great civilization had washed through that place, leaving traces of its greatness, but which nature, in the form of vegetation, bent wood or flowing Wave had then reclaimed.


1 Tom Wolfe, (1981): From Bauhaus to Our House (London: Abacus)

2 For example Aalto. A. (1955): "Art and Technology", reprinted in Schildt, G. (1986): Sketches

3 Schildt, G. (1984): Alvar Aalto: The Early Years (NY: Rizzoli) p.34

4 Printed in Carpelan, B. (1992): A Way to Measure Time: Contemporary Finnish Literature (Finnish Literature Society: Helsinki), pp. 281-2.

5 Printed in Lomas, H. (1981): Territorial Song (London Magazine Editions: London), p. 15.

6 Printed in Lomas, H. (1981:99)

7 Aalto, A (1935): "Rationalism and Man", reprinted in Schildt (1985): Sketches (Cambridge: MIT)

8 Aalto, A. (1940): "The Humanizing of Architecture", Technology Review, MIT, reprinted in Schildt, G. (1986): Sketches (Cambridge: MIT)

9 Aalto, A. (1958): "Instead of an Article", reprinted in Schildt, G. (1986): Sketches (Cambridge: MIT)

10 This expression is borrowed from the German Functionalist-Organic architect Hugo Häring

11 The nature of the iconography of the Aalto vase was addressed by Roger Connar in an exhibition in 1995, Waving not Drowning, catalogue:- Connar, R. (1995): Waving not Drowning, (London: Finnish Institute)

Dr Sarah Menin works at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, Newcastle University, England.

See also:






[home] [focus] [archive]