Saving an Alvar Aalto Treasure
Rappaport, Nina, Scandinavian Review
International efforts are underway to preserve the
great Finnish architects deteriorating library in Viborg, Russia. Built in 1935, the building has survived
World War II and a half century of neglect.
CONSIDERED A HIGHLY SIGNIFICANT BUILDING in the history of 20th-century architecture, Aalto's Viipuri Library is situated in a town park about 60 miles from St. Petersburg. Soon after its completion in 1935, it began to suffer the ravages of war; indeed, many once though it had been totally destroyed in the conflict. Because of a lack of funds the library was never properly restored. It is both an example of demolition by neglect but also a neglect that left many original elements still extant.
Aalto, one of the past century's greatest architects, received the commission to design the Viipuri town library through a competition in 1927, but a change in site and program delayed the project. In his final design five years later, Aalto completely transformed the building concept from his initial idea for Nordic classical design with a series of abstracted arches (more similar to Gunnar Asplund's work) to a building with a strong modernist vocabulary. This transition maintained a serenity and tactility with subtle juxtapositions of materials and forms exemplifying Aalto's humanist modernism and a relationship to an organicism.
It should be noted that when the library was built, the town was in Finnish territory and named Viipuri. When much of southeastern Finland was lost to Russia as war reparations, the town assumed its historical Swedish name of Viborg.
The white stucco-faced building is composed of two rectangular volumes that appear to slip past each other in a modernist composition echoing the various functions of public and private spaces in the building. The main hall, bathed in natural sunlight from the huge window-wall, leads into the stair tower. The auditorium, featuring an undulating wooden ceiling composed of a slatted-wood surface that turns into the end wall, is a unique formal expression and acoustic achievement modulating the rectilinear structure. As historian Sigfried Gideon wrote about the auditorium in 1962, "Here, therefore, scientific reasoning and artistic imagination have merged to free architecture from that rigidity which is today an ever-present menace. …