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    DEEP NORTH: Light, Snow, and Alvar Aalto

    A.D.Morley & J.A.Wong .
    Feb 22, '12 6:47 PM EST

    Rovaniemi: Home to the arctic circle, Santa Claus, reindeer, world class skiers, and of course, a wealth of Alvar Aalto works.


    As our colleagues Brian and Brownyn of the Red Herring mentioned in an earlier post, we traveled to the northern Finnish City of Rovaniemi for a study tour. This is the first component of what will be three excursions throughout Finland: the North (Lapland), the East, and ultimately the West. 

    This was not your typical whirlwind of an architecture tour; the spirit of the excursion remained true to the nature of Lapland – relaxed, restful, and an escape from the schedule-obsessed pace of the city.  

    A twelve hour night train sweeps us out of Helsinki, through the forests and up the coast into Lapland. By early morning we arrive, where we are greeted by Matti Rautiola, Rovaniemi native, our studio professor, and guide for the weekend.

    Fortunately (and unfortunately) we arrive on a particularly warm (by arctic standards) and snowy weekend, with temperatures only around -15º and not the typical -30º. We are disappointed that we do not experience this extreme cold, but thankful for our hands as we photograph and sketch the exteriors of the many buildings we visit. The amount of snow, however, did not disappoint: the sheer volume was quite impressive.


    City of Alvar Aalto

    Over 90% of Rovaniemi was destroyed by the Germans in WWII, and as such, Alvar Aalto designed the reconstruction of the so-called “Reindeer Antler Plan,” where he divided the city by zoning use, moved the train station out of the center, and brought a series of highways through the center… the quintessential result of mid century modernist planning. Aalto also had the honor of designing the city’s town hall, library, and the multi-purpose event space, Lappia Hall, the three buildings clustered together to form a proverbial mecca and homage to Aalto.

    An Alvar Aalto building can be best interpreted as analogous to your average Finn: remarkably modest and understated on the outside, yet delicately sensitive and sophisticated on the inside. His building envelopes do not immediately shock and awe at first glance from a distance; one must engage intimately with the building, approach it and note how seamlessly the subtle nuances, details, and light affects and enhances the user’s experience. In engaging an Aalto building, one must learn it from the inside out, from the user’s point of view, and only then will the bizarre and almost cold exteriors will start to reveal themselves with the beauty they contain.


    The Library, which contains all the fundamental principals of an Aalto library (including the quintessential sunken reading rooms) is a prime example of this sensitive intimacy. The curve of the clerestory takes the natural matte white light and paints it across the upper half of the library while simultaneously the illumination of the lamp paints the lower half of the library in a warm inviting shade of yellow.  The white of the ceilings makes the space seem larger and more open while the lamps create a comfortable space for contemplation. It delineates a clear line between where the natural light ends and the books begin. The subtle effects that this juxtaposition creates in the library is exemplary of the Finnish understanding of light and Aalto's understanding of space.

    Towards the center of the room, sunken reading rooms puncture the floor.  The entire area around the reading room has been designed for optimal use of the space.  Instead of a handrail wrapping around the sunken room, a table was crafted for readers to grab a stool and read at.  In the interior space of the reading room, the height of two bookshelves breaching the floor level correspond perfectly to the height of the table.  From the floor level itself, the space then sinks down another 3 shelves for a total of 5 shelves in each reading room.

    In addition to these 3 central Aalto buildings, we visited the much less known residence, the villa Aho, and an Aalto housing project, the Tapiola Apartments.


    Light is paramount and trumps everything when dealing with design in the Nordic countries. With every building we visited, opportunities to scoop and funnel light, were present. The Finnish language contains 28 separate words to describe light, and 18 words to describe different types of snow. What does this tell about a culture? On our fantastic office visit to the generous Paivi Tahkokallio’s studio, we discussed this sensitivity to light and snow in a wonderful fashion; to build on this appreciation of snow, she kindly invited us to use her office sauna and engage in the practice of snowdiving… this was perhaps even colder than when we leaped into the frozen Baltic ocean.

    Concerns of light are not simply limited to how a building channels it inside, but as to how the urban fabric acts as a good neighbor. Currently the city is pushing forward a progressive agenda to densify its center, and there has been a heated debate about building height limitations. While some politicians feel it is in their favor to allow for 12-story hotels and buildings to attract growth and density, the architects and urban designers of Lapland stand starkly opposed to these highrises, as not only would it break from the typical 4 story datum, it would cut off vital natural light that so many of the surrounding residents covet.

    Our visit to the north also coincided with the start of Rovaniemi’s design week , the self-proclaimed “northernmost design week in the world.” We attended the opening ceremony in Aalto’s Lappia hall, and met local students and professionals of the design trades as they showcased their works of furniture, fabrics, and innovations. Part of the opening also included a concert by the famous Finnish "shouting band" the Mieskuoro Huutajat (Men's Choir Shouters).  The cacophony of men yelling at the top of their lungs in unison blended into an intense rhythm and beat (see video below to get a sense of this unique choir).  Throughout the city there were ice sculptures and ice structures alike, including an outdoor ice theater on the roof of a parking garage that showcased documentaries.

    So yes, we experienced deep north. It was colder, it was darker, and it was even snowier than Helsinki. But beyond the first shudders, it was engaging, it was enlightening, and we even saw Santa Claus. We wished we could have stayed longer, but it was back to the night train, back to the fast paced world of Helsinki, back to the busy schedules, timelines, and blog entries to write.

    More to come...

    This work by A.D.Morley & J.A.Wong is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License


    The Mieskuoro Huutajat, or Men's Choir Shouters, is a shouting choir from Oulu, Finland.

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A new adventure begins as we finish one chapter; we hope to share our story with you. We are graduates of Washington University in St. Louis, Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts.

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