Breaking the Modernist Mold

Asked to name a 20th-century Finnish architect who practiced a humanistic version of modernism, design aficionados would say Aalto. Easy. They may be harder pressed to respond Pietilä.

Husband-and-wife designers Raili and Reima Pietilä forged their own path through modernism. Reima had qualified as an architect in 1953, just a year after Aalto completed the breakthrough Säynätsalon Town Hall, and two before Le Corbusier would unveil Notre Dame du Haut. Eero Saarinen began designing MIT’s Kresge Auditorium at about the same time. Coming of age when even modernist masters were searching for an alternative to rigid functionalism, Reima Pietilä quickly began experimenting with unique mathematical models and expressionistic shapes in his paintings. In architecture, his research yielded the Finnish Pavilion for Expo ’58 in Brussels, and like Notre Dame du Haut, the 1961 design for the Dipoli student-union building, in Espoo, Finland, has an organic, sculptural quality.

Launching a practice with Raili in 1963, the couple amplified that experimentation. One work rarely mimics another—endless alternatives that not only suggest the Pietiläs’ dissatisfaction with mainstream architecture, but which also exemplify how they valued placemaking, a subject to which Reima devoted a significant body of theoretical writing.

A new exhibition at the Museum of Finnish Architecture promises to elevate the Pietilä name. Reima passed away in 1993, but only recently did Raili and her daughter Annukka, also an architect, donate the entire drawing archive to the MFA. Running through May 25, the show, which also includes models and photographs, is the most comprehensive survey of the Pietiläs’ oeuvre, carefully tracking the evolution of seminal designs from initial concept through execution. Raili and Reima Pietilä: Challenging Modern Architecture will travel thereafter. To mark the occasion, we spoke with Raili about establishing the Pietilä legacy, Aalto’s shadow, and balancing business partnership and marriage.

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How would you like this exhibition to be received by Finns and by viewers abroad?

It seems that there is a renewed interest in free forms in architecture, which you can call organic. Quite a few architectural magazines have lately published thematic numbers on organic architecture, and it is very possible that our work will make a comeback in a sense that it will find a new and younger audience within the profession. Although we’ve also fielded consistent interest from European countries like Spain, where our expressive architecture seems to be appreciated.

How would you say your and Reima’s work relates to the Aalto legacy?

Reima always acknowledged Aalto’s huge importance, and remarked that only small trees can grow under a big one. Despite that, Reima went his own way, and was probably satisfied to notice that Aalto appreciated Reima’s unique architectural forms. As a juror for the Dipoli building in the early ‘60s, he voted for Reima’s entry.

Is there something uniquely Finnish about challenging academic modernism?

Our friend, the designer Antti Nurmesniemi, once said that Finns’ relation with the rest of Europe is like being in Lapland and looking southwards. Many of our architects and designers have an agrarian background, which includes very few and simple forms. It seems natural that when architects travel to Italy, for example, they are mostly attracted to vernacular peasant architecture and have disliked the strange richness of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Because of this background Finnish architects, like many Scandinavian architects, found it quite easy to adopt the modernist forms already circulating in the 1930s. So when many other European countries started to move toward modernism after World War II, Finns were already adapting and interpreting modernism to their own cultural background and regional needs.

A common perception of contemporary Nordic architecture in general is that most works today adhere fairly closely to the mainstream idea of rigid rationalism, tempered by warm materials and local craftsmanship. How accurate is this idea?

One must remember that for centuries the Nordic countries have had one big difference from most other European countries, and that is the use of wood as building material. All architectural ways of thinking, whether it is the Baroque, neoclassicism, or modernism, have been interpreted in the wooden architecture. We even have an expression from the 1960s that roughly translates to “wood-Miesian.” So in a historical context and practical adaptation of modernism in the Nordic countries, the common perception is rather accurate, but hopefully in a positive way.

What is your own opinion of contemporary Finnish architecture?

I can’t help thinking that the way new architecture is being published internationally—so fast that you can see the same things simultaneously in every country—makes it more difficult for younger architects to take their time to find their own way of expression.

In many texts I’ve read about your practice, authors focus almost entirely on Reima. I’m reminded of Denise Scott Brown and Bob Venturi. Was there a gender imbalance for you, and how would you describe the benefits and potential challenges of combining marriage and practice?

It was quite natural that, because of his public role as a teacher and an active and often provocative debater, Reima was the public figure of our team. As far as teamwork is concerned, we found out that two is the perfect number for a functioning design team. Because as soon as there’s even a third person involved, there begins to be too many opinions applied to one design problem.

Also, as a couple we often took our work with us: for a walk, in the kitchen, and in the evenings. And when doing competitions we used to take trips, like long train journeys, because we found that changing your environment affects your thinking. When doing the competition entry for the Tampere library—known as the “Metso” (wood grouse)—we went to Ireland to think about it. So all in all I think it always worked out well. So well actually, that we always thought out the basic solution to a competition before taking it down to the office for others to work with.

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