Nation of Finns, Travels through Finland Part 2, August 2011

So I left you with some thoughts about Helsinki yesterday. Lovely city really, very small, but lovely. A couple other things to check out would be the Big White Church (it probably has a proper name but that will have to do for my purposes) and the Church in the Rocks, of which I have included a couple photos below.

After a few days visiting the city, we decided to get on the train and travel to the city, or town rather, of Jyvaskyla. Now since I have been back from my travels in Finland, every single Finnish person I have met has claimed to be from Jyvaskyla. And this include Alvar Aalto as well. But far from being the cradle of Finnish civilisation Jyvaskyla is a small provincial university town miraculously wedged between millions of lakes. Indeed, the majority of Finland is actually bogged with water, and Central Finland is no exception.

So after a very civilised train ride from Helsinki to Jyvaskyla on which there was wifi (!!!), we arrived in Jyvaskyla and walked to our hotel from the train station. I was expecting a very picturesque town, made of timber cottages, with lovely cafes with views on the lakes. Uh huh, no such luck. Jyvaskyla is a cross between a 1970s ski village in the French Alps and a Soviet town centre. Concrete was the material of choice and very little effort has been put in making the streets safe and pleasant for pedestrians. There is one exception though, there is a large ‘mall’ type pedestrian area, much like what you’d find on Pitt St in Sydney or the Rundle Mall in Adelaide but this was lined with a series of Irish pubs and other franchise restaurants. Not exactly picturesque.

At this stage, I started to wonder why we had committed to staying three full days in this town. What were we thinking? Was there that much to do? Obviously, without a car handy, we’d have to make do with what was within reach of public transport and pace ourselves. We had to leave our expectations of fast living behind, just for the time being.

In terms of the highlights, Jyvaskyla is actually home to a campus entirely designed by Alvar Aalto. It’s actually quite spectacular and seems largely untouched by the time gone by. There is some incredible thinking in there about access to light in a light-starved country, the design of social spaces and learning spaces. The building is still being used and it seems like it is practical to do so. The campus is situated amongst a dense pine forest, and accommodates large sports grounds as well as a series of architect-designed pavilions. We were let in by this young looking academic who let us in after opening hours if we promised to let ourselves out. How wonderful is that?

The next highlight was the Aalto Museum, again in Jyvaskyla. It is located right next door to the Museum of Central Finland, which is also Aalto-designed but is definitely not worth the 10 euros it costs to gain entry. This was the single worst museum experience in my life. The museum consisted in a number of displays designed  to tell ‘in action’ the story of Central Finland, through dressing a series of very old and dodgy mannequins in traditional costumes. Rare were the translated panels to make this farce intelligible to tourists. I don’t even think I dared take a picture it was so bad.

Now back to the Aalto Museum. It was a lovely, yet small museum. The quality of the artefacts and the exhibition design was passable and complemented with some interactive content. The collection ranges Aalto’s homeware designs all the way up to some of the grander public structures he had been involved in, such as Finlandia, of course, and the Vyborg Library. The interesting section to me was the section that captured Aalto’s proposal for the Finnish Pavilion at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1937. It was a complete Aalto domestic universe, with all parts of the building carefully considered by the man. And this was the first time the famous Aalto squiggly vase was showcased on an international scene.

A bit further afield, we ventured to both Saynatsalo and Muuratsalo, two minuscule small townships on the shore of one of the millions of lakes that dot the finnish landscape. We went to Saynatsalo first. Famous for its remarkable town hall, the town does not have much else going for it. There is a shopping centre and a pulp mill, and that’s about it. So it was a genuine surprise to find that there had been so much thought and consideration given to the design of its civic infrastructure. The Town Hall itself is phenomenal. There is no doubt about that. Compact in footprint, it houses several key local government functions, including a library and a guest house (how civilised). The plan is organised around a Roman-inspired courtyard, which gives the building ample light and quite legible circulation. Up a flight of brick stairs (the beautiful Aalto brick, not some dodgy veneer), you find the council chamber itself, completely permeable to the public. It’s a very noble idea of direct democracy that this building embodies, and its high ceiling gives it almost a church-like feel. In any case, the deep respect for the work of local government and its mission in representing the interest of locals is clearly palpable. The timber roof structure is like none other, like a timber butterfly, defying the forces of gravity. Truly remarkable.

Finally we made our way to Muuratsalo, Aalto’s estival retreat, where he built a glorified cabin known as the ‘Experimental House’. We knew we were fast approaching when we got stopped on the road by a couple of Italian architects asking us whether we’d like a lift. It was only a few kilometres so we opted for the fitness option. Muuratsalo reads very much like a suburb: cul de sacs, detached housing, ample on -street parking. Aalto’s ‘hut’ is somewhat removed from this, you’re let through a gate down a long path until you reach the much prised sauna on the shore of the lake. I never understood saunas, I have to be completely honest, but at least the ones I had seen did not make you feel like you had just stepped into a massive human-scaled oven. But this one did. In fact, we weren’t allowed in because there was too much soot on the walls and it would damage our clothes. So effectively, this thing was a pizza oven. Strange.

We then walked up to the house itself. Like I said in my previous post, Finns love their summer cabins and they like them as rough as possible. Although this was clearly an Aalto retreat, it was still very rudimentary. It was Elissa Aalto, the architect’s second wife who put in running water and electricity in 1982, seven years after Aalto died. The living spaces were pokey and dark but did open up onto a strange courtyard, a sort of testing ground, where Aalto tested a number of combinations of tile and brick arrangements for his other projects. The descendants of the Aalto family still use the cabin during the summer, so there are some parts the public does not have access to. It’s OK, I think we got the gist of it.

On the whole, I would recommend a visit to Finland. It is definitely an interesting part of the world to experience. But next time I would combine a visit to Helsinki with a visit to Stockholm, Tallinn or St Petersburg, just as a way to contrast Finnish culture with its neighbours’. That all folks!


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