Skillful and selective photography – Finnish Modern Architectural Production


Skillful and selective photography helped establish legend of Finnish architecture
Slovenian expert studies modernism of 1950s and ‘60s

By Anu Uimonen

“Finnish architecture was promoted in foreign countries in the 1950s and 1960s deliberately and very efficiently”, says Petra Ceferin, an architect and researcher from Slovenia.
“This is not very extensively known, because Finnish architects have a reputation for ‘not talking’. In fact, these ‘silent men’ were quite successful in promoting their work.”
Ceferin became immersed in the marketing of Finnish architecture when she wanted to find out how the concept “modern Finnish architecture” was born – or made.
“When I studied architecture, Finnish modern architecture was an important model which architects in Slovenia took to heart. For instance, we studied Alvar Aalto as a modernist who managed to preserve a human set of values.”

Ceferin’s curiosity was awakened, and after graduating in Ljubljana in 1995 she decided to go to Finland. She enrolled at the Department of Architecture at the Helsinki University of Technology in 1996.
During seven years that she spent in Finland, Ceferin wrote her doctoral thesis Constructing a Legend: The International Exhibitions of Finnish Architecture 1957-1967. Now the material used in the thesis has been set up as an exhibition at the Museum of Finnish Architecture. An important part of the exhibition architecture by Roy Mänttäri is in the posters and structures of old exhibitions.
“I am very happy that the exhibition is at the Museum of Finnish Architecture, because it was this same museum that organised the exhibitions of Finnish architecture in other countries that I studied.”
In other words, it is the museum that established a legend.

In the ten-year period that Ceferin investigated for her thesis, the Museum of Finnish Architecture organised nine overall exhibitions of Finnish architecture which were on display in 36 locations in different countries.
“The head of the museum Kyösti Ålander was efficient, and the result was an excellent set of exhibitions.”
“I was interested in what kind of an image of Finnish architecture the exhibitors wanted to project”, Ceferin says. “It was always very carefully planned.”
Each of the nine exhibitions had a jury, whose members were named by the museum and the Finnish Association of Architects. However, each year the buildings to be exhibited were very similar to one another.

A total of about 50 buildings were on display, about 30 of which were shown several times. Each of the nine exhibitions got 11 buildings.
“It is clear that if you want to have a strong exhibition, you have to make choices. In Finland the choice was to emphasise modernism, which was much appreciated.”
“At the same time it was clear that most of the architecture produced in Finland was excluded from the exhibitions. Many important architects were not a part of Finnish architecture in any way.”
Ceferin also studied buildings that were not included. The production of Alvar Aalto in the 1950s was represented well in all exhibitions, but his output from the 1960s was hardly on display at all. The Porthania building at the University of Helsinki, by Aarne Ervi, who is now highly esteemed, was also not on display.
The decorative architecture of the 1940s was not accepted; Kyösti Ålander dismissed it as a “swamp of subjectivism, from which we got back to the narrow but strong path of progressive development”.

Photographers had a very special role in the creation of the image of Finnish architecture. The magnificent black-and-white photographs show their subjects detached from their surroundings, almost as abstract compositions of form, light, and shadow.
It was sometimes difficult to say on the basis of interior photographs what the purpose of the building was, because they were clinically clean – with no people or animals. The pictures of facades did not reveal how the buildings were linked with the older urban surroundings. Only the building itself was brought out, and neighbouring structures were cropped out of the picture. When necessary, bothersome details were eliminated by retouching.

The idea was to present the buildings as “absolute architecture”.
“But the relationship between architecture and nature was important for Finns”, Ceferin says.
If nature was not appropriately available, the photographer’s assistant might have held the branch of a tree in front of the camera in order to achieve the right kind of effect.
“The Finnish promotion activities were very successful”, Ceferin says. She has read many articles on the Finnish exhibitions in foreign architectural journals.
“There was much written about the exhibitions. At first the focus was on traditional Finland stereotypes: distance, easterly location, quiet lakes, endless forests, dark winters, and the summer midnight sun. But gradually the tone changed, and people began to write about Finland as a modern, technologically advanced country.”

It is just this kind of a raising of the image of Finland that was the aim of the state-financed architectural exhibitions. Finland’s international reputation in design had been achieved somewhat earlier with the famous so-called “Miracle of Milan”, and now it was architecture’s turn.
The timing was perfect.
“In the 1950s, there was a yearning in the centres of international modernism for some regionalism – a different kind of modernism. Finland was a magnificent case in point. One can say that Finland was needed”, Petra Ceferin laughs.

Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 14.9.2005

The exhibition of Finnish architecture as seen in foreign exhibitions in 1957 – 1967 will be on display at the Museum of Finnish Architecture in Helsinki at Kasarmikatu 24. Opening hours Tuesday – Sunday 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM, Wednesdays 10:00 AM – 8:00 PM.


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