City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.




I've been to Helsinki a couple of times this year. It's one of my favourite cities – civic, compact, cultured, curious, crafted. Charming but not overly so. Pale yellows, pale greys, pale whites, pale blues. Sea-borne and wrapped in rock and forest. Jugend and modern, eastern and western. Solid sometimes stolid. A quiet riot of componentry. Literate in most senses, especially in design. Cold and beautifully bleak, crisp in spring and soft and warm in summer, and so on and so on.

I've visited many times yet for some reason I'd never got round to visiting Finlandia, the concert hall designed by Alvar Aalto.




It's a quite fabulous structure, perhaps even the equal of Utzon's Sydney Opera House though certainly less well-known. in fact, it's a similar structure to Sydney, though without its soaring shells – which I admit is a little like saying it's like Miles Davis without a trumpet, but still.




Sydney Opera House by Utzon et al

It's a series of stacked elongated rectilinear slabs, just like Sydney. Here however, the elevation is also slabs, stacked vertically, rather than billowing sail or extruded shell. On a spring day, set against the perfect blue northern sky above, mossy granite below, and virtually on the lake, its white skin shimmers and gleams. In winter snow and white overcast sky, the building fades into straight lines set against the thin black twists of trees that surround it. Aalto's genius for resolving the tensions between humanity, technology and nature into some form of harmony is clearer than ever.







Aside from the wonderful form, which is somehow elegant despite retaining the solidity expected of a city where apartment walls can be 120cm thick, perhaps the most amazing aspect of the exterior is its skin of white carrera marble tiles, a "gigantic reflector of light", according to Shigeru Ban. Again, compared to Sydney's actually quite rough parquet-like tiles, these are pristine squares. Incredibly, they are all bowed and pillowed, so that up-close the monolithic rectilinear slabs actually melt into a grid of gently swollen shallow parabola.





Even more remarkably, this apparently uniform and utterly wonderful bowed marble grid appears to have been a mistake, an outcome of the temperature extremes in Helsinki (I'm reminded of the Dali–esque images of failing façades from Jeffrey Inaba's talk at Postopolis regarding Kazakhstan's -40ºC to +40ºC, though it's not that bad here.) After a conversation with my excellent guide, Bryan Boyer, I read up on the building a bit and can't find much in the way of confirmation either way, initially.


How nice to think it might be the most amazing display of craft, in achieving the pillowed effect from marble, apparently uniformly across the building, which is almost inconceivable even in this age of CNC and milling but certainly extraordinary 40 years ago.

Or perhaps it's an even more amazing bit of adaptive design, specifying a material that would, almost like wood, respond slowly to its environment to produce an effect over decades. The shallow curves in the bowed marble across its surface would actually read as a form of visualisation of the weather patterns, with a gentle gradient in the curves shifting from north-facing to south-facing aspects. 

Or it’s a 'mistake', which in theory would suggest that the thousands of marble tiles ought to be replaced, at great expense, at some point?

Rather boringly, it is almost certainly this—a mistake—and I eventually discover a reference suggesting this indeed the case, and the tiles have been replaced at least once, an inadvertent victim of Aalto’s attempt to bring the Mediterranean to the Baltic.

Either way, the effect is wonderful, and if the marble tiles aren’t peeling themselves off then ‘the mistake’ should perhaps be honoured as hidden intention. I'd argue it's 'better' this way, after all.


Juhani Pallasmaa, in his wonderful essay in the exhibition catalogue 'Alvar Aalto through the eyes of Shigeru Ban', describes Finlandia, alongside its contemporaries in North Jutland and Essen, as "exhibit(ing) a virtuoso but somewhat manneristic architecture relying on Aalto's established design strategies and formal vocabulary." I can see what he means, but relying on Aalto's formulae still produces a knockout building.

But then, in the very next paragraph, almost a non-sequitur, Pallasmaa says: 

"Interestingly enough, Alvar Aalto wrote about 'the human error' in one of his unpublished manuscripts, and criticised the quest for absolute truth and perfection. "One might say that the human factor [in the Finnish original 'error'] has always been part of architecture. In a deeper sense, it has even been indispensable to making it possible for buildings to fully express the richness and positive values of life." In one of his last public appearances in 1972, Aalto ended his speech with these words: "We may not be able to eliminate error, but what we can try to achieve is that we should all commit as few errors as possible, or better still: benign errors."

Could it be? In relating this particular aspect of Aalto's philosophy in the context of a few words on Finlandia, is Pallasmaa suggesting we should keep our eyes open for a 'benign error' here?

Another surprise this building offers up is not visible up-close but reveals itself at a distance. It perhaps indicates how Aalto was seeing Helsinki at this point, where he saw Finlandia at the apex for a perhaps ill-conceived car-based entrance to the city centre. To some extent, Aalto was seeing his building designs as part of a wider circuit of experiential systems within the city.

But there’s another axis on Finlandia, from across the lake, Töölönlahti.This view on Finlandia reveals a lovely sly trick, as standing at just the right point, the steeple of a church [corrected: actually the National Museum of Finland. Thanks Finn and and Simo for their comments below] some distance behind the the building aligns with a dark swathe at the front of the hall to become a kind of hybrid building, in which the low form of Finlandia becomes a nave of a non-existent church, or of some secular place of worship.






Also almost too good to be true. Another benign error, a coincidental congruence, or quiet stroke of genius? And with that kind of chutzpah—and I'd love to know the Finnish word for that—could we put it beyond Aalto to deliberately specify carrera that would slowly warp over the decades, to produce a building that "expresses the richness of life"?

All photos of Finlandia, Helsinki [Flickr]
Review: Alvar Aalto through the eyes of Shigeru Ban, Barbican, London


8 responses to “Finlandia: the greatest architectural mistake ever made? Aalto’s benign errors”

  1. finn Avatar

    “Church” is actually The National Museum of Finland ( Marble tiles of Finlandia is a well-known joke in Finland. 🙂 However benign error is an interesting point of view.


  2. Simo Avatar

    The fact that the “phallus” breaking through the white lady Finlandia, is actually the tower of the national romantic national museum building, gives even more power for your interpretation about the secular place of worship. Not surprise if the white skirt is fluttering a bit.


  3. Dan Hill Avatar

    Ah, my mistake. Thanks Finn and Simo – corrected above.


  4. Rory Avatar

    Hey Dan,
    Just came across this great quote from Aalto regarding faults over on Ricky Swallow’s blog:
    “But if you want my blessing for your home, it should have one further characteristic: you must give yourself away in some small detail. Your home should purposely show up some weakness of yours. This may seem to be a field in which the architect’s authority ceases, but no such architectural creation is complete without some such trait; it will not be alive.”
    Similar to the one you pull out I guess, he was clearly interested in the quality of the error. Great stuff.
    Hope you’re well. R


  5. olly Avatar

    Not a translation per se but chuptzah could be described as ‘sisu’ in Finnish. It means something along the lines of guts (in the figurative sense) and it’s said to be a quality innate to all Finns.


  6. Olivier Avatar

    I had a guided tour at Finlandia Hall couple of years ago; my memory is imperfect, but from what I remember, I thought Aalto asked the city autorities if they either wanted a brown (granit stone, the same as the other national-romantic buildings of the area) or white (carrera marble). The city simply decided for a white building. But I must admit, it’s seemed almost too simple to be true.
    The end of your text is interesting; I know for sure that the Finlandia Hall design was part of a larger urban proposal by Aalto; proposal which was never realized and focused on the surrounding of the building, the water and train station. Several competition since Aalto’s proposal were held regarding the same urban area, but I have no clue where the project is by now.


  7. Zachary Avatar

    Yes, you are correct in regards to the tile being replaced. I found this information in one of the twenty books I had acculatied over a semester long research paper at Berkeley. But it is also confirmed on wiki [5th paragraph]:


  8. Anne-Claire Avatar

    Hi! I visited Finlandia around the same time you actually wrote this post and was thinking: “how did they manage to curve so beautifully the marble slabs? What a great detail! Genius!”
    I actually knew that the tiles had already been replaced by thicker ones in the 90’s but I thought that was because they started to crack…
    The last part of your article is very interesting, I missed this perfect point of view during my visit! But once again I say: “Genius!”


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