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. (Ed. This piece written in 2010.) 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 in autumn and winter, crisp in spring, soft and warm in summer.

I’ve visited many times over the years, 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, Messi without a football, but still.

An edit of the Sydney Opera House

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 somehow remains elegant despite 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 quite 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. That’s still almost inconceivable 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, noting that 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 an ill-conceived, very much of its time, automobile-oriented 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, what looks like the steeple of a church 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.

It’s actually the National Museum of Finland behind Finlandia, rather than a steeple as such, but Aalto only needs to borrow the spire to create his ‘church’.

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”?

Originally published at on October 4th, 2010


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