The Aalto Card in the Conflict between Postmodernism and the Modernist Tradition in Finland

Anni Vartola

Working paper
Alvar Aalto Researchers Network 2012


During the excited years of postmodernism in the 1970–80's, one of the lines of argumentation in Finland was to plead for the existence of an inherently Finnish architectural style: functionalism, or more generally, modernism. Modernism was regarded as inherently suitable for the Finnish society and culture, whereas international postmodernism was seen to lead architecture towards populist entertainment and to disrespect the 20th century canon of modern architecture.

Within this debate, Alvar Aalto was eagerly used as a weapon to discriminate between the proper and the improper viewpoints. The Finnish protagonists for modernism as a national project, for whom the architectural icons had previously been Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and the Russian constructivists, started to portray Aalto as an exemplary figure, both as a patriot and as a pioneer. He was a maestro who could combine regionalism and internationalism into an architecture that tied functionalism to the Finnish soil and landscape.

Interestingly enough, Aalto was at the same time also one of the beacons of the regionalist and postmodernist Oulu school. They were inspired by Aalto's use of brick, sense of tradition and landscape, and organic form language.

There were also international impulses to the debate. For example, Kenneth Frampton discussed Aalto's superior international significance and expressed notable concern for contemporary Finnish architecture. He used Aalto as an example of how to sustain both the modern project and architecture as a critical practice.

An in-between line of argumentation warned against looking back at the early days of modernism and pointed out the unyielding progressiveness of Aalto's spiritual heritage. For example, architect Markku Komonen, the former editor-in-chief of the Finnish architectural review Arkkitehti, wrote in 1991 in Our problem: Alvar Aalto [Ongelmana Alvar Aalto] about his tiredness with his colleagues to dwell on Aalto and functionalism "as if they would be some sort of a complex or a personal problem". In his view, the essence of functionalism was optimism and willingness to tackle contemporary problems. As a style, neo-functionalism would be banally eclectic as any other neo-style.

The proposed paper is based on a sideline of my on-going doctoral thesis on the topic of postmodernism in Finnish architecture 1975–1995. The paper will discuss Aalto's role in the architectural discourse in Finland in the 1980's by analysing a selection of articles published at the time.


Poleeni Civic Centre, Pieksänmäki, view from the lobby @ Anni Vartola 2010. Architects Gullichsen – Kairamo – Vormala, 1989.

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Anni Vartola
Anni Vartola
Architect SAFA, Lic. Sci. (Tech.)