The Vyborg Aalto Library as a Case Study

Laura Berger

Working paper
Alvar Aalto Researchers Network 2012


Out of the whole of Aalto ́s oeuvre, The Vyborg Aalto Library from 1935 serves as an excellent 'kiasma' (a term from phenomenology which refers to a crossing point that unites different strands), for researching why Aalto and his architecture are so influential. More specifically, the reason for choosing just this building is that the Library is revealing of Aalto's oeuvre, but also of the historical transformations the building has gone through, all the way to the restoration project taking place today.

In the context of Aalto's oeuvre, the Library illustrates how Aalto has 'quoted himself'; how he has loaned architectural details and practical solutions in his later works. As an important early work, the Library makes it clear how Aalto can be thought of as an artist who has a recognisable style, and thus, an oeuvre. In a sense, the Library is often recognised through details, such as the famous three legged stool originally designed for the Library, and then replicated endlessly, or the undulating ceiling of the lecture hall. This serves as a bridge to the fact that actually the Library is recognised, and has fame that is separated from the real physical building. In other words, the Library has fame as a functionalist prototype, and is used for example in many American universities in teaching architect students.

The other side of what makes just this building interesting are the historical transformations it has experienced. The city has a complex history in it being established as a Swedish fortress city, evolving into a multinational Finnish cultural and commercial centre, becoming a closed military area after the WWII when the city was annexed to the Soviet Union, and most recently, at the end of the cold war, opening up to foreigners again in 1991. Hence, from the end of the WWII until the beginning of the nineties, the area was 'cut out' of contacts. What makes this most intriguing is that as a result, the Soviet/Russian and the Finnish/international understanding and perception of what the Library, the city of Vyborg and even the wider area of Karelia are about evolved quite independently for almost fifty years. Therefore, there are many who have an opinion of the Library independently of its architecture or even Aalto, but have a connection to the Library because of what might be called its 'social life'.

My claim is that it is necessary to take independent buildings into consideration to properly understand what 'Aalto is about'. This means that without lessening of the importance of Aalto, the man and the artist, the 'lives of the buildings' should be paid proper attention in explaining how Aalto and his architecture are so influential.


Aalto Library, Vyborg. Roof. Photo: Laura Berger.

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Laura Berger
PhD candidate

Aalto University, Department of Architecture, Finland

The Vyborg Aalto Library as a Case Study