The white 'sails' of the Opera House rising in majestic form above the waters of Sydney Harbour seem a long way from the identity struggles of the National Romantics of Finland. Yet we find a bridge that spans both time and distance in the bestowing of award upon Joern Utzon, architect of the Sydney Opera House, by the Finnish Architects in 1982. This award named 'The Alva Aalto Medal' for, the use of unique and innovative forms, many of which are without precedent in the history of architecture<1> brings together two nations seeking identity, one with a long tradition of rustic and innovative architectural design and one architecturally young, and still ill defined.
Just as there is 'no such thing as a free lunch' so artistically there is in most cases, another agenda. A message to be conveyed, a stand to be taken, a critique of society to be expressed. This is so of the significant developmental stages of the National Romantic Architecture. Artistically, sociologically and politically, nothing happens in isolation. Likewise, style, design, and creativity do not find expression in a vacuum. Often historical events and associated social consequences build upon what has preceded them, or equally, political and creative events come about in reaction to a philosophy, regime or style. The interconnection between these factors is often overlooked. Yet when we follow the history of the Scandinavian region and in particular Finland, we can see how interwoven the search for political autonomy, national identity and the artistic developments and reactions become. This amalgam bears fruit in unique design capabilities that have influenced and awed the world, not least in our own nation in the Sydney Opera House.
The arts is often a powerful vehicle through which to make political and value statements. Just as the Neo-Gothic architectural trends of the Victorian era in Britain in the 1850s to 1900 linked themselves to romantic medieval values, seeking to inspire the populace, so the same happened in Finland from the turn of the century through to 1917 when independence from Russia was achieved. Centuries of political and cultural domination by the Swedes and then to a lesser extent the Russians caused deep frustrations with in the Finnish society. This caused the emergence of the Finnish National Romantics of the late 1890s-1910s. They looked back into their unique culture of the middle ages to find a national identity and distinctive culture. This search was to then give voice in architectural form, fashioned on the churches of the middle ages and Kareline peasant log houses, as well as manifesting in other linguistic and creative avenues.
The provocative catalyst for the National Romantic style was displayed at the 1900 Great International Exhibition in Paris in the Finnish Pavilion which flaunted much of its folklore, flora and fauna. The building's eye catching style enchanted the crowds but also caught the eye of the Russians who were not amused and clamped down on any separatist tendencies.<2> Around Finland the National Romantic style began to become popular. The rough textures of stone and timber dominated the features of the buildings in part because of their abundance and in part to reclaim an ancient style. Most notable in this style was rugged masonry of Lars Snock's Tampere Cathedral (1899-1907) which though influenced by the American shingle style was overwhelmingly in the vernacular.<3> Houses of this period were very simple, austere and unostentatious. Armas Lindgren, Eliel Saarinen and Herman Gesellius (designers of the Finnish Pavilion) who had gone into partnership in 1896 designed a number of buildings, some prominently situated in Helsinki.<4> Cross fertilisation is apparent with England during this formative time with the Arts and Craft Movement with emphasis toward quality workmanship and design reacting to the trends of mass production.
Influencing this period also was the emerging Art Nouveau style that was becoming popular across Europe and Britain. This saw design moving in a more linear direction with minimal ornamentation breaking away from the rigidity of the historical styles.<5> National Romantic style began to take on some elements of the Art Nouveau at a time when it was realised that National Romantic was ill suited for some major building. Controversy broke out regarding the Helsinki Railway Station (1904) complex with Saarinen's National Romantic design coming under attack for being too emotive and nationalistic. It was considered that it should reflect a modern, rational thinking style related to the nature of a railway station. Influential and outspoken critics Stengell, Frosterus forced many changes to the original design. The final plans proved that National Romanticism was developed to a point of dying.<6> In the completed design of the station a more international design is recognised, as the whimsical embellishments and folksy qualities are stripped away, while retaining some freedom in planning and the massing of volumes.<7>
Amid the turmoil and struggles for independence and national identity Alvar Aalto was born (1898) and grew up. In his native region of Alajarvi there were many National Romantic buildings, yet it is unlikely that these impressed him greatly in an architectural sense as he never designed in this style although, it could be argued that some of the principles such as use of textures, natural materials and space were incorporated into his designs. The early influence that shaped Aalto's work can be seen as having classic and Italianate leanings. This, along with the influence of his teacher Lindgren and Gunner Asplund moved Aalto's designing into a simple, classical rational styles using space, allowing movement and ease of access and focusing on the use of the predominant Finnish resource, timber. Aalto's name became established as an architect in the arena of designing for exhibitions and fairs. This gave him considerable exposure through the region and internationally. This later, I believe, was a feature of his success in his ability to promote his work and make use of contacts made through exhibitions regionally and internationally.
The world was changing rapidly in the world of architecture in the 1920s and 1930s with influences coming from America and Europe that saw design lose its ornamentation and concentrated on the functional aspect of the design. Once again this style influenced by light classicism, and a seen as remerging trend similar to that of the 1840s-60s.<8> Its attraction to smooth lines, shallow mouldings and sparse details give rise to functionalism.
Aalto and his wife Aino were proficient as architects in landscape and furniture design also. Furniture reflected the changes they were undertaking in their design theory. It was not as expensive as building a building and easier for experimentation.<9>
Aalto's designs in both architecture and furniture were standing out as distinctive, practical, stylish and emphasised quality. He was faithful to the idea that an architect should be a reformer.<10> Furniture design was often in a varied form of Renaissance and Empire furniture in a consciously audacious way.<11> The goal in his design was not to imitate the past external forms but to revive the spirit of the design. Aalto's difference to his predecessors and established styles was in his unrestrained freedom. This was due as much to his personality as historical trends. His enormous self-confidence, rugged individualism, enthusiasm, impulsiveness and desire to experiment are all features ascribed to this creative man.<12>
Aalto explored new methods of furniture production enabled by experimentation with bent timber enabling him to capitalise on new, exciting, and functional design for furniture. Once again making use of personal contacts and an exhibition in London in November 1933. The English reacted very positively to the furniture as it was inexpensive and elegant. This ushered in a high demand for his furniture culminating in the setting up of a company that soon saw his furniture sold in the United States, Australia and Europe.<13> While his business practices were not up to the same standard as his design the company after initial struggles reformed and went on to be an internationally respected and reliable producer of contemporary quality furniture. Aalto's foresight and attitude to technology kept him ahead of many others.
Unlike the disciples of Ruskin and the Arts and Crafts Movement who were dreaming of a return to handicrafts Aalto's embracing of technology and machines was not only a necessity but a means of reaching such goals as general material well being, social equality, and the spread of the blessings of culture to all.<14>
Aalto brought to the world of modern architecture many skills which have made him a mentor to architectural aspirants. Among his recognised skills are furniture design, environmental design, the technical understanding of ventilation, lighting, acoustics, solar orientation, understanding site qualities, necessity of privacy, and consideration of peoples' feelings.<15>
Three aspects of Aalto's career emerge as important foci; the volumetric and planning, the technical, and the textual. These were combined into his work and refined to produce styles of architectural designs whose lines were striking and yet endeavoured to be a part of the landscape, taking into consideration trees, rock features and contour lines.<16> These major emphases have gone on to influence international architecture and design. Aalto is accredited as a key developer of architectural theory and form within the world of architecture this century.<17>
The 'Alva Aalto Medal for Architecture' is awarded on this notion of unique form and style and it is no wonder that it was bestowed upon Joern Utzon. Utzon in the design of the Sydney Opera House in my opinion, revives the daring design spirit of Aalto. Much in the same way as Aalto revived the spirit of the Classic, Renaissance and Empire designs in bold and daring ways. In March 1958 in Copenhagen Utzon stated,
Another Scandinavian connection with the Opera House is found in the fact that the 1,056,000 white and cream tiles coating the shells were manufactured by Hoganas of Sweden.<21>
It seems more than coincidence to me that one of the original judges of the world wide competition for the design of the Opera House was noted American architect Eero Saarinen. It strikes a cord as the influential National Romantic and later rationalist architect Eliel Saarinen of Finland migrated to America in 1923.<22> It is not unreasonable to assume that the judge was a son or close relative of Eliel Saarinen.
The issue of immigration should not be overlooked as many of the talented designers of Scandinavia left their homelands to take up careers in the United States and other western countries. This is particularly so of architects drawn to Chicago after the Great Fire. This too could constitute a factor in the wide acceptance and promotion of Scandinavian design.
So much could be said about Scandinavian design beyond narrow treatment given in this essay. When we observe the breadth of manufactured and architectural design to come from the Scandinavian region it is awesome in its simplicity, quality and functionalism. To answer the 'hows' and 'whys' is to take a simplistic approach to a multifaceted, complex question. As I have argued the factors of the struggle for national and political identity, the unique person of Alvar Aalto, and international influences all play a part. However it could be also convincingly argued that the isolation of Scandinavia, produced an ingenuity that manifest world leading, functional, unique design features. Other arguments could focus upon the wealth of natural resources, or even the no frills puritan influences. In whatever way one decides to put a case in this question we are faced with the curious fact that nations of such small populations as these compared to the other developed western nations lead the world in many fields of manufacturing, engineering and design. The Mouse That Roared seems an appropriate analogy when we consider the monumental influence this region has played in the fields of technical and artistic design.