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Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Library by Any Other Name

Image courtesy of arcspace.com.

It was the Viipuri Library.  Then it was the Nadezhda Krupskaya Municipal Library.  Now it is the Central City Alvar Aalto Library.  Whichever name you prefer, its architecture is unique and its design internationally acclaimed.

Built in 1933-1935 and designed by Alvar Aalto, the library is now in Vyborg, Russia, although it was built under Finnish rule and in the city's Finnish name, Viipuri. It is considered to be one of the first examples of "regional modernism".  It is famous for the wave-shaped ceiling of the auditorium.  Aalto claimed the shape was based on acoustic studies.

Aalto was commissioned to design the library when he won first prize in an architectural competition in 1927 for the building.  His original proposal went through some serious changes, going from Nordic Classicism to a severely functional style to its final purist modernist incarnation.

The use of the undulating wall eventually became a hallmark of Aalto's architecture, as did the sunken reading-well and cylindrical skylights.  He differed from modernist architects such as Walter Gropius and Le Corbusier in his use of natural materials, in this case wood.

The building was damaged in WWII, and the city itself was ceded to the Soviet Union.  Soviet authorities planned to repair it, but it never came to pass.  The building was empty for a decade, during which further damage was done including the destruction of the wave-shaped ceiling.  During the 1950s architect Aleksandr Shver drew schemes for its restoration in the contemporary Stalinist classical style as he did not have access to the original design plans.  The building was renovated during 1955-1961, and housed the central library of Vyborg.

Until the time of Gorbachev very few people, including Finns, visited Vyborg. Rumors spread about the library's total destruction and information about its true condition was sketchy at best.  The building is currently included in the Russian Federation's list of objects of historical and cultural heritage.

The building remains in public use while restoration is being done under the direction of the Alvar Aalto Academy.  This group includes architects Tapani Mustonen, Maija Kairamo (once of the Finnish National Board of Antiquities) and three architects once employed by Aalto, Eric Adlecreutz, Vazio Nava, and Leif Englund.

About 800 visitors each day visit the library.  It was listed as one of the 100 Most Endangered Sites by World Monuments Watch for the 2000-2001 and 2002-2003 years, and that group awarded the library a Certificate of Exceptional Accomplishment for its restoration work in 2004.  Because the funding has been intermittent, progress on the restoration has been slow.  Although cosmetically the library looks like it hasn't been maintained, work has focused on structural repairs, with the cosmetic touches to be the final ones.

Besides the Russian and Finnish concerns, restoration has been accomplished with additional funds from the Getty Foundation, the Mies van der Rohe Foundation in Barcelona, and the Swedish Government.  It is nice to see so much cooperation in rebuilding and restoring a library, especially in an age where funding for libraries keeps falling by the wayside.  Now if only there was a similar concern for its book denizens...

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of the Viipuri Library website.

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