We are all fairly familiar with modern Scandinavian design aesthetics, thanks to the popular furniture store, IKEA. Scandinavian design combines beauty, function, and affordability. You don’t even have to look past my little dining table: the beauty is in the the design and the clean, light color of the wood; the function is in the leaves that almost double its size as needed. (Affordability? Thanks to IKEA, and my brother who helped me haul and build it.)
Modern Scandinavian design emerged after WWII and is recognized for minimalism and functionality. Like the Arts & Crafts and Modern movements in Europe and the United States, Scandinavian design included things as small as vases and as large as libraries, often designed by the same people. Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) of Finland was this, exactly: he designed everything from glassware to buildings. Alvar’s architecture is considered Modern, and indeed, the work done by Scandinavian architects influenced (and was influenced by) the Modern movement. However, Aalto brings a sensibility and beauty to his architecture that reflects a sense of place (the low-light northern latitudes) just as clearly as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style houses reflect the expansive grasslands of the Midwest.
The Mount Angel Abbey is perched atop a verdant hill in west-central Oregon. In the early 1960s, the library director approached Aalto in request for a library design and, taken by the location and the task, Aalto accepted at a nominal fee. The most stunning quality of the library is its arrangement of spaces and use of natural lighting. In Oregon, as in Scandinavian countries, natural light can be hard to come by in the winter and rainy months. The arcs of windows let light through to even the most central spaces in the building, making the library an inviting space even in the middle of winter.
Next time you step back to consider a building, I hope you will consider its relationship to its environment. Some glass skyscrapers, with their internal air systems and windows that don’t open, think they can be built anywhere in the world. But many other buildings, from historic to modern-day, have characteristics that make use of their surroundings. Covered porches after shade and breezes in hot climes; carefully placed windows offer light in locations where it is a commodity. This is what Frank Lloyd Wright referred to as “organic architecture.”
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Quick credits: thanks to the above sources and IKEA (always). The original of the Viipuri photo, below, can be found here. All other photos are my own.
Featured photo (top): Alvar Aalto’s library at Mount Angel Abbey.