The Viipuri Library by Alvar Aalto
The Building that Disappeared
This dissertation explores the question of how one building can achieve a role as something much more than a building, even ‘larger than life’? The case is the Viipuri Library, designed by Alvar Aalto. This building has international reputation as a seminal early work of Aalto, and as a key example of modern architecture. Simultaneously, the meanings associated with the Library stem from its geopolitical location: The Library was originally opened to the Finnish city of Viipuri, but at the end of the World War II the city along with the wider area referred to as the ‘lost Karelia’ were annexed to the Soviet Union. Since 1991 the building has been located in modern day Russia. The title of the thesis comes from the widely spread misunderstanding that the Library has been lost at war, and future generations can learn about it only from drawings and images.
From the early 1900s up to today, this one and same building has appeared in extremely different types of materials, ranging from beautiful architectural publications, to war histories and newspaper articles. This work unfolds the ‘life’ of this Library in four thematic chapters, each presenting a totally different perspective to what this building is all about: First, the context of the city of Viipuri, second, the Library as a work of Aalto, third, the time period of the Second World War and the Soviet Union, and last, the international restoration project. In the last part of the research the case of the Library is analysed with use of an anthropological theory of art, outlined by Alfred Gell. With aid of the theory, it is possible to analyse how very different, even discrepant perspectives have become associated with this one particular building, making it something larger than the parts it is made of. In many places, the real events this building has experienced are more curious and whimsical than any fiction writer could have possibly come up with.