Scandinavian architecture and design has always upheld its superior level of craftsmanship and natural aesthetics. Yet, until the late 19th century, its castles and cathedrals were constructed basically in historical styles borrowed from other countries. Traditional buildings were generally made up of vernacular wood, stone or brick structures. From the 20th century, Scandinavian architects began to adopt international styles, especially when several of them pursued advanced studies in the West. Nonetheless, the uniqueness they instilled in their designs always reflects a tinge of tradition and modernity while nurturing the importance of the natural environment.
Panasonic Shiodome Museum of Art pays tribute to one of the grandmasters of Scandinavian architecture, Eliel Saarinen in “Eliel Saarinen and His Beautiful Architecture in Finland” until September 20th. Saarinen was largely recognized for his Art Nouveau buildings and his major achievement with the Finnish Pavilion at the Paris 1900 World Fair. The pavilion paved the international road for Saarinen. Although his team composed of Herman Gesellius and Armas Lindgren garnered the competition award, most of the credit was rendered to Saarinen, who spent the winter of 1899-1900 in Paris with his wife to supervise the construction and attend the fair’s opening ceremony. The building was praised for the use of Finnish motifs, such as bears, frogs, squirrels, and other Finnish wildlife, mixed with National Romanticism and Art Nouveau styles. It also displayed ceiling frescoes themed after the Finnish myth Kalevala, furnishings and ceramics by Alfred William Finch from the local Iris pottery factory, and textiles woven by The Friends of Finnish Handicraft founded in 1879. Many of these can be viewed in the exhibition, including architectural drawings, photographs, a scale model, and an Iris chair. It was also said that the phenomenal success of the pavilion ignited a political statement for Finland independency during an era when the country was still a part of Russia.
Saarinen studied at the Helsinki University of Technology. In 1896, he formed the Gesellius-Lindgren-Saarinen partnership, which propelled a series of successful projects. Apart from the Finnish Pavilion and National Museum of Finland, the team also designed the Pohjola Insurance Company Building in 1901. The building is a beautiful masterpiece of decorative work inspired by the Kalevala myth. The exhibition presents photographic and drawing details of gargoyles, monsters, squirrels, tree reliefs and grotesque figures adorning the edifice. They capture the ideal essence of Finland’s natural characteristics, therefore, attributing to the National Romantic style. The most captivating feature in the building is the famous spiral staircase with semi-circular landings and cast iron railings decorated with pine tree, fern leaf and troll motifs.
Finland is famed for its enchanting forests and lakes. Saarinen and his architectural partners fell in love with the scenery around Lake Vitträsk, around 20 kilometers from central Helsinki, so they decided to purchase a parcel of the lake property in 1901. They converted it into their studio residence in the National Romantic style. The Hvitträsk (White Lake), hence, was divided into the southern wing occupied by Saarinen’s family, the northern wing that housed Lindgren’s family, and a separate building “Lilla Villan” (Little Villa) built for Gesellius and his sister, textile artist Loja, who later married Saarinen after his divorce. The entire complex is a work of art in itself. Photographs, plans, and architectural drawings reveal every detail from the windows, doors, floors, lights, furniture, and accessories all designed by the trio. You can take a glimpse of a photograph of the sophisticated dining room with its Gothic arched windows and stained glass. The interiors evoke the spirit of English Arts and Crafts movement, late 19th century cism, and a touch of Jugendstil, all blended with Finnish materials, motifs and methods. Hvitträsk is central to Saarinen’s personal life and career, as many of his projects were conceptualized here, including the Helsinki Central Station. It became the childhood home of his son Eero, who became one of the modernist era’s prominent architects and industrial and furniture designers. He designed the plan for the north wing around 1929-1936. Today, the villa is a museum that can be visited by the public.
In 1922, Saarinen won second place for his design of the Chicago Tribune Tower. It became an iconic modernist skyscraper with neo-Gothic influence. The achievement prompted him to move to the U.S., which further accelerated his success. He became the first president of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, which he also designed. In the following years, Eero succeeded his father’s position as an architecture educator. Some of Eero’s furniture designs are displayed in the exhibition.
While the exhibition consists of only one hall, the curation is wonderfully presented with arches and door openings echoing Saarinen’s revolutionary design and Finland’s peaceful natural surroundings. Visitors may be tempted to visit Finland after seeing this exhibition.