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Finnish Architecture and the Modernist Tradition.

Malcolm Quantrill's knowledge of this century's Finnish buildings stems from both personal experience and source study. His book is based on concrete material, its starting point lies in realised buildings, plans and competition schemes as well as the architectural debate recorded in the press. Quantrill makes no attempt to draw clear lines or sweeping conclusions. Neither does he attempt to adopt the stance of an external, coolly objective and impartial witness: his own opinions add edge to the observations presented in the book throughout.

To the fore are his extensive material and depth of knowledge, a polymorphic vision in place of crystallisation. For this reason reading the book is not always absolutely problem-free, at least for an individual who does not already know its subject.

In addition to the main matters, Quantrill's approach draws attention to a huge amount of detail, marginal and background information, from time to time making detours to the most remote side-roads. Alongside the most important architectural subjects, Quantrill lists a number of less well-known or unknown separate projects and their designers. It is understandable that the number of pages in the book could never be sufficient for the illustration of these projects, but on the other hand mere mentions leaves them abstract footnote material.

Quantrill has long had an interest in Alvar Aalto and Reima Pietila, whose careers he has dealt with in earlier books. Here, too, a separate chapter is devoted to Pietila. Nevertheless, it is praiseworthy that Quantrill also directs attention to a large number of contemporaries of Saarinen, Aalto and Pietila. In other ways, too, it becomes clear to the reader that the best Finnish architecture has never - despite Aalto's dominance - been in the hands of one or two designers, but rather of a broadly based building culture.

In a couple of cases the writer's critical estimations seem exaggerated and anachronistic, particularly where they concern J. M. Richards. Richards became familiar with Finnish architecture, which he presented in books, when he visited the country as early as the 1930s. According to Quantrill, he did not understand the nature of the classicism of the 1920s correctly and gave an inadequate account of it. Every writer is always dependent on the directions taken by scholarship in his time: when Richards was writing his books, twentieth-century examples of classicism in Finland were - with a few exceptions - characterised as 'a shadow of a shadow'; now there is much more diverse information to be had on the subject, thanks to research by Simo Paavilainen.

Of Aalto's contemporaries, Hilding Ekelund attracts both positive and negative observations from Quantrill. His estimation of Ekelund's architecture as of lesser importance is not unfounded, but all the same it would have been reasonable to publish one picture of it, at leash after all the criticism. Although Ekelund's work does not perhaps persuade everyone, it includes a few undisputed architectural jewels; its social quality is good throughout, and it often also offers surprising interventions in the urban landscape. In particular, one might cite Ekelund's theoretical town plan, based on linked single-family atrium houses. Adaptations of the corresponding structure brought about important practical results in Nordic countries decades later, of which the best examples are Jorn Utzon's Kingo houses and the single-family housing at Klampenborg.

The book also includes an excellent foreword. Kenneth Frampton makes a telling sketch of the special characteristics of Finnish architecture and its relation with world architecture throughout the present century, illustrates the adaptation of outside influences at various stages, focuses on the most important designers, mentions a number of central, influential buildings and demonstrates interestingly similarities and differences between various architects and their work both in Finland and internationally.
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Author:Norri, Marja-Riitta
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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