The Finnish-Russian library that united conservationists beyond borders | Concrete Ideas

The Finnish-Russian library that united conservationists beyond borders | Concrete Ideas
Image: Egor Rogalev

13 September 2021

In 1927, Finnish architect Alvar Aalto won a competition to design a library in what was then the Finnish town of Viipuri — now the Russian town of Vyborg. Completed in 1935, the building catapulted Aalto to worldwide recognition, but not only for the library’s impressive functionalist design. The tale of the Alvar Aalto library is, instead, one of territorial tension.

During the 1930s and 40s, Viipuri was an object of intense dispute between Finland and the Soviet Union, before falling under Soviet control in 1944. But as the Iron Curtain came down across the border, the fate of the library became shrouded in uncertainty, and there were even rumours that the building had been demolished. Thankfully, the structure still stands today — and following years of campaigning from Aalto’s wife, Elissa Aalto, the library was finally restored in 2013, with joint funding from the Finnish and Russian governments.

Consisting of two horizontally offset rectangular blocks, the library’s functionalist exterior hides a deceptively complex interior. Many rooms boast Aalto’s trademark touches, including circular skylights that illuminate the reading room, and the curved wooden ceiling of the lecture hall. Today, the library stands not only as an icon of Scandinavian modernist architecture, but as a triumph of a shared cultural heritage.

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When worlds collide: photographer Egor Rogalev visits the kaleidoscopic city of Vyborg