In comparison with the rather imposing structures around, the Finland Pavilion at the Biennale Gardens in Venice, designed by Alvar Aalto in 1955-56, looks like a joyful gazebo erected momentarily for a garden party or wedding. The air of celebration is emphasized by the stabilizing white triangular supports, which seem to turn the dark blue wooden walls into the nonstructural textile surfaces of a festival tent. The sign reading “Finlandia,” originally hung next to the entrance door from two sets of six suspended metal strings, adds another decorative item suggestive of a garden party. At the same time that the blue-white coloration echoes the colors of the Finnish flag, it also contributes to the celebratory ambience. Regardless of its architectural refinements, the pavilion also evokes vernacular images, including fishermen’s traditional boathouses in the Finnish archipelago.
Yet, upon deeper observation, the impression of a minute garden pavilion begins to turn into a more serious imagery suggestive of larger scale and permanent cultural use. Buildings of exceptional quality usually appear smaller than they physically are due to the density and richness of their mental imagery and the wealth of associations they evoke. In fact, every significant building is a complete world, a unique and autonomous artistic universe.
The pavilion begins to suggest a prototypical Aaltoesque art museum in a scale that is several times larger than the actual structure. The condensed building contains many of Aalto’s favourite design features: a skewed plan shape, a low horizontal volume with a skylight above (vaguely suggestive of the silhouette of a distant mountain range), and the welcoming entry space created by a gesture of the bent end-façade, similar to the outstretched arms of a host. The three triangular supports, as well as the inclusion of a small courtyard at the back, further suggest a larger scale, as if the pavilion were a miniature prototype of a full-scale museum.
The play with scale was a familiar idea for Aalto since the time of his witty designs in the idiom of Nordic Classicism during the 1920s. The ambition of the young architect was to turn his home town of Jyväskylä in central Finland into the “Florence of the North” through the use of a classical language; in 1924 he projected a tiny kiosk for selling books with a decorated apse and Doric columns, a small gas station with acroteria, and a fishery with pergolas and Doric colonnades. The foyer on the second floor of the Workers’ Club in Jyväskylä (1925) is an image of a Renaissance square with an imposingly decorated semicircular façade protruding into this shrunken and interiorized urban space. Even his later masterpiece, the Säynätsalo Town Hall (1948 –52), is a miniaturized image of a medieval hill town.
Aalto’s individual projects at various phases of his career tend to be engaged in the distinct formal and structural themes with which he was preoccupied at the time. The triangular “super-structure” of the pavilion in laminated wood recalls his slightly later competition scheme for Vogelweidplatz in Vienna (1952 –53), a gigantic sports, meeting, and concert facility based on a suspended cable structure; also the fan-shaped floor plan can be found in both projects.
The wooden roof structure of the Venice pavilion echoes the famous decorative roof construction of his Säynätsalo Town Hall. After his early applications of deep cylindrical skylights in his library and museum designs, Aalto began to develop countless variations of curved surfaces to cast reflected light into the space, be it a library room or art gallery. If the butterfly-shaped roof trusses of the pavilion were closed by a ceiling surface from below, the skylight would be identical with one of his many reflector types developed for the somewhat later project of the Aalborg Art Museum (1958; 1966 –72). In Venice, the skewed plan shape and the reflector system give each interior wall a relative independence and intimacy, instead of merely being one of the four walls of a room. The viewer stands in the shadow of the reflector structure as if underneath the canopy of a large tree in a park, while the paintings occupy the higher space of bright natural light.
Aalto had been deeply preoccupied with prefabricated wood housing in the period after World War II. The Venice pavilion continues these numerous projects; the wood structure was designed to be easily built and dismantled using bolt connections. However, due to a mistake in fabrication, the prefabricated elements had to be fixed by nails, and, unintentionally, the structure became technically permanent.
By the time Aalto was designing the Venice pavilion (which he did at the request of Maire Gullichsen, his client, friend, and collaborator in the Artek Furniture Shop), he was already a very experienced exhibition designer. In fact, his early international fame was largely grounded on his masterly exhibition designs for the Turku 700th Anniversary Exhibition of 1929, the Finnish Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition of 1937, and the Finnish Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair of two years later. He knew from personal experience that an exhibition structure needs to create an evocative and memorable image. Indeed, Aalto’s condensed architectural miniature at the Biennale Gardens is a master architect’s Magic Lantern, a generator of unexpected images and associations.