Publication pages

Nordic Journal of Architecture No. 3. vol 2. winter 2012

Published by Tom Hermansen on Thursday Jan 17, 2013 at 13:45

Falling Trees

In October 2011 a fierce storm hit the Venetian laguna. Raging over the Giardini, the strong winds knocked

down a venerable old tree in the biennale park, severely damaging another revered entity: Alvar Aalto’s Finnish pavilion of 1956. The incident has a certain allegorical power to it. The Italian landscape park commissioned by Napoleon at the Castello during the French occupation of Venice has long been listed as a landmark and its majestic trees have become subjects of preservation. The damage caused by the falling tree might be seen as one monument crushing another, even more so if one thinks about it with regards to materiality. Challenging Victor Hugo’s famous maxim “This will kill that,” this contemporary Venetian drama reflects, in fact, a material turning against itself. 

Aalto’s wooden structure is an anomaly in the Italian urban texture. The presence of the pavilion in the biennale park recalls Sigfried Giedion’s presentation of Aalto in the fifth edition of Space, Time, and Architecture. The Aalto chapter opens with a, for Giedion, rather atypical image: a photo of lumberjacks floating timber on a Finnish lake. “Finland is with Aalto wherever he goes. It provides him with that inner source of energy which always flows through his work,” Giedion stated lyrically, contributing to the long-standing myth of Nordic architecture as primordial, natural, sound, authentic. 

Back in Venice a roof truss is broken and the walls partly dislocated, as reported by the Helsingin Sanomat (October 24, 2011). Yet a representative of the Museum of Finnish Architecture reassuringly noted that the “damage is by no means so severe that the building would be at risk of demolition.” He expressed hope that the pavilion might be repaired with its original materials, and praised the Italians' will to support the repair of “this monument of modern architecture.” For this year’s architecture biennale, Aalto’s pavilion, originally conceived to be temporal, was meticulously restored. Again Giedion’s floating timber is evoked in the resurrected pavilion, its atmospheric fragrance emanating rather conspicuously from the show New Forms in Wood, as if testifying to the way ephemera can sometimes be turned into permanence.

Only a stone’s throw away, we find the Nordic pavilion, a venue for several rather unsuccessful collaborations between Finland, Sweden, and Norway. Sverre Fehn’s concrete pavilion is celebrated for its architectural transplantation of the North to the South by diffusing “Nordic” light into a Mediterranean setting and for the respectful handling of the trees on site. Paradoxically, the spatial beauty of the Nordic pavilion has become an obstacle, as architecture curators struggle with engaging with the space. This misplaced reverence stands in stark contrast to art biennale practices; think only about Elmgreen & Dragset’s reinvention of the space in 2009, transforming the pavilion into a crime scene and an imaginary art collector’s hyper-styled mid-century modern villa, complete with a distinct, cool Californian flair. Under the somewhat trite title Light Houses a number of Nordic architects display small objects, respectfully placed in accordance with the ceiling grid of the pavilion. As is, these solipsistic experiments with form and materials (a few of them remarkable, many of them insignificant, or worse) point to yet another allegory: the Nordic as insular and self-contained, unaware of a wider world. The same self-contentment lurks in the New Nordic: Architecture and Identity show at Louisiana outside Copenhagen this fall. No doubt the projects on display are of a high quality. Yet the reluctance to deal critically with architecture beyond beautiful form makes the exhibition a missed opportunity.

Manic, feverish, hyperbolic, and profoundly witty, the Austrian author Thomas Bernhard never stopped venting his anger on his cultural milieu. His 1984 novel Holzfällen, was translated twice into English as Woodcutters and Cutting Timber, and more poetically into Norwegian as Trær som faller (emphasizing the long-lasting consequences of metaphorically falling trees). We might consider the opportunities offered by the real ones, in the debates and displays of Nordic architecture. Mari Lending.


About Nordic


NORDIC Journal of Architecture is an international, academic journal on architecture and design; so far the most ambitious initiative of its kind. In recent years, Nordic architecture has become a topical issue internationally, and several research projects studying Scandinavian topics are being conducted in the US and Europe. NORDIC Journal of Architecture is part of this new momentum, negotiating the territory between architectural practice, its historical presuppositions, and its theoretical repercussions. NORDIC is a forum for architectural scholarship, but also for investigating the relationship between architectural culture and society at large. Using specific events, conferences or debates as points of departure, each issue will present contemporary architectural research and practice, including design, historiography, teaching, and criticism. Encompassing works as well as criticism, and speculation as well as meticulous scholarship, it engages with the full complexity of contemporary architectural culture.

NORDIC is published bi-annually by the Danish Architectural Press. Editor is Professor Mari Lending, The Oslo School of Architecture and Design. No. 1, Fall 2011, As-Found, is guest edited by Ellen Braae and Svava Riesto, DK. No. 2 (Spring 2012) will have a special section on Nonumentality, guest edited by Mari Hvattum, AHO, while no. 3 (Fall 2012) is devoted to Alteration, and guest edited by Tim Anstey and Catharina Gabrielsson, Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm.

Editorial board: Anders Abraham (The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation, University of Copenhagen), Tom Avermaete (TU, Delft), Ellen Braae (Copenhagen University), Mari Hvattum (Oslo School of Architecture and Design), Fredrik Nilsson (Chalmers, Gothenburg) Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen (Yale School of Architecture), Roemer van Toorn (Umeå School of Architecture).