Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Suur-Merijoki - an architectural master piece
Photo: Neuscheller; © Museiverket
During mother’s visit to Karelia in 1937 she was fortunate to see two jewels of Finnish architecture. The Viborg  railway station and the manor house Suur-Merijoki outside the city were prime examples of national romanticism (Jugend, Art Nouveau Nordic style) as developed by three pioneering Finnish architects.

In 1896 three students at the Technical Institute of Helsingfors (Helsinki) formed the architectural firm GLS: Herman Gesellius (1874-1916), Armas Lindgren (1874-1929) and Eliel Saarinen (1873-1950). Together with their families they formed a professional cluster. Saarinen’s second wife was Gesellius’ sister Louise, who later worked with Eliel as a professional colleague. Their two children, Eero and Eva-Lisa, were to be their ‘apprentices’. Saarinen’s first wife remarried Herman Gesellius. This remarkable cluster of architects was embedded in an international network formed by proximity to St Petersburg and a common language with Sweden. Already by the mid-1930ies their buildings in distant Karelia had achieved international fame and attracted many visitors.

Driving eastward from Helsingfors, one of Mother’s first stops was no doubt Suur-Merijoki, located about 10 km west of Viborg. The St Petersburg businessman Maximilian Othmar Neuscheller had commissioned GLS to design a summer home for him and all three architects worked on the house 1901-1903. Neuscheller was an avid photographer and took pictures of the house upon completion. It was as though he immediately realised that GLS had created a masterpiece for him.
Suur-Merijoki in color
 Photo: Neuscheller (about 1905), using first colour camera in Finland; © Museiverket
Suur-Merijoki was a ”total art work” (Gesamtkunstwerk), meaning that the architects designed not only the house but also its interior decoration and furnishings. Each of the firm’s three architects designed a number of rooms. Here are two.
Plan for the hall (Eliel Saarinen, 1902);                   Plan for the bedroom (Herman Gesellius, 1903)
Source: Museiverket (We are obliged to Pepita Ehrnrooth-Jokinen for expert guidance)  
Having heard enthusiastic reports from old timers who had visited this house in the 1930ies, we set off to find it. Guided by a pre-war road map, we kept branching off onto smaller and smaller country roads. The car tracks grew fainter and fainter and finally disappeared and the forest closed in around us. No cars had been driven here for years. We gave up our search and stopped the car to get out and stretch our legs before turning back. We had stopped close to a pile of granite stones. Upon closer inspection, we realized to our dismay that this pile of rubble was all that remained of Suur-Merijoki. The Soviet Air Force had bombed the house during the Winter War, completely destroying it. All that remained standing was a stone archway and some cellar fundaments.
Before the war …                                                                       … and after                                       
Photo on the Left: Neuscheller, © Museiverket 
The bombing may have aimed at Satakunda Airport which the Finnish State built on the land after having purchased the manor in the 1930ies. Transportable rubble had been removed and recycled by the Soviets after the Continuation War. Abandoned by man, nature took over. Now silence and solitude prevailed in the forest.
Exploring what remains of Suur-Merijoki
Fortunately, Suur-Merijoki has a well-known companion building, Hvitträsk, just outside Helsingfors which allows us to imagine what this destroyed past might have looked like. GLS built it 1902-1904 as private residences for the three partners and their families. Lindgren withdrew from the partnership in 1905 to become head of the School of Architecture at the Technical Institute of Helsingfors and Gesellius died in 1916 after several years of illness. Saarinen sold Hvitträsk in 1949 to private owners. The Finnish State bought it in 1981 and since 2000 a foundation under Museiverket manages it.

Despondent, we drove back to Viborg to see what remains of the train station there. Saarinen and Gesellius had together designed and built it in 1910-13. A companion building is the train station in Helsingfors designed by Saarinen in 1907 and opened (after much redesigning) in 1919. Both stations are in a characteristic national romantic style. The designs initiated a professional debate that contributed to the subsequent breakthrough of functionalism in Finland in the late 1920s.
Gesellius-Saarinen’s Train Station in Viborg                 Saarinen’s Counterpart in Helsingfors
Before Soviet troops withdrew from Viborg in the Continuation War in 1941 they blew up the train station. After the war the USSR replaced it by a station built in the neo-classical style favoured by Stalin. However, one part of the Gesellius-Saarinen station, in red granite, remains standing at the far end of that building.
All that remains today of Gesellius-Saarinen’s Viborg Train Station    
Around the corner from the Viborg railroad station we saw a bus station that looked like an early example of Finnish functionalism. The bus station had been redesigned by the Viborg architect Uno Ullberg in 1937. We had lunch at the restaurant there, which we recommend to any retro-traveller who wishes to experience a Soviet worker’s lunch. The experience could also cure him of nostalgia for the workers’ paradise.

The destruction of Suur-Merijoki and the Viborg train station was a heavy blow for Eliel Saarinen. Some of his best works do not exist in situ, either because his designs were not constructed (like the Smithsonian Art Center) or because, once built, they were destroyed in the wars. Fortunately, some of Saarinen’s houses in Karelia survived leaving a treasured legacy there. Dr J. J. Winter, whose home we had seen in Sordavala (Sortavala), had commissioned Eliel Saarinen to design a summer home for him on the shore of Lake Ladoga about 8 kilometers outside Sordavala.

We set off in search of doctor Winter’s summer house, called Tarunniemi, only to be stopped upon arrival by a guard at a vast gated community. Upon hearing our wish to see the house designed by Saarinen, he allowed us to enter. We made discrete inquiries and were given to understand that a Russian businessman had bought the land with Winter’s house in 2000 and was now converting it into a summer holiday resort. A few vacation homes had already been built and were available to rent. A condition for purchase of the land had been that the buyer must renovate the house designed by Saarinen. The exterior appeared in good shape but since the house was not open we were unable to see the inside. A look through the windows suggested that it was not furnished. No Gesamtwerkkunst here! Maybe this was just as well, since the house seemed destined to serve vacationers mainly as an assembly point for evening cocktails. Although it was already June, we saw no summer guests. The house appeared lonely and we suspected it missed more convivial times in the past.
Dr. Winter’s summerhouse outside Sordavala   
Saarinen’s national romantic style made us feel at home abroad. It was strikingly similar to houses in an affluent suburb outside Stockholm built about the same time and in a similar national romantic style. We went down the steps of Tarunniemi to the waterfront and admired the view of Lake Ladoga. Sitting on the bench in the stillness of a summer evening we realized that this was the house we had seen from the ferry on our way to Valamo. No wonder we had experienced a sense of déjà vu although we had never seen the house before.
A relaxing view of Lake Ladoga
Albeit amateurs, we recognized that the unknown owner had taken care to restore Saarinen’s house and hoped that he would continue to treat it with the respect it deserved. Upon our return we found a rumour in a Finnish newspaper that the owner was a relative of a V. Putin. We were hardly surprised.

Saarinen left Finland in 1923 with his family to serve as guest lecturer at the University of Michigan after winning second prize in the competition for the Chicago Tribune building. There, George Booth commissioned him in 1925 to design the Cranbrook campus in Bloomfield Hills, near Detroit. He became President of the Cranbrook Academy of Art and was its principle architect. Here Saarinen created a physical and intellectual environment that is recognized as the birthplace of American modernism. At about the same time in Germany, Hitler destroyed the Bauhaus School and many of its pioneers found refuge in the United States. The Swedish sculptor Carl Milles arrived in 1931 as resident artist and Head of Sculpturing. He lived next door to the Saarinens. Saarinen also designed the Cranbrook School for boys and the Kingswood School for girls in Bloomfield Hills.

Given his location in the American Midwest, it is not surprising that Saarinen in 1947-1950 also designed the Art Center and prepared an expansion plan for Drake University, both in Des Moines, Iowa. His son Eero completed the Residence Halls at Drake after his father’s death in 1950. Eero was to become one of the foremost modernist architects in the USA with works such as Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., the TWA Flight Center at J.F. Kennedy Airport, New York, and the Gateway Arch in Saint Louis, Missouri, on the Mississippi River.
The Art Center in Des Moines, Iowa, designed by Eliel Saarinen and completed 1950
Saarinen’s years in America and my mother’s years in Finland created intersecting circles of personal history. Mother was born in Des Moines and she died there 100 years later. She was very proud of the Art Center and supported it actively in various ways throughout her life. When doing so she recalled the many buildings by Saarinen that she had seen in Finland. She no doubt spoke enthusiastically of Saarinen to her friends on the board of the Art Center. Nor was it a coincidence that one of Mother’s daughters attended Kingswood School in Cranbrook, where she sculptured. She created objects there and at the Des Moines Art Center that later in life would turn her home and garden into a Gesamtkunstwerk. I digress, but only in a superficial sense.

On the way back from looking for Saarinen’s works in war-ravished Karelia we drove through Kurkijoki. This was the only county in rural Karelia which was Swedish speaking, having once been populated by immigrants fleeing a famine in Sweden. We passed a small jugend house in Hiitola parish which caught our eye. In striking contrast to the surrounding dwellings the house was in excellent shape, having been restored recently.
A house in Kurkijoki county designed by a Master in 1915
Even our untrained eyes could see that this modest house was the work of a master. We stopped to look more closely at this remarkable house, which appeared “out of this world”.

When we got back to our computers we discovered that the house was designed in 1915 by Lars Sonck (1870-1956) for his brother Karl Joel Sonck. Together with Eliel Saarinen he was the leading national romantic architect at the time, active mainly in the Åbo (Turku) region. He designed Ainola, the home of Aino and Jean Sibelius, completed in 1904, and Villa Guldstrand, Nådendal, (Villa Kultaranta, Nantali), in 1916, which is now the official summer residence of the President of the Republic. We thanked the unknown present owner for having spotted this gem in the wilderness and restored it.
Architect Lars Sonck from Western Finland designed this house for his brother
We drove off to see the once-famous but now-deserted sandy beaches in Kurkijoki. Alone on the beach balancing between sea and sky, we reflected upon the many sad memories of a destroyed legacy that we had seen in Karelia. Creative spirits had produced rare works of art and culture here. War had destroyed them and expelled the population leaving behind a wasteland. After Europe’s many wars the European Union has done much to reconcile former enemies. But Karelia remains an open sore. How much sand must run through the hourglass before it heals? 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


19th century Ikon; Valamo Monastery in the background
As Mother travelled east with me in this Nordic country in 1937 she noticed an increasingly exotic flavour. She passed more and more churches with the characteristic Greek Orthodox cross on their steeple. A significant Greek Orthodox population lived in Karelia and contributed to its special character. Upon Finland’s independence in 1917, the Orthodox churches in Finland had become an autonomous entity directly under the Greek Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople and with a Orthodox Seminary and Patriarch in Karelia’s second largest city Sordavala (Sortavala), close to where most of the Greek Orthodox in Finland then lived.
The Seminary and headquarters of the Greek Orthodox church in Sordavala 
This made Karelia different. No wonder Mother’s acquaintances in the diplomatic community in Helsingfors (Helsinki) urged her to visit the famous Greek Orthodox monastery on the island of Valamo (Valaam) in Lake Ladoga. So Mother took the ferry from Sordavala to Valamo, where her vessel docked below the Monastery. Upon stepping ashore she entered a different world – a world of contemplation, community and communion with God.
Valamo in the late 1930s
About 150 monks lived on this distant island so as to be free from the distractions of the material world. Most lived in the large central monastery, while some chose to live as hermits in small cabins (sketes) scattered throughout the islands. They praised god not only in the Cathedral but also in their daily life, which was self-sufficient, simple and ascetic.
The Monks’ traditional winter bath at Epiphany
Photographer: Sergey Kompaniychenko
But no man is an island and the bell soon tolled for this special community. Two years after Mother’s visit the monks were no more on this celestial isle. History had repeated itself. Today the Karelian homeland is gone, its population is scattered and its identity is diluted. The relatively few Greek Orthodox adherents dispersed in today’s Finland are mostly descendants of those who fled from Karelia in 1941 and 1944.

Founded as the most northerly Greek Orthodox monastery around 1000, give or take a century, Valamo was ideally located for a community that wished to avoid the temptations of the world. However, located on the border between East and West, it was repeatedly visited by bloody conflicts. Here, both spiritual and temporal realms clashed. Swedish forces burnt the buildings and killed the monks in 1576 during one of the many wars with Russia. Valamo fell to Finland-Sweden in the Stolbova Peace Treaty of 1617. The Swedish kings, which the Constitution required to be Lutheran, let the monastery stand empty for over 100 years. Freedom of religion did not characterize the times; on the contrary. Many Orthodox believers fled to Russia fearing prosecution by the king’s Lutheran Church.

When this area reverted to Russia in 1721, the Orthodox Church initiated a major reconstruction programme, which laid the ground for the buildings that we see today. But during the Winter War the USSR bombed the monastery (which at the time was in Finland).
Havoc after Winter War
Finland evacuated about 150 monks to Heinävesi, where they founded New Valamo. After 1944 when Ladoga Karelia was ceded to the Soviet Union, Valamo monastery and other Greek Orthodox establishments in Finnish Karelia were again placed under the patriarch in Moscow. They eked out a meagre existence for a few years under an atheistic regime. Soon that regime closed the monastery and used the buildings for secular purposes, during which period they deteriorated. The monastery was not returned to the Orthodox Church until 1989. Would it be in bad shape? Would we see memories of the past haunting the present? We decided to find out and, following in Mother’s footsteps, we boarded the passenger ferry in Sordavala.

The sea journey takes about 2 hours and is pleasant when the sea is not rough. The fare was exorbitant but when we saw that most of the passengers were Finnish we understood that we were paying ‘tourist prices’ for the ferry, as we had for coffee at the empty new cafeteria by the small dock. Most Russian visitors took the overnight boat from St Petersburg to Valamo.

The ferry left the small pier in Sordavala and for about thirty minutes steered through a cluster of islands reminiscent of the Stockholm archipelago. Early June was exceptionally warm, so we basked on deck in the sun while the cries of the seagulls broke the silence and the ferry’s prow parted the waves and sprayed us with foam. Transposed to this distant country we felt transported back to those carefree summer vacations of early childhood. In this festive mood the few farms and cottages on the receding coastline took on a familiar look. Especially one large house on the waterfront inspired a strange feeling of déjà vu. Where had we seen this familiar house before?  The political borders on our map told us we were in Russia. But the borders of our mental maps told us we were at home. We searched our memories but in vain. This puzzle followed us unsolved for several days.
Leaving Sordavala, our ferry passed a hauntingly familiar house on the shore of Lake Ladoga
After a while we lost sight of the land behind us and the vast expanse of water that opened up ahead reminded us that we were on Europe’s largest lake. We relaxed until we saw in the distance the monastery’s spires and domes floating on the water. The ferry passed through a narrow straight guarded by a freshly painted chapel.
A chapel welcomes pilgrims to a sheltered cove on Valamo
We glided silently into the sheltered harbour where the ferry docked. We had reached a safe haven. On the hill-top, the monastery glowed in the noonday sun. The buildings were far from being run down. We gazed in surprised amazement as they glistened in the sunshine.

The harbour was a hive of activity. Construction workers were hard at work expanding the docks to receive more vessels and building new facilities to entertain more tourists. We descended the gangplank and were engulfed by stalls catering to tourists.
The harbor today with the Valamo Monastery on top of the hill
We squeezed our way through the crowds and past the vendors and ascended the hill to the monastery, only a few hundred meters away. Bulbs had sprouted in the lawns and flowers in bloom cast a cascade of colors.
On the hill to the Monastery a Madonna with child welcomed us amidst blossoming June flowers
At the top of the hill, we approached the entrance to the Monastery and passed through the Holy Gates into a large open square.
The Holy Gates – the entrance to the Monastery
We stood in the square in front of the breathtaking sight of the Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Saviour. Pilgrims and tourists alike stood silent in awe of its beauty. The gold leaf on the crosses of the Cathedral and its turquoise roofs contrasted with the white buildings and the green leaves of the trees. Monks in long black habits hastened back and forth tending to the grounds and the buildings. The recent renovations gave the monastery a sparkling appearance. This was a far different sight than what had greeted Mother seventy years ago. The throngs of people diluted somewhat the feeling of a sacred place. Were there more tourists than pilgrims there? To get a glimpse of earlier monastic life click on the word "Video".
Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Saviour in refurbished splendor
We entered the Cathedral, which was crowded with worshipers celebrating a holy day. Invisible behind a screen some monks chanted while others walked among the celebrants swinging holders of burning incense. Young and old attended the service. We were witnessing a timeless ceremony. The apparent confusion could not conceal a sense of deep emotion. The ceremony was the same today as 100 or 1000 years ago; the same in this renovated dome as in a hermit’s hut.

Restoration of the monastery had started in 2002 and made rapid progress. The grounds and the many buildings were in good condition. The costly renovation was largely funded by the State but we understood that the choir of the Monastery had also contributed funds raised by world-wide singing tours. State support for the Monastery reflected the Government’s promotion of the Orthodox Church as a symbol of Russian nationalism.
Monks singing in the Cathedral – above them the golden splendor of the dome
Photographers: Emil Ems (left) and Hieromonk Savvaty (right)
The sums spent restoring Valamo had led to impressive results. However, viewed over the centuries this latest reconstruction seemed to be only one swing in history’s pendulum between destruction and renewal that haunted the Monastery. What Caesar could give, he could also take away. A next generation to visit here might well find the buildings in disarray again. For us, the restored elegance of the Cathedral did not project a sense of “power and glory” but was a reminder of the impermanence of matter, of vanity. So like the monks, we contemplated the transitory nature of our existence and, taking the long view, tried to find meaning in the greater scheme of things:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.http://valaam.ru/en/photos/oldvalaam/1667/