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? 


  1. Lieber Emil!
    Danke für die hochinteressante Details über einen sonst nicht so bekannten Teil Europas und die exzellenten Fotos! Schade wie viel zerstört wurde, aber Boom und Modernismus in anderen Teilen Europas und der Welt haben zum Teil auch ihren Preis und leider erkennt man Landschaften, Stadtbilder und Ortschaften z.T. auch kaum wieder nach ein eigen Jahren od. Jahrzehnten.

  2. My grandfather, and his forefathers, are from Kurkijoki. The Finns who lived in Karelia and lost their homes and land still think of themselves as Karelian and have an active society. Many regularly visit now it is possible. The open sore you mention is unlikely to heal until the people are able to forgive and let go, and the population who lives there now take responsibility and start loving their area. Interesting blog!!

  3. The Swedish speaking settlers in Kurkijoki did not come from Sweden, but from the Swedish speaking regions in Ostrobothia, Finland. Mostly from the region just south of Kokkola.

  4. Finland har verkligen fantastisk arkitektur. Borde uppmärksammas mer i Sverige.