Friday, March 9, 2012


Indestructible Viborg – the past lives on in the mind

Our journey nears its end. We made Viborg (Viipuri) the last stop on our trip, since we had heard that it was but a shadow of the lively town my mother visited 70 years ago. Before 1992 the rare visitor to Viborg often returned to Finland in tears. For old timers, Viborg is old memories and faded photographs: cultured, cosmopolitan, charming. But above all it is sadness. In their minds’ eyes they see Bishop Agricola’s steeple at the top of Vattenportsgatan (Vesiportinkatu, Water Gate Street), or St Olof’s Tower of the Castle or the Round Tower (Pyöreätorni) in the old city. Badly damaged during the last two wars and emptied overnight of its population, Viborg suffered continued destruction during the Soviet era. So we braced ourselves to see the worst.

Although many ruins remained, we discovered that some historical buildings had been renovated or rebuilt. The population was young and relatively fashionably dressed, the car park was rather modern, cafés and restaurants were somewhat lively and a modest night life existed. All this imparted a certain touristic charm, which compared favourably with other towns in Karelia. Having entered the town with such low expectations, we were thus pleasantly surprised.

After the dissolution of the USSR in 1992, the municipal governors started to care more about the town’s past and to plan better for its future. They returned the statue of the town’s founder and defender against Novgorod, Torkel Knutsson, to its square in time to celebrate the town’s 700th anniversary in 1993. The USSR had kept the statue in a closet since 1944 so letting it out was a tacit acknowledgment of the city’s non-Russian past. The new government had also restored some architectural treasures, such as the breathtaking Viborg Art Museum and Drawing School designed by Uno Ullberg (1879-1944) and built in 1933. It stands on a lot in the city’s harbour amidst soaring cranes, like a Greek temple viewing the sea and the sky. It is in splendid shape and serves today as a branch of the Art Museum in St Petersburg. We sent an appreciative thought to the authorities for taking good care of this masterpiece.
Ullberg’s Art Museum and Drawing School in the 1930s …                        … and in 2011 
Among much else, Ullberg designed a building for the Viborg Provincial Archives (1932-33). It now serves as an archive for the St. Petersburg Oblast. Finland managed to remove some of the historical archives before the end of the war but others were destroyed by the USSR. An unknown amount of Finnish documents remains there. Who knows how many vital statistics gather dust in that archive’s stacks? While the building keeps up appearances, if seen at a distance, a closer look reveals the customary shabbiness of socialist administrative offices.
Ullberg’s Provincial Archives houses shadows of the past
With the benefit of hindsight, the many functionalist buildings constructed in the early 1930s by the tireless Ullberg can be said to have inaugurated functionalism in Viborg. Only 15 years earlier Ullberg had excelled in a national romantic style similar to that of Eliel Saarinen. With his associate, Klaes Axel Guldén, Ullberg had, in 1909, designed the head office for the town’s legendary company Hackman and Co.
The facade of the Hackman building
Ullberg went on to design the office of the Nordic Union Bank (Nordiska föreningsbanken, Pohjoismaiden Yhdyspankki) 1913 as well as that of the Bank of Finland 1915, both in Sordavala (Sortavala). Nordic national romanticism was somewhat moody and sombre, lacking the artful decorations characteristic of continental European jugend. However, this more playful style could also be found in Viborg.
A spritely jugend style building in central Viborg
Functionalism erupted on the Viborg scene around 1930 like a force of nature. With the eastern border closed, foreign influences now came from the West. The Swede Sven Markelius held a lecture in Finland on functionalism in 1928 and Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) presented the thoughts of Le Corbusier in 1929 after a visit to France. Aalto had been awarded first prize in 1927 for his submission in the competition for a municipal library in Viborg. Influenced by Gunnar Asplund’s Municipal Library in Stockholm (completed in 1926), Aalto revised his design several times until his Viborg library stood completed in 1935 as yet another masterpiece of functionalism. Thus, Finnish functionalism was conceived and born in the short period between 1925 and 1935.
Aalto’s Library in Viborg admired by Jussi Mäntynen’s Elk 

Aalto’s library in Viborg was severely damaged in the wars and was long the prey of the elements. In 1996 the Swedish Alvar Aalto Society was founded and proceeded to renovate the Library at a pace largely determined by voluntary contributions. We walked in the Library and in the park, the two forming a unit, feeling as though we were in a different world. We admired the lecture hall with its famous undulated ceiling, which had been finished the year before, and the clean whiteness of the building’s walls and halls.
The Library auditorium carries its 75 years like a feather
During our visit the library was virtually empty. Books had been packed and moved to allow the last interior renovations to be completed by 2013. Looking impressively spic and span the building’s clean modernism looked out of place in an otherwise grim urban environment. We hoped that the surroundings would gradually adapt to the Library rather than vice versa. However, the building, soon fully restored to its state as of 1935, still looked at least 25 years ahead of the society now surrounding it. Closing this time gap would be difficult.
Books being stored during renovation of the Library
Caught in a time warp, we wandered back towards the old town. Many of the older buildings there had been destroyed during the war but those that remained had not changed since then, except for the worse. Buildings were poorly maintained and some were abandoned.
Viborg - 70 years after the war!
Some war ruins still stand as they stood when the war ended 70 years ago. Many medieval houses that had survived the wars were unchanged since then except for wear and tear. So the past was always present. Thus, we were not surprised to see a medieval damsel appear on a narrow street and head towards the Castle. We asked her for directions to the famous Vattenportsgatan (Vesiportankatu, Water Gate Street), which once had the reputation of being Finland’s most beautiful street. She pointed us to it.

Few people were out walking and we felt as though we were in a deserted city. But in this small town it was impossible to get lost. Even a stranger felt at home here. We soon arrived at Water Gate Street, leading from Bishop Agricola’s steeple in the heart of the old town down to the harbour gate. The street had not changed since the last years of the 1930s. The buildings were a bit the worse for wear but in reasonably good shape compared to other parts of the old town.
Water Gate Street with Agricola’s steeple in the 1930s and in 2011.
Find the differences between then and now!

We sauntered on in good spirits to see another of Viborg’s many landmarks: the Round Tower (Pyöreätorni) in the old city, which King Gustav Vasa ordered constructed in 1550. The omnipresent Uno Ullberg renovated this Tower in 1923, converting it rather surprisingly into a restaurant and café. These now conduct a brisk business. We enjoyed a good lunch, surrounded by murals depicting scenes from the town’s long history. At our table we admired the mural depicting King Karl Knutsson (Bonde) (1409-1470), who was the powerful military governor (hövitsman, valtionhoitaja) of Viborg 1442-1448. Those with good eyesight and knowledge of Swedish can read the text on the wall. The murals appeared to have been there for 500 years but were in fact added by Ullberg. Sitting in these pleasant, medieval surroundings we felt transported back to the days of the Common Realm.
The medieval Round Tower in Viborg’s centre provides food – also for thought

Viborg’s prime landmark is the Castle, once one of the three most important fortifications in the Realm. Built in the 1290s and successively fortified against recurrent sieges for four centuries, it guarded the eastern border. During the Great Northern War (1700-1721), Peter the Great occupied it in 1710 while Charles XII was occupied in ‘non-core business’ in Southern Russia. We climbed up the stairs of St Olof’s tower to get a bird’s eye view of the town and its surroundings. It was a faire sight. All the town’s blemishes faded when viewed at this distance on a summer day. Viborg was a virtual town. One saw always the past beyond the present. How could anyone fail to fall in love with Viborg, in spite of everything?  
The old town of Viborg – alive in our dreams

We left town thinking what a waste of rich natural resources and strategic location the current political and economic system imposed! “Waste not, want not!” as Mother used to say. Here was a harbour located at an historical cross-road of trade with a hinterland rich in natural resources. Yet the farms lay vacant, the forests were underutilized, the water polluted, the towns impoverished and most houses uninhabitable. Can Viborg regain its former prosperity? Twenty years ago I visited a desperately run-down Tallinn one month after Estonia’s re-emergence as an independent state. I have since returned at roughly five year intervals and observed how quickly and dramatically a democratically elected government, a determinedly implemented market economy and a deep economic integration with the EU have restored the run-down town centre and raised the inhabitants’ low living standards. It is now difficult by casual empiricism alone to see a difference between Tallinn and other Hanseatic towns. In similar circumstances Viborg – and Karelia – could rapidly restore its former prosperity. 

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