Alvar Aalto’s Nordic House in western Reykjavík has been a centre for Nordic cooperation, shared culture and friendship since its inauguration in 1968. Even if small in scale, it is apparent that everything that makes Aalto’s architecture so specific can be found in this little gem, too, as Atli Magnus Seelow explains, taking us on a little tour through this gesamtkunstwerk by the Finnish master.
Alvar Aalto’s (1898–1976) Nordic House in Reykjavík is a unique building. Not only because it’s Aalto’s only building in Iceland, but also because it epitomises better than any other structure the political and cultural cooperation between the Nordic countries.
In 1952 Iceland was one of four founding members of the Nordic Council alongside Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Although the Council only has a consultative role, it has proved to be very effective in promoting economic and social cooperation between the Nordic countries. The council’s headquarters are in Copenhagen but in 1962 they decided to site a building in Iceland as well to accommodate the numerous cultural activities of this Nordic collaboration as well as symbolically embody the partnership.
Without any competition, the project was given straight into the hands of the hero of Finnish modernism, Alvar Aalto, who was at the peak of his late career at the time producing some of his most remarkable mature projects such as the Finlandia Concert and Congress Hall in Helsinki (1962–1971) and the Opera House in Essen (1959-1988). Compared to these the Nordic House is a modest structure and a relatively unknown addition to the Aalto oeuvre, but a welcome one nonetheless with familiar features of his work.
The building comprises a small conference centre with a lecture and concert hall for 150 people, a library with reading booths, a cafeteria, offices for the director and five Nordic lecturers as well as a residence for the director and two small guest apartments. The Nordic House is placed on an extraordinary site in the solitude of a manmade landmass in the middle of the Vatnsmýri marsh, south of downtown Reykjavík. Emphasising its unique significance as a symbol of Nordic collaboration, Aalto refused to design it as an extravagant structure but kept the architecture rather humble. It seems that the dialogue of his building with the city and the surrounding landscape was much more important to Aalto than creating some sort of an icon here. For instance, he also affixed a small artificial pond on the north side of the house which relates to two larger ponds towards downtown. Thereby he emphasizes the qualities of the existing nature as well as pointing towards the constant shaping of this nature by man, not only through architecture but also through the landscape’s use and forming.
The Nordic House features numerous signature motifs which are typical of Alvar Aalto’s “human modernism“ like the clear division of the building into two parts. A single-storey base clad with whitewashed brickwork contains the service functions: apartments, offices, cafeteria and conference room. From this, a free-form crystalline structure protrudes, clad in ultramarine ceramic tiles, containing the library and the hall, the building’s public heart thus – according to locals, the shape is reminiscent of the nearby Esja mountain.
Inside, the visitors movement through the building is orchestrated by skylights, columns, and Aalto’s own Artek furniture, punctuated by a series of staged views to the outside. As usual, the architect plays with inside-outside space: the building’s foyer with its dark stone floor and wooden suspended ceiling is designed to give a quasi-outdoor feel. This is broken up by a doubly-filtered view through interior windows, from the foyer through the cafeteria to the landscape and city outside.
The design of the library and the hall are also typical of Aalto. The library is an introverted, concentrated space with bookshelves lining the walls, a heart-shaped pit with reading corners in the centre and a prominent skylight providing ample illumination. The concert hall is divided asymmetrically and equipped with an undulating, suspended wooden ceiling for optimum acoustics — all motifs which Alvar Aalto first used at his pioneering Viipuri (Vyborg) Library (1927–1935).
One can see the architect’s handwriting in all the details, too: in materials such as the roof’s ultramarine ceramic tiles or the entrance vestibule’s red Finnish granite; in the windows with separate ventilation and glazed vision panels; or the loop-shaped bronze door. The light fittings and most of the furniture are also Aalto designs.
The Nordic House was inaugurated in 1968 in the presence of Alvar Aalto and the Icelandic President Kristján Eldjárn (1916–1982). Although it has since lost its architecturally singular position due to less distinguished buildings nearby, it still enjoys great popularity. It is used as a forum for events and the library, which holds books, newspapers and magazines from all Nordic countries, is unique in Reykjavík. In short, the Nordic House is still a fitting symbol and venue for the lively and lasting collaboration between all the Nordic nations.
– Dr. Atli Magnus Seelow is an architect and architectural historian. He received his doctorate in 2009 at Technische Universität München and is currently Assistant Professor for History and Theory of Architecture at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden.
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