A thematic discussion with academician Juha Leiviskä

Working: creativity, design, and change

HS: Music is very important to you, and your architecture is often compared to music. Malcolm Quantrill (2001) even compares your way of working to composing – varying a certain theme – and points out that there are repetitions and variations in Leiviskä's works but the end result is never monotonic. Is music the origin of your creativity, or is your starting point more visual, intellectual or mathematical?

JL: When we think about experiencing a piece of art, I think architecture and music are the two forms of art that are closest to each other. In both of them, time and movement are essential. Music and architecture are experienced as processes, a series of spaces (or sequences), by moving from one space to another. Every space is affected by where one comes from and where one goes next. Transitions, joints, modulations, connections to the environment are essential factors. Continuity as regards to both space and time has to be obtained, also in relation to history and tradition. Every form of art is independent; each has its own way and starting point. In my work, the starting point is always architectural.

HS: The designing phase of the Vallila library and the block of houses was quite long (1984-1991), and the plan contained the library and the day-care centre, but the idea of adding a residential building apparently came later. Could you tell us a bit about the design work and how did you start with these spaces? The library and the day-care centre did set some special requirements for the design.

JL: The design of the library was divided into periods. First we sketched different alternatives, for example, for the placement of the building in this area, also outside the current plot. There was a long break in the design as well; the intensive design on the basis of the chosen starting point took about two years. The residential building has been an essential part of the complex right from the beginning. The plan was to restore two original buildings. Unfortunately, different boards of the city hesitated for 10 years and let the valuable buildings rot. They had to be torn down, and the final solution was to replace them with new terraced houses, which were finished in 2004. “The terraced houses strive to reflect the intensive space solutions and atmosphere of the original milieu” (Arkkitehti 3/2004). We had the same objective when designing the library and the day-care centre in 1984-91.

HS: How significant do you see this building and the Vallila library as regards to your production? Is there something in the architecture of the library which is especially important or essential to your work?

JL: It is significant, for example because this is the only library and day-care centre that I have designed and that has actually been built. (There are some libraries and day-care centres among my competition proposals.) I am especially glad that I have been able to create spaces and an environment that are characterised by “modest monumentality”; they are intimate and dignified at the same time. I have gotten the impression that people like it there.

HS: A little less than 20 years after the building was finished, the library wanted to renew the lobby and the service area. During this time, the operation of the library had completely changed. Essential changes have been computers and new collection formats. In the 2000's, Finnish libraries have also started to seek a new image or identity: instead of quiet chambers, they want to offer lounge-like comfortable spaces. We were a little worried about how you would react to our wishes to make relatively big changes to the original library hall.

JL: The most important thing is that the spaces we designed remain vivid and serve their purpose well. It is very important that things are done as they were done in the past: contacting the original designers, if they are still alive and somewhat astute. Then it is possible to improve both the functionality and the architectural quality. This kind of design work is challenging and requires a great skill of understanding from the architect – especially when the original architect can no longer be used.

HS: The changes in the library also raise some philosophical questions about architecture and the identity of the buildings. Identity is an interesting concept, because in some cases the identity can be maintained even when big changes are made – but sometimes even a minute change destroys it. A painting is a unique work of art that cannot be changed afterwards, but novels allow quite a few changes: it can, for instance, be translated into another language or be adapted into a play. How many changes can you make into a building without changing its identity? Buildings, like paintings, are unique objects but – unlike paintings – they can be painted again and the façades can be changed over and over again.

JL: “Functionality” and “usefulness” are contributory factors in architecture. Architecture must live as a part of people's everyday environment and increase its aesthetic quality. Changes are often necessary, but maintaining the identity is important. There are a lot of good examples of how even the change of entire purpose of use has strengthened a building’s identity and its role and significance in the environment. (e.g. Broadcloth factory of Hämeenlinna, the old factory buildings of Tampella and Finlayson in Tampere, Katajanokka primary school in Helsinki.) So buildings are not objects in the same sense as paintings. Our own design, Harjun kappeli (Harju’s Chapel) in Mikkeli, is another example of how, in order to serve its original purpose, an old, valuable building has to endure even great changes without losing its identity. The renovation and design of Vallila library belong to this category.  

HS: Can we think that in some cases the architectural value of a building would even increase due to a radical change – and if so, where is the limit to possible changes? I am thinking about such cases as “Tempio Malatestiano” in Rimini, which was originally a gothic chapel but which became architecturally important due to Albert’s renaissance restoration. On the other hand, I myself am a bit reserved towards façades that were built on old Italian churches at the end of the 19th century. And the closer towards our time we come, the more fierce opinions become: the proposal to change the outside wall material of Finlandia Hall created a great deal of controversy, where in the end not so many words were said about marble being an unsuitable material for the big temperature changes of the north.

JL: I said before that the value of architecture might increase due to changes. However, this is unfortunately rare. The users and owners of the buildings often compromise good design because of expenses. When the functionality of an architecturally valuable building or milieu requires changes and additional building, it has to be done so that the original part stays independent and preferably dominates the entirety. When building new, we are faced with the same challenge in all conditions, whether or not we build into nature or into an already built environment. The existing environment forms the starting point: by building new, we have to be able to improve the starting point, otherwise we are not qualified for this work. When we are joining old and new together, we have to create a belonging, not a merging but an active dialogue. We are together but independent; we respect and support each other.

Base: roots, tradition, and history

HS: You have said that architecture must grow from the environment and that an architect has to stand on solid ground and stay at their roots. (Quantrill 2001, p. 7.) This can be understood as a reference to being Finnish and to the Finnish architectural tradition. Usually a line is drawn: (Dutch early modernism,) Alvar Aalto, Reima Pietilä, Juha Leiviskä.

JL: Often local (national) and international are juxtaposed. People ask: which are you representing? In order to have international significance, our work has to be locally important as well; it has to be a natural part of our homely environment and its tradition. For my work, I have taken the most important impulses from history, both from Finland and abroad. The old traditional architecture all over the world, its scale and how it sets roots into the landscape, not merging but engaging into an active dialogue with it, is definitely the most important teacher for aspiring architects.

Especially close to me is the modern tradition of European, especially Scandinavian architecture. Finnish architects related to this are for example Lars Sonck, Selim A. Lindqvist, Eliel Saarinen, Armas Lindgren, Viivi Lönn, Erik Bryggman, Alvar Aalto, Hilding Ekelund, Aulis Blomstedt, Reima Pietilä, Aarno Ruusuvuori and my own course comrade Erkki Elomaa (1936 – 89, Järvenpään kirkko (Järvenpään Church), among others).

My work has been influenced by early Christian and Byzantine architecture, Baroque spaces in Southern Germany, Austria and Bohemia, the historical residence and temple architecture in Japan, and the old city culture in Europe, such as it is in<0} Italy or Central Europe for example. When I go abroad, I do not have much time to see the latest trends in architecture. I go to old milieus and interiors and get the fullest inspiration for my own work from them.

HS: The fact that architecture must grow from land can also be understood in a concrete manner so that an architect must begin their design work by analysing the environment. Frampton and Quantrill both emphasise this aspect and point out that the rhythm of the terrain or the conditions of the place define Leiviskä’s approach. (Frampton 1999, p. 19, Quantrill 2001, p. 15.). So it could be assumed that the design of Vallila library began from the special qualities of the district: the Vallila district that was built at the beginning of the 20th century and still has some of its old wooden buildings, is (today) a part of the central city area but is located at its borders. On the other hand, the rocky plot and the shape of the terrain for instance, would also have affected the design.

JL: All this is fairly true.

HS: The Finnish culture is considered young, and architecture is often spoken of as if it begins from Eliel Saarinen and the romantic nationalism – and even then we quickly move on to our national pride: Finnish modernism and especially Alvar Aalto. Modernism is markedly seen as cutting the ties of the past, as a new beginning. What do you think about this kind of denying or underrating history?

JL: The Finnish culture is neither young nor poor. The original and amazing built environment and cultural landscape of the Finnish countryside has been mostly destroyed; only fragments remain on the periphery or outside museums. We just have to keep our history in our memories and draw inspiration from there for our own work. Some fools, i.e. many “star architects” of today, imagine that the ties of the past must be (or even can be) cut just like that. If we want to take our development forward and our work to be significant in the future, we must have strong ties to our past.

HS: Also when talking about music, one cannot help but hear that the musical points of comparison to your architecture are Mozart, Haydn and Schubert, for example, none of whom belong to the tradition of modernism but who are all composers from the late 18th century.

JL: The modern tradition of Europe and especially Scandinavia that dates back to the 18th century is the starting point of my work. The giants of modern architecture, especially Le Corbusier, are somewhat contradictory characters: their works relate to the tradition in a most wonderful way, enriching and renewing it, but they do not admit it themselves. Their theoretical studies and unrealised city visions (e.g. plan Voisin) have been destructive as regards to their environmental effects: the huge housing estates of the European suburbs and whole of the Soviet Union originate from these visions!

Oh, but the question was about music! There are a lot of models for modern music in the so called old music, including Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bach, and many other Baroque composers. You can hear a tight, natural connection to the tradition in the works of the finest contemporary composers such as Kaija Saariaho. I do not think they deny it. I myself would forbid the use of the word “modernism”. It stereotypes, downright kills the living phenomena of new art.

Elements: light, colour, and shape

HS: You have been called a “master of light”, and the analysis of your building seems to always end with the significance of light (rather than shape). For instance, Frampton analyses the “withdrawing” library mostly from the point of view of how well it fits into the terrain – but at the end he says that here Leiviskä’s skill of handling light reaches its highest peak (even over church buildings). (Frampton 1999, p. 21.) How would you describe the significance of light in Vallila library and in your other works – and the symbolism of light? In architecture – from the mystic twilight of a medieval church to the bright light of modern churches – light has also symbolised “sacred” and moving into a sacred area. This reflects the strong emotional effect of light. Is light only a tool for you – or is it an intellectual or emotional passion?

JL: Light, especially daylight, is the most important material in architecture: without light and shadow, there is no architecture. In this sense, light is a tool. For instance, with lighting solutions it can be indicated that "you are entering a sacred area". So light for me is both a tool and "an emotional passion”.

HS: Light is essential in painting as well and when talking about painting, I always think of impressionism first. It might not be a surprise that Quantrill is ready to call you a true impressionist. (2001, p. 21.) My own impression, however, is quite the opposite: the impressionists try to capture the moment and the light on the canvas, but for example in the Vallila library, the physical space has been created to free light. What do you think about such comparisons to other art forms and schools?

JL: The art historians want to compartmentalise us into certain categories (especially when they do not have much knowledge about the actual matter). However, it is not entirely unpleasant to be put into the same category as the impressionists. In Vallila, as you said, “the space is created for free light”. On the other hand, the free light creates this space. 

HS: Architecture and painting have some common points of contact. Light is essential in both of them, as well as shape. And then there are colours. In painting, these have been thought to be opposite notions in a sense: during the renaissance in Venice, it became habitual to paint (a shape) with colours, whereas in Florence the artists trusted drawing to be a manner to bring up the shape. Quantrill points out that with Leiviskä, the starting point of the design seems to be the minimalism of early modernism, which is enriched by the play of light and shadow – “chiaroscuro”. (2001, p. 13.) This leads me to think that for you, heavy drawing is not enough but you have to give a life to the building by means of light (again a metaphor relating to light). But what is the role of colours?

JL: As I said before, there is no architecture without light. I like to use statuesque items, such as handles and ribs, and other architectural elements to create shadows to lit surfaces. This way I get the space to sing by using light. I strive for vividly articulated space otherwise as well. Strong colours in this context would be problematic; it would destroy what has been achieved by light and shadow. 

HS: Talking about painting, after the renovation the Helsinki City Art Museum placed three big paintings by Jukka Mäkelä into the library. Before the acquisition of these paintings I thought that bare walls were a part of the original plan. The case was apparently not so, any paintings had just not been acquired. The initiative for the paintings in fact came from your side. You also have a clear picture about what kind of paintings would go well into the library. Would you like to say something about this?

JL: My work gets its colour from the people inside them and from works of arts. Their role had to be taken into account very early on. The house was already finished, however, when the director of Helsinki City Art Museum (17 years ago) brought this up. Unfortunately, the matter was dropped. Now we have found three very fine works of Jukka Mäkelä, which speak the same language with the soft lights and shadows of the interior. We were really lucky to have found these paintings! We want more of them, if possible.

Space: vertical, horizontal, and surrounding

HS: What struck me the most in Vallila library was the interior: the height of the space, the dramatic alterations of space (that create a setting for the play of light), and the statuesque space – and the fact that the space is much bigger and higher from the inside than could be assumed from the outside. The objective in the renovation work has been to highlight the uniform space of the lobby, which is made unique by the alterations of height. These dimensions of space are not often emphasised when talking about your architecture: they always seem to remain in the shadow of light and the protecting function of the space.

JL: As you said, the alteration of heights, vivid interaction of low and high, are essential tools in architecture.

HS: When talking about Leiviskä’s typical way of dealing with spaces, your way of designing closed and protective spaces is often brought up. It can also be said of Vallila library that the space is protected outwards (to the street) but open inwards (to the yard). This same idea is present in many of your other works (e.g. Villa Nikamaa, Myyrmäki Church).

JL: That is true.

HS: Designing maximally protective buildings has naturally been a long tradition. In Vallila, the old wooden houses have been built according to this model: the green inner yard is away from the noise of the city. Traditionally, farm houses have also been designed so that the yard is closed and protected from strangers and beasts of the woods. Frampton brings up a farm house in particular as a starting point for your design. (Frampton 1999, p. 19.) Hope for protection and the requirement for the easy defending of the buildings are much older, however: roughly speaking, the design of all medieval buildings, castles and monasteries follows these same principles. In churches this plan reflects – along with defence – the need to calm down and hope for directing one’s mind towards the transcendent. Do these references to “defence”, "protection” and “transition” have any relevance when talking about your architecture?

JL: It is part of a rich and vivid milieu to have vivid alterations of openness and protectiveness, public and private. Security is one of the basic values of life. The “semi-public” yards of the old Vallila crucially improve the social functionality of the area. 

 HS: A closed model is easily understood as preparation against the enemy. You have referred to this characteristic by talking about “modest monumentality”, and others have noticed the intimacy of your building – so we are talking more about protection from other people’s eyes and about calming down. Could one see here the ideal of privacy that is so essential to us Finns? In a sense, the Finnish dream is to live in a city centre in a house surrounded by a garden and spend the weekends at a summer cottage by a secluded lake.

JL: This is referring more to American ideals. They do not have city culture. It is as important to create a city environment, where people learn to communicate with each other. That is exactly what the European city culture is at its best; public and private are present at the same time, there’s interaction.

HS: During the renovation process, the core of the protective model was left untouched. The rough and simple outside still covers a rich and warm interior, and the whole building opens up to the backyard. Furnishing, however, was made more open. There are less shelves and other furniture at the front of the library hall so that a uniform space is created – a piazza, a public living room and a space where different events can be arranged.

JL: At the same time we wanted to keep the original plan, “the urban strength”.

HS: Thank you, academician Juha Leiviskä.


Frampton, Kenneth 1999: ”Maan muoto, struktuuri ja valo: Juha Leiviskän arkkitehtuuri”, teoksessa Juha Leiviskä (1999)

Juha Leiviskä (1999), Suomen rakennustaiteen museo, Suomen rakennustaiteen museon monografiasarja.

Leiviskä, Juha 1999: ”Arkkitehtoninen yksinpuhelu – Omaelämäkerrallisia fragmentteja”, teoksessa Juha Leiviskä (1999)

Quantrill, Malcolm 2001: Juha Leiviskä and the Continuity of Finnish Architecture


 Arno de la Chapella, Simo Rista, Rauno Träskelin, Harri Sahavirta, Antti Elomaa, drawings Juha Leiviskä