President's Column March 2023: Finland — Immersion in a Concentrated Modernism


Robert Meckfessel, FAIA


Docomomo US President


Travel Tour, President's Column
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This summer, on July 21, Docomomo US is traveling to Finland for an immersive, eye-opening experience of modern design by some of the greatest architects of the 20th century, including Alvar Aalto, Eliel Saarinen, Reima Pietilä, and many others. It is not to be missed and you can learn more here.

My wife Pat and I had the opportunity to go to Finland in 2001 on a travel tour of the Dallas Architecture Forum. I was a long-time enthusiast for Finnish design and architecture, and had made a pilgrimage to Aalto’s Library at Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon and had visited Baker House dormitory at MIT several times. So I expected a lot. But I was completely unprepared for the breadth and depth of modern, impeccable design that we encountered in Finland at all scales — from entire master-planned communities, to individual buildings and homes, to the glassware within them.

Finland is a large country by area, about the same size as Montana, but fewer than 6 million people live there. This makes for an interesting contrast, between vast forests and coastlines and urbane, walkable cities of great livability. The Finns’ expansive natural world informs their urban cityscape, and Finnish design is imbued with a sense of nature, whether in the undulating forms of Alvar Aalto’s ceilings and vases, in the rocky walls of Reima Pietilä, or in the integration of landscape and architecture everywhere one goes.

But beyond that, we were stunned by the “design density” of Finland, a completely made-up term I coined to quantify the amount of great design on a per capita basis. Finland and my home region of Dallas/Fort Worth have about the same population, and we north Texans like to think that there’s a fair amount of good design here. But it (the design density) is off the charts in Finland, and goes far beyond architecture to include furniture (Artek), fabrics (Marimekko), glassware (Iittala), electronics (Nokia), and more. It is very clear that this small country takes design very seriously, and celebrates it at every turn.

So, our trip was full of awe-inspiring sights as we traveled from city to city. But the most memorable moment of our trip (for me) was a quiet one, a conversation at Villa Mairea with my friend Frank Welch (1927-2017) . Frank and I were standing in stunned silence in front of the home, and Frank quietly said to me, “This house affirms one’s life as an architect”. Frank was widely considered the godfather of Texas modernism (a “title” he inherited from his mentor O’Neil Ford) and his career and work required no validation or affirmation whatsoever. But I knew what he meant — in sparsely populated Finland we had finally seen the true power of architecture to affect and inform a national culture.

Finland is like nowhere else. Go see for yourself, take lots of photos, and find your own special moments.


Robert Meckfessel, FAIA