THE AALTOSiiLO

CAPSULE

The Aalto Capsule & Silo Dreaming

Synopsis

The Aalto Capsule uses many different perspectives and media to reflect on Alvar Aalto’s legacy as one of the most renowned architects of the 20th century. Aalto’s personal life, influences and architecture are revisited through feature documentary Aalto (2020) by Virpi Suutari, while his first industrial project, the 1931 Toppila Pulp Mill Factory and the live AaltoSiilo architectural project, address many current concerns such as how industrial architectural heritage is preserved and reused, the impact of industry on the environment in the Arctic North, how buildings and nature are recorded, and how changes in current architectural practice might tackle some of the destructive industrial residue of the 20th century. The AaltoSiilo rethinks materiality for the 21st century and the role industrial heritage plays in memory, in shaping place and cultural identity.

The feature length documentary, Remembrance, A Small Film About Oulu in the 1950’s (2013) by Peter von Bagh, puts the project into context. Aalto’s original drawings, models and colour swatches for the silo from the Aalto Foundation Archive act as representations of thinking and process. Current recordings include a recent drone film, AaltoSiilo, (2020) by Tapio Snellman, an interactive Lidar scan and panorama, AaltoSiilo360º by Rami Saarikorpi and a haunting sound recording of the space by Valentino Tignanelli. A podcast and illustrated talk between Adam Lowe and Charlotte Skene Catling about the AaltoSiilo include a brief background to Oulu, its complex history and ‘Tar Bourgeois’, as well as the multiple aims and extraordinary range of subjects this project encapsulates.

Programmed by

Charlotte Skene Catling has developed an approach to architecture she calls geoarchaeology, using research as a basis for design with a particular interest in the borders between architecture and other disciplines and the different ways in which sustainability can be manifested, from the inventive reuse of existing structures to material science. Her practice, Skene Catling de la Peña, has won numerous awards including the RIBA House of the Year 2015 and has been extensively published internationally. Skene Catling has written about architecture in The Burlington MagazineThe Architectural Review and ARCH+, and in 2018 wrote a monthly column for DOMUS magazine. She ran a post-graduate architecture unit at the Royal College of Art for five years, taught at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Germany and is an Ambassador for the London School of Architecture (LSA). She lectures in the UK and abroad.

Part 1 – The Aalto Capsule & Silo Dreaming

The Aalto Capsule uses a number of different perspectives and media to reflect on Alvar Aalto’s legacy as one of the most renowned architects of the 20th century. Aalto was christened the ‘Sibelius of Architecture’ and the ‘Magus of the North’ by Sigfried Giedion in his influential Space, Time and Architecture [1], where he also observed that ‘the Finns treat Aalto as a living god’. Aalto first appeared in the second edition of the book, published in 1949, and was given more space than any other modernist architect; Gideon saw Aalto’s approach as the natural successor to the International Style. Frank Lloyd Wright called him ‘a genius’[2]. Architect and historian Peter Blake described Aalto ‘as a master “of humanity”’ who treats ‘human problems with human solutions’ and ‘each design as a laboratory research problem in itself.’[3] Aalto made an impression.

Aalto’s personal life, influences and architecture are revisited through the poignant feature documentary Aalto (2020) by Virpi Suutari. As it unfolds Aalto’s wives, architects Aino and Elissa, are drawn out of the shadows and their roles reassessed in a narrative composed from a vast archive of letters and raw film footage, much unseen until now, accompanied by an original soundtrack that includes the playing of an Aalto Savoy Vase with a violin bow.

In this capsule, Aalto’s work is also viewed through the lens of his first industrial project, the 1931 Toppila Pulp Mill Factory and woodchip silo in Oulu, and the live AaltoSiilo architectural project which seeks to address the historic importance and architectural relevance of the silo building. It addresses many current concerns: how industrial architectural heritage is preserved and reused, the impact of industry on the environment in the Arctic North, how buildings and nature are recorded, and how changes in current architectural practice might tackle some of the destructive industrial residue of the 20th century. The AaltoSiilo rethinks materiality for the 21st century and the role industrial heritage plays in memory, in shaping place and cultural identity.

This is presented through several means including a feature length documentary, Remembrance, A Small Film About Oulu in the 1950’s (2013) by Peter von Bagh, and a recent drone film, a preview of a documentary, AaltoSiilo, (2020) by Tapio Snellman. In addition, an interactive Lidar scan and panorama of the interior of the Silo, AaltoSiilo360º by Rami Saarikorpi is accompanied by a haunting sound recording of the space in its current state with encircling pigeon guardians, by Valentino Tignanelli.

Aalto’s original architectural drawings, models, colour swatches, and bending diagrams for the silo from the Aalto Foundation Archive, curated by Lauri Klemola, act as representations of thinking and process. The almost expressionist photographs of the building by Aino Aalto and László Moholy-Nagy from 1931, the year of its completion, reflect the influence of the Bauhaus, while the way Aalto’s first industrial project was presented in Arkkitehti Magazine, the Architectural Review of Finland, reveals contemporary taste and interests.

A talk with illustrations about the AaltoSiilo project provides a brief background to Oulu, a Nordic city at the edge of the Arctic circle, its complex history and its ‘Tar Bourgeois’, as well as the multiple aims and extraordinary range of subjects this project encapsulates. This is expanded by an ‘in conversation’ podcast with Adam Lowe (Factum Foundation) and Charlotte Skene Catling (Skene Catling de la Peña) who touch on the origin of the AaltoSiilo project and its multi-directional developments, from how to turn a building into a musical instrument or record the Aurora Borealis light phenomena to enlarging and printing 3D mosses and lichen a metre high. They also discuss the role of pine-tar in the founding of the British Empire, a recipe for self-healing concrete and the multiple uses of cellulose for everything from construction materials, celluloid film and silk stockings to bullet proof vests.

The restored AaltoSiilo will ultimately become a multi-sensory, multi-media ‘Cabinet of Curiosity’ and performance space – a silo of ideas – where the research and experimentation in the adjoining new Research Laboratory will be displayed. The Research Laboratory is intended to echo Aalto’s Muuratsalo or Experimental House where the façade is a record of the material investigations behind its construction.

The AaltoSiilo is an extraordinary concrete structure that charts the shifts in our attitude to industry, architecture, our environment, cultural history and memory.

[1] Sigfried Giedion, Space Time and Architecture, 2nd ed. 1949

[2] Frank Lloyd Wright’s comment on viewing the Aaltos’ Finnish Pavilion for the 1939 New York World’s Fair (the drawings were signed jointly by Alvar and Aino), was simply, ‘Aalto is a genius.’

[3] Peter Blake quoted in, ‘Alvar Aalto and the architecture of Finland’, Architecture at Rice Series, Rice University, No. 4 March, 1962, p. 4., Scott D. Hamilton, Jr., Coryl LaRue Jones, Ed.

Acknowledgments

Our heartfelt thanks to Paul Nordstrom August, Dr. J. Thomas Nordstrom August, Jean Nordstrom August, and Ariane Braillard for their belief in, and pioneering support of, the AaltoSiilo.

Many of the AaltoSiilo activities in Finland would not have been possible without the help of artist and Finnish Representative of Factum Foundation, Laura Heinonen.

We want to thank the following for their ongoing work to resurrect the AaltoSiilo as a place of Silo Dreams, Bruno Boesch, Mauricio Torres, Cathy Giangrande, Nico Beliard, Otto Lowe and Antje Weihen.

Film Programme

Aalto

Virpi Suutari, Finland, 2020, 103′

Trailer

Synopsis

Alvar Aalto ‘built wild, magical buildings and furniture that is still thrilling today. But a new film suggests the celebrated Finn was also a domineering philanderer deeply indebted to his talented wives… The film follows in the footsteps of a number of other movies about modern masters… [It is] full of admiration for the work of the charismatic Finn, featuring home cine films spliced with dreamy drone footage of his buildings, but not without revealing his less sympathetic sides.’

Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian, March 2021

Part 2 – ‘Silo Dreams’ – The Silo as Modernist Icon

Everything else so far now seemed to have been shaped interim to my silo dreams

Erich Mendelsohn, in a letter to his wife on seeing the Concrete Grain Silos of Buffalo, New York in 1924

Walter Gropius first published images of silos in the Jahrbuch des Deutschen Werkbundes (the Yearbook of the German Association of Craftsmen)[4] in 1913. The impact on the European Avant Garde of these iconic, concrete grain elevators in America, some constructed as early as the 1890’s, was profound. They represented an intoxicating escape from orthodox architectural forms and thinking. Le Corbusier saluted them as the ‘magnificent FIRST FRUITS of the new age’ in Vers une Architecture [5], 1924, and Bruno Taut published the monumental concrete Central Elevator of Buffalo, New York, in Modern Architecture[6], 1929. But of the Modernists, all were responding to photographs except Erich Mendelsohn who travelled to see them first-hand in order to study and record them. He sent his effusive impressions to his wife,

Mountainous silos, incredibly space-conscious, but creating space. A random confusion amidst the chaos of loading and unloading… of railways and bridges, crane monsters with live gestures, hordes of silo cells in concrete, stone and glazed brick. Then suddenly a silo with… closed horizontal fronts against stupendous verticals of fifty to a hundred cylinders, and all this in the sharp evening light… Everything else so far now seemed to have been shaped interim to my silo dreams.[7]

The silo as silent, sculptural form, embedded in burgeoning industry and compulsive activity, offered a violent rupture with the past. One can imagine a fascination with the muscular power, frenetic energy and inhumanity of these places growing against a background of the machinations that led to the first World War.

Aldo Rossi observed that the silos represented a pioneering break with the Old World, ‘the silos rose with ever greater assurance and created the landscape of the New World. In abandoning the problem of form, they rediscovered architecture’. Rayner Banham taught at SUNY in Buffalo from 1976 to 1980. There he researched A Concrete Atlantis – US Industrial Building and Modern European Architecture 1900 – 1925[8] (1986) in which he sees the silos as the antecedents to modernism. They introduced the slip-form concrete construction that characterised what Banham later christened ‘brutalism’. He describes the frisson he felt exploring the derelict silo buildings, their ‘abandonment and isolation’ like ‘Roman ruins, enhanced by the flight of a bird of prey from the head-house at the sound of my approach’. He was transfixed by the Sphinx-like blankness of ‘this huge rippled cliff of concrete… because it consists almost entirely of closed storage volumes to which there is no casual access, it remains impermeable, secret and aloof… The storage volumes remain as inaccessible as the interior of an Egyptian pyramid.’

The Toppila Pulp Mill in Oulu was Aalto’s first industrial project, and the silo shares the same mysterious aloofness Banham identified in Buffalo. Completed in 1931, it was immediately celebrated; Moholy-Nagy visited to take photographs and a large feature appeared in Arkkitehti Magazine that year with most attention focused on its unusual iconic silo. Aalto’s silo is a 28-metre-high concrete building that springs from a narrow rectangular base and is divided into three bays, each housing a steel hopper for holding wood chips, suspended from a concrete ring beam by flexible steel joints. The walls and roof are cast in-situ concrete of an almost impossible thinness – only 100mm – held rigid by fins that punctuate the façade. The roof barely tapers off the vertical, with a parallel conveyor chute that carried chipped wood to the top for distribution. Bitumen painted directly onto the concrete surface served as weatherproofing. It has the austere dignity of a secular cathedral, but one elongated and exaggerated, as if imagined by an expressionist filmmaker.

Beyond their impact on architecture, the grain silos ushered in a new form of capitalism. Once they were able to store vast quantities of grain, merchants could create a commodities and futures market they could manipulate, where traders benefit, and farmers lose out. In Oulu, the Toppila Pulp Mill was founded by Dixon & Co., the largest privately owned newsprint mill in England, to avoid expensive railway costs at home. Theirs is a story of cellulose and communication and its demise in the mid 1980’s reflects the effective drawing to a close of newsprint media.

These industrial sites once generated and defined communities; physically, socially and economically. Abandoned, they are melancholy remnants of 20th century capitalism and architectural utopianism. It is time to rethink these spaces for a post-industrial era and to use them to help examine every aspect of the way we currently live. Now is the time for new ‘silo dreams’.

[4] Jahrbuch des Deutschen Werkbundes, Die Kunst in Industrie und Handel, Walter Gropius, Verlegt Bei Eugen Diederichs, 1913

[5] Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture, Introduction Jean-Louis Cohen, trans. John Goodman, Francis Lincoln, 2008. Translated from the 1928 printing of Vers Une Architecture, Paris: G. Crès, 1924

[6] Modern Architecture, Bruno Taut, The Studio Limited, London, 1929

[7] Letters of an Architect, Eric Mendelsohn, Abelard-Schuman, 1967

[8] A Concrete Atlantis – US Industrial Building and Modern European Architecture 1900 – 1925, Rayner Banham, MIT Press, 1986

Film Programme

Remembrance, A Small Film About Oulu in the 1950’s 

Peter von Bagh, Finland, 2013, 69′

Trailer

Synopsis

Peter von Bagh was a cultural giant in his native Finland. Unjustly, his large body of work remains little known abroad despite the fact he directed extraordinary films, wrote nearly every Finnish tome on international film history and, through his broadcasts and the Midnight Sun Film Festival, created a vibrant cinephile community.

Oulu, situated at the edge of the arctic Circle, was founded in the 17th century and became famous for its salmon and pine tar. From cellulose to celluloid, Von Bagh’s film links Oulu’s industrial past and ‘tech’ present through a dialogue of architecture and personal recollections. Remembrance is an encapsulation of the memory of a city through a collective archive of feelings, buildings and urban transformations.

As Olaf Möller wrote for a British Film Institute tribute, ‘Von Bagh’s cinema constitutes one of the grandest and most moving examples of Benjamin’s notion of “revolutionary nostalgia”. There’s a lot to be learned from Remembrance and everything that preceded it.’

Acknowledgments

Special thanks to Jouko Aaltonen, producer of Remembrance: a small film about Oulu in the 1950’s and director of Illume production company, the organization behind the making of the film.

Film Programme

AALTOSIILO

Tapio Snellman, Finland, 2020, 1′.17″

About Filmmmaker

Tapio Snellman is a London-based Finnish filmmaker engaged in architecture and urbanism with a particular interest in industrial ruins. Having previously collaborated with Charlotte Skene Catling, he suggested documenting the AaltoSiilo through its transformation. This is a short clip of Tapio’s first visit to the Silo which is currently occupied and encircled by a possessive plague of pigeons who nearly took out his drone during filming. The pigeons can be heard in the AaltoSiilo 360º section of this capsule.

Tapio’s work includes immersive film installations, documentaries, experimental 3D animation and site-specific film projections for museums, theatre, dance and opera. He studied urban design in Stuttgart and architecture in London. He has taught at the LSE and the AA in London and SCI-Arc in Los Angeles and collaborated with Herzog & de Meuron, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, David Adjaye and Hussein Chalayan. Tapio’s films and installations have been exhibited at the V&A and Tate Modern in London, the Guggenheim and MoMA in New York and frequently at the Architecture Biennale in Venice.

Photo Gallery

The Topilla Pulp Mill

Aalto Drawings, Photographs, and Models 

Curated by Lauri Klemola

A virtual gallery of archive material related to the Toppila Ltd Pulp Mill, curated by Lauri Klemola, allows a different perspective on the completed silo by looking at the way the architect chose to represent his intention and vision. It includes the original architectural drawings (plans sections and perspectives), models, and colour swatches, all provided by the Alvar Aalto Foundation, that reveal the thinking and process behind Aalto’s design. The bending diagrams and working drawings for the radically thin, poured concrete structure of the silo highlights the contribution of Lars Nyrop and the importance of close collaboration between architect and structural engineer. Images from the Kaleva archives provide a photographic overview of the silo from its construction in 1931 to its closure in 1985 and partial demolition in 1993. The influence of the Bauhaus is reflected in the almost expressionist photographs by Aino Marsio-Aalto and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy from 1931, offering a glimpse to what was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between the Aaltos and Moholy-Nagy.

Lauri Klemola works with AOR-architects, a Helsinki based studio specializing in the design of public buildings in demanding urban settings, as well as interventions in delicate historical contexts. He is currently finishing his master’s thesis at Aalto University, focusing on the adaptive reuse of the Toppila silo.

Podcast

Adam Lowe of Factum Foundation and Charlotte Skene Catling of Skene Catling de la Peña in conversation
  •     The Aalto Capsule - Podcast

During the Covid 19 lockdown, Charlotte Skene Catling and Adam Lowe bought Alvar Aalto’s Silo at auction. Together, through Lowe’s Factum Foundation, they launched a programme to turn Aalto’s first industrial building into a creative research centre that will digitise and communicate the industrial architecture of the arctic north, as well as the impact these industries have had on the environment. Initiatives will focus on recording and digitising both man-made and natural environments. The project will restore Aalto’s 1931 concrete Silo as a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ and an exploration in the preservation and reuse of industrial heritage. It will construct a new research centre using radically ecological construction methods based on research currently being carried out with Nordic collaborators. Local partners include Oulu University, Stora Enso, the Aalto Foundation, the Aalto University and the Oslo Centre for Critical Architectural Studies. The podcast will trace their thoughts to date, the multiple complex subjects that have coalesced around the Silo and the next steps in the project.

Charlotte Skene Catling has developed an approach to architecture she calls geoarchaeology, using research as a basis for design with a particular interest in the borders between architecture and other disciplines and the different ways in which sustainability can be manifested, from the inventive reuse of existing structures to material science. Her practice, Skene Catling de la Peña, has won numerous awards including the RIBA House of the Year 2015 and has been extensively published internationally. Skene Catling has written about architecture in The Burlington MagazineThe Architectural Review and ARCH+, and in 2018 wrote a monthly column for DOMUS magazine. She ran a post-graduate architecture unit at the Royal College of Art for five years, taught at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Germany and is an Ambassador for the London School of Architecture (LSA). She lectures in the UK and abroad.

Adam Lowe is an adjunct professor at Columbia University teaching a masters course on architectural preservation. It focuses on practical training in diverse forms of heritage recording supported by in-depth theoretic studies. The courses involve students in practical examples and is based on a ‘learning but doing’ approach. Factum Foundation was established in 2009 by Adam Lowe to demonstrate the importance of documenting, monitoring, studying, re-creating and disseminating the world’s cultural heritage through the rigorous development of high-resolution recording and re-materialisation techniques. Factum Foundation has a proven track record in the recording of heritage – both cultural and climate-related – and in the preservation of architectural masterpieces through putting them to new uses (such as Factum’s ARCHiVe project – the Analysis and Recording of Cultural Heritage in Venice, the Theban Necropolis Preservation Initiative in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor and the work with the Kuikuro and Wauja communities in the Upper Xingu). Over the past four years the Foundation has been working with ReForm Heritage to prevent the permanent loss of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London.

Presentation

The AALTOSIILO A Short Story of a Building – In Four Chapters

For The AaltoSiilo – A Short Story of A Building, Adam Lowe and Charlotte Skene Catling give an illustrated description of the AaltoSiilo project, introducing how it arose as a ‘lockdown story’, the location – Oulu and the Arctic North – context and history, the key players, architecture as part of an industrial process, the approach to the restoration and reuse of the silo and some of the activities that will take place in it.

Chapter 1
Seville – 50℃ – The Brutalism Appreciation Society & The ‘Huutokaupat’
Chapter 2
Geoarchaeology, Recording Venice, The Cave of Kamakuwaká & The Valley of the Kings
Chapter 3
Factory Closure, Dereliction & Demolition, Climbing the Walls
Chapter 4
Restoration, Construction, Content – the Future

Flipbook

Arkkitehti No. 12 – 1931
 

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In 1931, the year of the project’s completion, Aalto’s Topilla Pulp Mill was published in the magazine Arkkitehti. The photographs of the Silo were taken by Aino Aalto at the time of a visit they made to the site with Moholy Nagy.

 Arkkitehti or ‘ARK’ magazine is the Finnish Architectural Review published in Finnish and English. It first appeared in 1903 making it one of the oldest architectural publications still in print. It observes Finnish and international architectural culture and discourse, presenting architecture and urban design as well as research, writing, exhibitions and publications.

Interactive Walkthrough

AaltoSiilo 360º 

Rami Saarikorpi’s AaltoSiilo 360º is a mesmerizing snapshot of the AaltoSiilo before it undergoes renovation into an innovative archive and space for research, conservation and cultural activities. Rami is a Finnish panoramic photographer who works in virtual reality. In this capsule his production company, Finland 360 OY, presents a digital twin of the AaltoSiilo made by combining lidar scanning with panoramic photography, using an algorithm to merge the photographs into a simulacrum of 3D space. The result is an uncanny, immersive doppelgänger that allows remote visitors to roam freely through its ghostly presence. This virtual architectural spectre is a return to the earliest origins of cinema as magician’s spectacle; a trick that allows any piece of architecture to be transformed into a theatrical object. By clicking the access link to the silo scan, one is drawn in to become a phantasmagoric participant in its silent narrative.

As part of this capsule presentation, an edited walkthrough is paired with audio recordings of the silo soundscape made on site by Valentino Tignanelli. The silo is currently dominated by a pigeon colony: the echoes of their brooding cooing, the feathery rattle of their wings, the way they vibrate and rhythmically bounce through the space reveals the cavernous silo interior through sound. It anticipates the building’s future use as an urban-scale musical instrument where different artists will activate this concrete womb through sound and performance.

One hopes Aalto, a dedicated technocrat, would have loved his industrial construction being revived by applied science into an ethereal duplicate. Particularly one put to practical use in the journey to resurrect the silo as a symbol of Oulu’s culture and progress.

Finland 360 OY, based in North Karelia, Finland, was founded by 360º panorama photographer Rami Saarikorpi, and aerial photographer, Sami Vuomajoki. Rami photographs and lectures throughout Europe and has produced applied science projects for the Karelia University of Applied Sciences. Finland 360 OY has collaborated with international companies such as Google, McDonalds and Red Bull to show spaces interactively in immersive 3D.

Valentino Tignanelli works in Buenos Aires & Madrid-based studio KURHAUS, an interdisciplinary bureau that links architectural pop-up events and interior design. He has participated in art installations and exhibits in South America, Europe and Asia. He is currently completing his master’s thesis at the University of Oulu on urban branding strategies with a particular focus on Toppila.

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