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Dissertation in the field of architecture: MA Laura Berger

The research introduces the 'life' of one building, the Viipuri Library, and enquires how is it, that this one building has raised interest throughout its existence, having achieved a role as something much more than 'just a building'.

28.09.2018 / 12:00 - 14:00

Laura Berger, BA University of Cambridge, MA University College London, will defend her thesis The Building that Disappeared. The Viipuri Library by Alvar Aalto on Friday 28 September 2018.

Place: E hall, Undergraduate Centre, Otakaari 1, Otaniemi

Opponent: Professor Robert Beauregard, The Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia University, New York

Custos: Professor Pirjo Sanaksenaho

The discussion will be held in English.

The dissertation is openly available in Aaltodoc:

Additional information:

The thesis poses the question of what is it that buildings 'do'. The object of study is the Viipuri City Library, designed by Alvar Aalto between 1927 and 1935. Upon its completion, the building was regarded both as an important work of Aalto as well as an example of modern architecture. Simultaneously, the interpretations associated with this building reflect its geopolitical position: the library was opened in Finland, but in 1944 the building along with part of the Karelian area was annexed to the Soviet Union. Since 1991 the building has been located in modern day Russia.

Extensive use of archival materials has revealed number of perspectives, which have thus far received limited attention. For example, the appearance and site of the building were debated in Viipuri for years, whereas later the library has been remembered as one of the notable public buildings in the city. Then, Viipuri Library has been praised even to be the first modern library building in the world, while closer examination of the design process reveals that library experts were scarcely consulted during the project. During World War II, rumours begun to be spread internationally, that the library has 'vanished', regardless that throughout the war years, the border moving back and forth between Finland and the Soviet Union, the library was in use. During this period, the library also became associated with rebuilding plans of the city of Viipuri, made on both sides. After the end of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union, the library became topical in public discussions in particular in Finland. Alongside the restoration project emerged larger themes, as meaning of Viipuri, the 'lost Karelia' and relations between Finland and Russia.

The theoretical perspective draws from the field of anthropology, in which Laura Berger's academic background is. The thesis takes to use a theoretical framework which has remained underused. This is outlined by the anthropologist Alfred Gell in his work Art and Agency. An Anthropological Theory. The theory comes helpful for offering answers to the research question. It is proposed that the library is an exemplary case of a gellian 'distributed object',  – a material object which holds capacity to stand for more abstract and complex notions, beyond itself. The research concludes with the assertion that the library has achieved a role as something more than a building, because of the different meanings which have accumulated in time, ranging from notions concerning the fame of Aalto, to the importance of the building's geopolitical location.

The dissertation notice and the published dissertation are placed for public display at the Harald Herlin Learning Center (Otaniementie 9, 2nd floor), at latest 10 days before the defence date.