Shifting national borders left a seminal work of modern architecture in peril, until an international community banded together to restore it and update it for the future. Alvar Aalto’s Viipuri Library was completed in 1935 in what was then Finland, but during the Cold War the region became part of the Soviet Union, and Viipuri became Vyborg, Russia. “For a long time people in the West thought the library was gone,” said Henry Tzu Ng, executive vice president of the World Monuments Fund. A dedicated group of architects in Finland gathered support from around the world, and after a 20 year long effort, has transformed Aalto’s masterpiece from a near ruin into a leading example of modernist preservation. In late October, the project was awarded the 2014 World Monuments Fund/Knoll Modernism Prize.
With the number of modern buildings in disrepair in Russia, the prize has extra significance. But Viipuri is a special case, given its pedigree and Finland’s deep appreciation for design as well as Aalto’s significance for that country’s identity. Led by architects Tapani Mustonen and Maija Kairamo, the Finnish Committee for the Restoration of the Viipuri Library worked tirelessly to raise awareness and funds for the nearly 10 million euro project. “The prize really tries to recognize heroic efforts to save modern buildings, especially efforts by architects to champion these projects,” Ng said.
The building displays Aalto’s characteristically deft use of natural light and warm materials, blending the functionalism of the International Style with the more sensual approach of Nordic modernism.