The building that disappeared: The Viipuri Library by Alvar Aalto

Research output: ThesisDoctoral ThesisMonograph


This dissertation introduces the `life´ of one building: the Viipuri Library, designed by Alvar Aalto in 1927-1935. The theoretical perspective draws from the field of material culture studies and the agency of objects. In the case of this particular building, the research enquires what buildings `do´as part of our material environment. In the context of architecture, the library has a role as an important early work by Aalto, while it is also internationally valued as a key building of modernist architecture. The meanings associated with this building are, however, also rooted in its geopolitical context. The library was originally opened in the Finnish city Viipuri, but at the end of World War II the city along with the larger region referred to as ´lost Karelia were annexed to the Soviet Union. Since 1991 the building has been located in present-day Russia. After the end of the Cold War, the Soviet/Russian, Finnish and international architectural community has advocated for the need to restore the library. The restoration was realized through Finnish-Russian cooperation, and completed in 2013. Regarding the building, this research aims to provide answers to two questions: 1) What exactly are the contexts in which the library has been presented as a building of importance? 2) What, if anything, is special about this particular library, enabling it with the ´capacity´to bring together recognizably different contexts? The study proceeds from two notions. First, that the library has been associated with contexts where there is something larger at stake, making the building stand out as a case of `more than just a building´. Second, that this particular building surfaces in very different types of materials ranging from professional architectural publications to war histories and opinion pieces in Finnish newspapers, which locate the building in Viipuri and lost Karelia. With use of materials from archival documents, military photographs, newspapers of the period, architectural drawings and publications, this work aims to unravel the `life cycle´ of the library to the present day. The structure of the thesis is thematic and approximately chronological. The main body consists of four thematic chapters. The first chapter titled `The City´ introduces the local context, the events behind the realisation of the library. The second chapter, `The Architect´. brings forth the context of architecture. focusing on the design process, Alvar Aalto building his career as an internationally recognized architect and the first Finnish and international reception of the library. The third chapter titled `The Lost Library´ describes the period of World War Ii when the borders moved back and forth between Finland and the Soviet Union. The fourth chapter, `The Restoration´, is where all the preceding events come together, as the building’s architectural importance and its geopolitical history are all discussed in association with the restoration project. The contents of the fourth thematic chapters are analysed through the lens of a theory developed by Alfred Gell in his work Art and Agency. An Anthropological Theory (1998). This theory is widely known in the field of anthropology, but has remained essentially unused. I suggest that Gell’s theory offers thought-provoking terminology and tools for analyzing the built environment, specifically objects of architecture. Gell’s main assertion is that meanings are not given, and it is instead the social-relational-matrix within which material objects gain their meanings. As situations and interpretations change, material objects, such as the library, are not about assigned meanings, and their efficacy is instead rooted in specific contexts. In this way, objects such as the library can `abduct´ meanings. This work introduces the library as an exemplary case of a Gellian `distributed´ object, a building that has come to stand for notions much larger and more abstract beyond itself.
Translated title of the contributionThe building that disappeared : the Viipuri Library by Alvar Aalto
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor's degree
Awarding Institution
  • Aalto University
  • Niskanen, Aino, Supervising Professor
  • Sanaksenaho, Pirjo, Supervising Professor
  • Niskanen, Aino, Thesis Advisor
  • Mäntysalo, Raine, Thesis Advisor
Print ISBNs978-952-60-8072-7
Electronic ISBNs978-952-60-8073-4
Publication statusPublished - 2018
MoE publication typeG4 Doctoral dissertation (monograph)


  • buildings
  • Viipuri Library
  • material culture
  • architecture


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