The Viipuri Library, one of the great early masterpieces by architect Alvar Aalto, used to be in Finland. Since 1940, it has been in Russia. The library didn’t move; the border did.
The library was a fluid creature almost from its inception. Aalto’s initial scheme for the building won a design competition in 1927. At the time, he was a promising 29-year-old architect who entered a lot of competitions and rarely won. Finland was a young country, having declared its independence from Russia only 10 years earlier.
After Aalto won the competition, the construction of the library was postponed when the great worldwide economic depression halted new projects. By the time the library client came back to him several years later, the site of the prospective building had been changed. Aalto had also matured and changed as an architect, rejecting the classicism of his earlier design in favor of a more modern Functionalist style, which displayed an airy lightness and asymmetry.
Working together with Aino Aalto, his wife and design partner, Alvar Aalto came up with a new design introducing elements that would become characteristic of his work: a grid of round skylights that let natural light pour into the building; and, in the lecture hall, an undulating natural-wood ceiling. The library was finally built and opened in 1935.
Then, in the winter of 1939, Russia invaded Finland. The Finnish army fought them to a standstill but, as a condition of the peace treaty, Finland had to cede to the USSR the eastern territory, which included the town of Viipuri, now renamed Vyborg. Seventy thousand Finnish citizens were permanently displaced from this border region and moved westward across the new border into Finland.
In 1941, war broke out again between Finland and Russia. Control of Viipuri/Vyborg went back and forth between the two armies; in the fighting, most of the town’s buildings were destroyed. After the war, Finland was forced to accept the 1940 boundary that made Vyborg part of the Soviet Union.
For many years, with communication and travel all but impossible, people in the West knew nothing about the fate of Aalto’s library. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Finnish architects were able to learn that the building had survived. It had been abandoned for 10 years after the war, an empty shell stripped of its contents and left to deteriorate. In the late 1950s, a limited renovation had allowed it to reopen as a municipal library, but it was only a shadow of what it had been.
Starting in 1991, Finnish and Russian architects got together to advocate for the restoration of the library. Drawing heavily on the expertise of Aalto’s widow and design partner — his second wife, Elissa — they gathered the resources to painstakingly restore every detail of the original design, down to the furniture and door handles. It took them 20 years. After the restoration project’s completion, in 2013, the library was hailed by the World Monuments Fund as “a stellar example of international cooperation.”
I learned about the Viipuri Library in 2019, when I visited Aalto’s studio in Helsinki. There was a small exhibit of photographs and drawings that included a timeline of the library’s history. How amazing, I thought, that this building could be lost and then found again, could be built and then neglected and then restored.
Now the library near the border seems like a testament to both durability and fragility. It doesn’t move, but the world keeps shifting around it. Things fall apart and get rebuilt. Things get built and fall apart.
Joan Wickersham is the author of “The Suicide Index” and “The News from Spain.” Her column appears regularly in the Globe.