We met him in his city, Helsinki. Here Rainer Mahlamäki (born in 1956, professor and architect) has shared his professional practice for almost twenty years (with an enviable record of international honors) with Ilmari Lahdelma. Together (the studio was founded in 1997) they have created museums (the latest is the award-winning Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw) schools, churches, hospitals, libraries and residential buildings. All works that share one courageous feature: they fit perfectly into the environmental context. Because in Finland nature represents the true proving ground for design.
IN YOUR VIEW, DO THE FINNS HAVE A SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP WITH THE LANDSCAPE?
I would definitely say so: for us, dialogue with nature is physiological, so to speak. Just consider our climate, which has a big influence over the way we design things. In general, our projects owe a lot to the landscape, which becomes a real strong point: this was demonstrated by Alvar Aalto, whose great masterpieces were made in the midst of nature. Some people think architecture coincides with construction, but that is not the case: a forest can become an integral part of architecture, a sort of mutual interpenetration.
I’m thinking about our project, the Finnish Forest Museum, in the heart of one of the most beautiful natural parks in Finland: when we won the competition, back in 1992, we said to ourselves that there, in the rooms of the museum, we had to recreate that unique atmosphere you can experience when walking in an uncontaminated forest.
The idea was to give rise to a positive interaction between the building and nature, in a harmonious exchange in which nature would not be the loser, but would gain something. Unfortunately today the younger generations seem to be overlooking this aspect.
SO THERE ARE ALSO DIFFERENT POSITIONS IN THE WORLD OF FINNISH ARCHITECTURE?
Today, in Finland, we have talented young architects who are making very interesting works, but in my view – probably due to the high technological level that has been achieved – they wind up concentrating above all on the building, considering the environment simply as a place to put their projects. We move in a different direction: our main goal is to achieve a balance between the building and what surrounds it, whether it is a natural setting or a city. This is why we first study the site, to understand its deepest characteristics, and then we do our best to adapt, to adjust and ‘stitch’ our project to the basis of what exists. A building on its own, separate from the context, cannot be an example of good architecture. Which, instead, comes from coherent and continuous pursuit of dialogue between construction and the natural or urban scenario.
ALL THIS IS IN LINE WITH THE GREAT ARCHITECTURAL TRADITION OF YOUR COUNTRY?
Of course. The Saarinens, father and son, Lindgren, Pietilä, Alvar Aalto: these are our ‘masters,’ the extraordinary exponents of an architecture created to be lived, full of light and harmony, on a human scale. In our works there are constant references to theirs. But for my studio, the true lesson of the Scandinavian masters is not that of following their model in an acritical way.
Instead, it is the ambition to make something personal, that unmistakably displays our seal of recognition, our imprint. And this happens in a moment in which also in our country architecture is tending to conform to the canons of an international style that is no longer able to surprise us. By now, it is rare to find a new building that is striking, not just when we look at it for the first time, but also when we explore it on the inside: it is hard to find something that goes beyond what you have already seen.
The great masters of the past left a different legacy. Some time ago I had a chance to look again, in Switzerland, at some buildings by Hannes Mayer (1889-1954, ed): well, every time I return, I have different sensations. This is the sign of a good work of architecture, when what remains with you is not the building in itself but the experience you have had when visiting that building.
HOW CAN WE RECOVER THE FASCINATION, THE CAPACITY TO SURPRISE, IN THE CONSTRUCTION OF NEW WORKS OF ARCHITECTURE?
I can tell you what I, Ilmari (Ladhelma, ed.) and our collaborators try to do. We try to develop our projects as if they were stories. Let me explain: when we read a book, each of us interprets it with his or her own sensibilities, experiences, knowledge. We want the same thing to happen with our works.
This was precisely the goal, for example, of our thinking about the museum built in Warsaw in 2013 (The Museum of the History of Polish Jews, ed.). It is a project that has had great success and is loved by the public precisely because each person finds a different way of experiencing it and interpreting it. Some say that visiting the rooms of the museum is like ‘entering’ a mountain, some say they have the sensation of exploring a cave… in a Polish magazine, a famous artist even said that the museum was the sexiest work he had ever experienced!
FROM A PRACTICAL STANDPOINT, HOW DO YOU ACHIEVE THIS GOAL?
For example, we try to use materials like wood that do not immediately let you know when a building was constructed, or to which era it belongs. Many architects promote high-tech construction methods and materials, of course: this is a path, but we go in another direction, avoiding a total, unconditional focus on technology.
WHAT IMPACT DO THEMES OF ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY HAVE ON YOUR PROJECTS?
I don’t believe that the pursuit of sustainability can radically change architecture, as was expected about twenty years ago. Obviously the focus on sustainability in projects has to be constant, because we have the duty to protect the future of people and the planet.
We have to take this into account, for example, when we choose and utilize certain materials. We try to use local raw materials, things that are easy to find in Finland. But I believe that apart from these strategies, big changes are not going to happen: it will be more important to have continuity with what has been built in the past than to reduce architecture to an invasive and merely technological tool.
Text by Laura Ragazzola