In the 1960s, Reima and Raili Pietilä became the leading architects of Finland by proposing an organic architecture as opposed to the uniform, prefabricated architecture of that time, an approach that related their work to that of Alvar Aalto. The roots of Pietiläs’ architecture lie partly in the tradition of European Expressionism of the 1920s; partly in the theoretical influence of Aulis Blomstedt, the founder of the study group Le Carré Bleu; and partly in the awareness of the genius loci. They created a theory of imitating nature with architecture, and their design approach can be described as being natural and intellectual at the same time.
Although Reima and Raili Pietilä adressed issues such as language, literature, philosophy, and art on the theoretical level, the formal approach of their architecture is often directly related to the landscape and to the natural conditions of the building site. Lasting until 1969, their most creative period began in 1958, when Reima won the competition for the Finnish Pavilion at the Brussel’s World’s Fair.
After graduating in architecture from the Helsinki Institute of Technology, Reima Pietilä was first employed by the Master Planning Department of Helsinki City. In 1957 he set up his own private practice, having won the 1956 competition for the Finnish Pavilion, a monument to the Finnish sawmill industry. The wooden modular structuralism of the exhibition building was based on a symbiosis of local features and a strictly abstract composition, much in the spirit of the Le Carré Bleu group aesthetics. In 1960 he was joined in his practice by his wife, Raili, who had also graduated from the Helsinki Institute of Technology the year before and who had worked for a while at Aalto’s office. The Kaleva church in Tampere, sited on an open hill, was their first project together. The competition was won in 1959 and the building completed in 1966.
The floor plan is composed of U-shaped concrete curves that mark the outline of a Christian fish symbol. The section is very simple, with a flat roof: the plan was extruded to derive the interior space, a high volume with long, vertical window slits. The sculptural monumentality of the interior with its mystical light choreography was intended to recall organ music and was much indebted to the sculptural space concept of Umberto Boccioni.
The Pietiläs’ Dipoli student and conference center (1966) at Otaniemi is reminiscent of Aalto’s habit of opposing a geometric form with an organic shape. The site where Dipoli was built was given character by its large, exposed, granite shield originating from the glacial era. The roofline is a simulation of the microgeography of the site while also being a reptilian metaphoric image. The idea was to work against any tradition and preconceived styles but to let the building become part of the forest. More than any other project of the Pietiläs, it is not architecture in the traditional sense but, rather, part of the environment.
The modular strategy appears again in the Suvikumpu Housing Project (1969), a mixed development of 162 apartment units sited on a steep, wooded hillside in Espoo that was planned in 1962 with some additions made in 1983. To avoid the monotony of massing, the apartments are connected along a line, following the form of the central hill. The landscape is reflected in the varying vertical and horizontal masses of the building. The facades are composed of white plaster and dark wooden surfaces that invoke the region’s bright sunlight and respond to the changing patterns of light and textures of the surrounding woods.
After this project was realized, the Pietiläs did not receive any important commissions in Finland, except for two minor projects, until 1975. This period certainly had a negative effect, as their later work did not achieve the strength of the earlier projects. Reima Pietilä was nominated a professor of arts, and from 1973 to 1979 he taught at the University of Oulu, initiating the Oulu School—an architectural trend rich in form—and applying regional and international features. In 1973 the Pietiläs received the commission for building the offices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1982) at the Sief Palace in Kuwait, and in 1975 they won the competition for the Hervanta Congregational, Leisure, and Shopping Center (1979) in a suburb of Tampere. In 1978 they won the competition for the Tampere Main Library (“Metso”), which was finished in 1986. In these projects, the Pietiläs moved toward an early kind of Postmodernism. In the Sief Palace, they combined environmental elements, such as sun baffles, with local cultural traditions and metaphorical statements, such as fountains in the shape of coral flowers of the reef below the building. For the Hervanta shopping center, the formal influence of railway stations and the turn-of-thecentury mall in Tampere was most important. However, the architects make references to the ruins of the Forum Romanum, and the adjacent congregational center of Hervanta suggests a forest fable. The Tampere Main library grew out of two images: a male wood grouse and a mollusk shell. This representational approach seems to follow the tradition of organic-shaped library buildings that Aalto had established. Indeed, the curved roof of the Metso recalls typical Aalto designs.
In their late works, the Pietiläs returned to the design concepts of Dipoli: to create a “naturalized” building. There is no longer any ambition to imitate natural forms but, rather, one to set up a dialogue with nature. In the Finnish Embassy (1985) in New Delhi, the roof patterns viewed from above simulate the geomorphology of Finland, with its parallel furrows and hills, strip lakes, and islands. From the side, the eaves are shaped like snow sculptured by the wind. The chimneys on the roof of Mäntyniemi (1987), the residence of the Finnish president in Helsinki, resemble a burnt forest, as a simulation of a possible or fictional Stone Age scenery, and the elevations take their cue from the landscape as well.