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On the profession of architecture - a conversation with Rainer Mahlamäki

07 of September '21

Interview from issue 02|2021 of A&B


The {tag:Studio} studio's projects are characterized by a deep understanding of locality that allows for the creation of architecture with individual character, growing into more than just the material context. The buildings designed by the team of Finnish architects are artistic responses to questions arising from social conditions and history. We talk about contemporary architecture and the role of the architect in the face of modern challenges with LMA studio founder Rainer Mahlamäki.

Edyta Skiba: Who has had the greatest influence on your professional career?

Rainer Mahlamäki: There are several threads to my answer, because, like other architects, I am also influenced by different personalities and ideas. It is difficult to point out the most important ones. The pandemic period caused me to have more time to reflect on the past, on architecture and the buildings I could design. To begin with, I should go back to the beginning of my studies, that is, the second half of the 1970s. At that time I was very strongly influenced by two figures - Siegfried Leverentz and Carlo Scarpa. The sense of materiality that I found in Siegfried Leverentz's work and Carlo Scarpa's haptic grasp of architecture made a very strong impression on me. I realized that we architects should work and even think with our hands - as my colleague Juhani Pallasmaa used to say. The architectural expressions of Siegfried Leverentz and Carl Scarpa clearly cut themselves off from the modernist background of the time, and each of them was also a strong individualist. I think they became models for me for this reason as well.

Another important figure for me was Louis Kahn, whose figure was also somewhat controversial in the world of architecture, and Kenneth Frampton, his book "Modern Architecture" was a source of inspiration for me. I believe that even today the works and personalities of Scarpa, Leverentz and Kahn can inspire architects, especially in connection with the creation of individual character of projects, not dependent on fashion.

With the passage of time, I see that this approach to design is increasingly difficult to implement. Nowadays we use prefabricated, standardized components supplied by multinational corporations, details are solved systemically by suppliers, rather than developed by architects with a particular project in mind. The buildings we design are becoming more and more similar to each other, making modern architecture lack individual, personal character. The ease with which one can find inspiration or solutions on the Internet does not make things any easier. It saddens me to see young architects picking out details and resorting to collections available on the Internet, thus creating a patchwork and incomplete architecture. I understand that this makes the presentation of materials and solutions simpler, but by taking shortcuts, we lose a good deal of our own originality and creativity. We should try not to let this happen - this is the last moment to change it. In our studio we try to avoid designing according to current trends. Nevertheless, I have a feeling that we are inevitably heading for a time when architecture - not only local architecture, but also international architecture - will become homogeneous, devoid of genius loci.


POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw,
proj.: Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects, 2013

Draft: Rainer Mahlamäki


Edit: In this context, it is impossible to ignore the figure of Alvar Aalto. How can one read the architecture he created?

Rainer: Alvar Aalto died in 1976, I was starting my studies then. At that time his name was in the shadows, he was considered controversial, a bunch of Finnish architects criticized him. Perhaps this was influenced by the prominence of his name not only in the Finnish architectural community, but also internationally. To some extent, we were saturated with him and his vision of architecture. In the late 1960s and in the 1970s, the architecture proposed by Aalto was also seen as old-fashioned, created with the rich and elite in mind - as was the case with the Finlandia Talo convention center in Helsinki. According to many critics at the time, his works failed to create standards of urban living for their time. When I was studying, we were not shown Aalto's works, they were not set as models. I discovered his architecture much later - due to the complexity and highly individual nature of the buildings he created, it was almost always done in small doses.

It should be noted here that Aalto's designs can be read like a well-written book. Every time I study his architecture, I discover new meanings, details, interior finishing elements that are surprising to me. Most of the solutions proposed in his buildings are prototypes instead of ready-made solutions. I am referring here not only to furniture, lighting or other interior elements, but to entire buildings and the elements that comprise them. Aalto had an excellent sense for creating and arranging them. Another element I have observed is the way Aalto solved the less important or rear elevations of his buildings. Very often they do not harmonize with the other, more important parts. Leaving these contradictions within a single building and its details is one of the most characteristic features of his architecture. In the buildings designed by Aalto, some areas, such as the main entrances or front elevations, are solved perfectly, masterfully even. Areas of secondary importance, on the other hand, are very often left without a specific design answer or developed in a very typical way.

Aalto's ability to handle contradictions makes it possible to create an architecture capable of appealing to its audience. Aalto claimed that architecture was not just words. According to him, words were a part of technology, like a car, all the details of which must be clearly specified in order for it to function smoothly. In this view, architecture cannot be read through the prism of a tool or technical equipment. Therefore, in my opinion, it is very important that we give ourselves space for understatement and contradiction in our projects. This is one of the characteristics of Aalto's architecture that I learned very carefully every time I visited or analyzed his projects. In this context, I see myself as a very typical Finnish architect.

Folklore Center in Kaustinen, Finland, proj.: Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects, 1997

photo: Jussi Tiainen

Edit: Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects' projects are increasingly appearing outside of Finland, establishing a dialogue between different architectural cultures. Is it more challenging to design outside of a familiar local context?

Rainer: The opportunity to work abroad creates the chance for very interesting and fruitful collaborations - almost always the client expects a unique project, a distinctive architecture. In our home country, we know all the dependencies, often before we even start designing. Working abroad is the complete opposite of this - we move into the unknown. We have to open up to new solutions: materials, construction systems, regulations and systems. It is therefore crucial - and I would like to emphasize this clearly - that every time we start working abroad, we should try our best to get to know the local conditions.

By this I mean not only technical issues, also the role of the architect, the strength of his position, his role in the construction process. The above considerations obviously lead us towards the broad philosophical concept of genius loci, which is often read in a very simple and narrow way. In my view, it also - or perhaps primarily - applies to very down-to-earth questions and everyday professional practice prevailing in an unfamiliar environment. Looking at this philosophical idea in this way makes it possible to define a completely new approach in relation to architecture. In addition, such readings of it make it possible to make better use of local conditions or solutions that might be completely unthinkable or inapplicable in a familiar environment.


Folklore Center in Kaustinen, Finland, proj.: Lahdelma & Mahlamäki Architects, 1997

photo: Jussi Tiainen

Another key element in international cooperation is building partnerships with local architects, with a local design studio. I find it impossible to work outside my country without people who best understand the way of life, the culture, the conditions. In the end, genius loci is written in our hearts and heads, we cannot pass the meaning of this philosophical concept to another person. One can, of course, try to explain it, but this is always a rather awkward task for either party. Genius loci must be felt and understood for oneself. It should also be noted that international cooperation is a very good source of inspiration. That is why it is so important to create opportunities to exchange views and ideas, to build an intercultural dialogue. The majority of the studio's commissions should come from our hometowns, but one should always be open to the opportunities presented by working outside our country or international cooperation.

Another important aspect necessary to address in this context is how we export architecture. Here we should maintain a certain amount of criticism and not treat this phenomenon as synonymous with the creation of architecture. The expression "create" means being creative throughout the design process, implementing one's own ideas, an individual way of reading a location through the prism of its history, scale, flow of people and so on - this is the most basic way of architectural creation. However, if we think about exporting architecture, it should mean a deep understanding of locality and a strong cooperation with this notion throughout the process and in all its aspects. It is important that when we design, we should remember that the idea of genius loci should be read through the prism of what locality means - regardless of whether we design in the country or abroad. This is the only way that in the end a project will flourish in its surroundings, even though at the very beginning not all of its possible development paths were known to us.

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