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Forgotten Alvar Aalto library wins prize for restoration
Nov 11, 2014

The two-decade project to restore Alvar Aalto's seminal Viipuri Library in Vyborg, Russia has been awarded the 2014 World Monuments Fund/Knoll Modernism Prize. The award goes to the Finnish Committee responsible for the restoration, and the prize consists of a cash honorarium of $10,000 and a limited-edition Barcelona Chair from Knoll.
“Viipuri Library is an iconic modern structure and we are delighted to witness its successful restoration through an international network of funders and professional,” said Bonnie Burnham, president of the World Monuments Fund (WMF). “It speaks to the fundamental mission of WMF, which was founded on the belief that international cooperation can play a catalytic role in saving important historic sites around the globe. Viipuri Library was listed on the World Monuments Watch in 2000 and 2002 and WMF made a grant of $300,000 from its Robert W. Wilson Challenge to Conserve Our Heritage to restore the 58 signature skylights over the reading room and lending library.”

Viipuri Library pre-rennovation
Designed by midcentury monumentalist Alvar Aalto and constructed between 1927 and 1935 in what was then the Finnish city of Viipuri, the library reflects the emergence of Aalto’s distinctive combination of organic form with  functionalism, an expression that was to become the hallmark of his mid-career oeuvre.
“An icon of twentieth-century architecture—with its distinctive sky-lighted roof, undulating wood-slatted lecture hall ceiling, and glass façade-enclosed staircase—the library at Viipuri is one of Aalto’s most important buildings from the years in which he was adventurously exploring a new modernist vocabulary; indeed, photographs of the building soon made him known around the world,” said award jury member Bary Bergdoll. ”The restoration organized and executed an impressive international campaign that has ensured the survival and revival of Aalto’s masterpiece by restoring it to its original function as a vibrant municipal library.”

Exterior of the Viipuri Library
Despite early and widespread acclaim for the building, its survival was never assured. War, unstable political relations, and shifting international borders ultimately resulted in Viipuri becoming Vyborg, part of the expanded territory of the USSR. The library soon faced threats including, but not limited to, abandonment, inappropriate renovations, and unclear stewardship. During Soviet times, access to the library was limited, leaving the preservation state of the building uncertain. Until fairly recently, it essentially disappeared from worldview.
The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 presented the opportunity to restore the library. The Finnish Committee for the Restoration of Viipuri Library, established in 1992, has led the restoration efforts and has carried out the project with the Central City Alvar Aalto Library, Vyborg committee. The committee members are Chairman Eric Adlercreutz, Tapani Mustonen, Maija Kairamo, Leif Englund, Maren Nielsen, Olli Helasvuo, Eero Pekkari, Heikki Pekonen, Ben-Roger Lindberg, Aki Schadewitz, and Mariel Pohlman. The library is represented by Tatiana Svetelnikova, Helen Rogozina, and Alexander Batalin.

Interior of the Viipuri Library
Completed in 2013, the restoration project reflects cooperation between Finnish and Russian national and regional governments, and the support of conservation professionals and international funding. To determine the recipient of the prize, the jury reviewed 30 nominations from more than 15 countries, including Brazil, Cuba, Georgia, Germany, Ireland, Mexico, Poland, South Africa, the United States and Uruguay.
The jury for the award included Bergdoll, Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History and Archaeology at Columbia University, Curator of Architecture & Design at MoMA; Jean-Louis Cohen, Sheldon H. Solow Professor in the History of Architecture at New York University; Kenneth Frampton, Ware Professor of Architecture at Columbia University; Dietrich Neumann, Royce Family Professor for the History of Modern Architecture and Urban Studies at Brown University; Susan Macdonald, Head of Field Projects at the Getty Conservation Institute; Theo Prudon, president of DOCOMOMO/US, architect at Prudon & Partners LLP, and adjunct associate professor of historic preservation at Columbia University; and Karen Stein, an architectural advisor, member of the faculty of the design criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, and executive director of the George Nelson Foundation.

Exterior of the Viipuri Library
The biennial award will be presented by Burnham, Bergdoll, and Andrew B. Cogan, CEO of Knoll, Inc., at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City on Dec. 1. This will be followed by a free public lecture by the members of the prize-winning team.

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