Sami Rintala: I am a student of Juhani Pallasmaa, therefore I believe mostly in a phenomenological way of explaining things. I am attached to this house simply because it is part of my life, of a period when I was forming my idea of the world.
My grandmother used to live in one of them. I remember finding history books in the attic, an archetypical space where all memory was kept, and being in the cellar, close to the ground, where all the food and confitures were stored. This house became my tool for organizing and understanding the universe, my experiences, and memories. It is with me, in my thinking, somehow subconsciously. It’s a house I see in my dreams now and then. I am not objective about it, but I also recognize some spatial and technical features that I can talk about analytically.
Rintamamiestalo is a classic example of a very economic and practical solution to the problem of emigration that happened after the second world war, when, in short space of time 150-200k people needed to be housed. The Finish government invited the best architects at that time to collaborate on the design of a model house that could be built quickly. There were more versions of it, however, what I remember best was a cubic house with a fireplace in the middle and the floor plan divided into four rooms. It was a very logical, archetypical layout. In our cold climate, it significantly reduced the technical space because the heat was distributed along the central vertical axis.
To my knowledge, no government has done such a thing, in such a coordinated and concentrated manner, either before or after. It is kind of funny that to come up with the easiest and the most obvious solutions you need to have an objectively very difficult situation.
It is a layered house, where you have everything very close to each other, with slight changes in the light conditions, slightly different atmospheres, temperatures, very private and very public spaces next to each other. You are in a small theatre of life. It is a very packed universe. If you are standing in the middle of the house, you are never more than 6 meters away from all activities.
The scale of the house is different from the one we are accustomed to nowadays. Everything is smaller, the stairs are very narrow. There is a spatial and functional density caused by sheer necessity. There were originally ten people living in that house, now the same space would be for two. I find this density a very positive thing. I like to think in terms of the economy of means and the qualities of spaces that come out of it. I am now drawing some cottages and I know I am drawing them too dense for today’s standards.
AFTER THE WAR, THERE WAS A NEED TO NOT ONLY REBUILD HOUSES BUT TO ALSO REVIVE THE SPIRIT OF A NATION, ITS IDENTITY AND FUTURE. THIS WORK HAD A POLITICAL DIMENSION AS WELL.
I think these houses were not very political in sense of promoting an idea. There was just a huge objective problem to solve. The influence for the houses came from the USA - the balloon frame technology, but also from Japan and its traditional houses. Rintamamiestalo mixes American pragmatism with Japanese aesthetics. Apparently, there is a link to universal models, it is neither so much a Finnish invention, nor does it look like one. It was more a part of the international modern movement. Finland, in comparison with other Nordic countries, did not have a very conservative tradition so it was easier for it to jump relatively quickly into modernist solutions.
A couple of years ago there was an initiative aimed at designing a house prototype that could be serially produced in Finland. It did not work out. It became a festival of fanciness aimed at the research of romantic ideas. The houses built in the 40’s were not romantic at all. They were also based on people’s capacity to build at that time. Most of the houses were built by the soldiers themselves. In the 60’s and 70’s we lost this capacity as a common skill. However, these times were still good for crafts and manufacture. After 80’s the culture went in the ideological, romantic, and speculative direction that in my opinion was a period of darkness that lasts partly till our days.
I find it interesting that Rintamamiestalo were prefabricated but they did not feel like that because they had elegant proportions, reflecting something of Palladian architecture. This was a long-term thinking, both in terms of usage and in terms of its composition. If you have prefabricated houses today you know in an instance what they try to imitate.
STANDARDISATION IS NECESSARY IN ORDER TO BRING QUALITY TO AS MANY PEOPLE AS POSSIBLE AND IT IS AN INTEGRAL PART OF ANY DEMOCRATIC PROCESS. ON THE OTHER HAND, THERE IS ALWAYS A RISK OF FLATTENING REFINED AND POETIC ASPECTS THROUGH REPETITION AND COMMON SOLUTIONS. WHAT DO YOU THINK IS NECESSARY TO AVOID THE BANALITY OF STANDARDISATION?
When you deal with standardisation, I think it is important to keep the robustness of an idea and stay close to the bare minimum. This allows for later appropriation and adaptation to the user’s way of life and the landscape. It is a difficult task. You make decisions for many people. I think the architects of Rintamamiestalo did a fantastic job because they created a tool, a hammer that fits most hands. It was up to you how to use it. The houses are made out of wood, so you can modify them easily, add something or cut it out.
Today, we cannot do anything of the scale and impact of Rintamamiestalo because we think that every opinion is important. You can also have an opinion on the importance of every opinion. I don’t think every opinion is important when you want to make good architecture. It is simply not a democratic process. The architects in the 40’s designed with their full powers, supported by the state. I would not call the process democratic. They made a project of a house out of their preferences, and it became a house for half a million people. In the framework of the bare minimum, they decided that a house needed a cellar and an attic. Thanks to this I could have a fantastic space under the roof as a child and a cellar, where we could also make very good cheese and keep potatoes, both of which lasted much better than when kept in the fridge. It was based on the farmers’, common way of life, closely connected to nature, not automatized like houses of today.
For me at least, it is a question about ethics, about what is important in life. It's fantastic that the architects decided that each house needed an attic and a cellar. These are the spaces I remember best. It taught me that the secondary spaces are much more important than we consider them to be. They are totally reduced today because they are not square meters that you can sell.
DID THEY HAVE A SAUNA? WAS IT ALWAYS PART OF THE CULTURE?
Usually, you put a sauna next to the lake because you want for a swim after. When exactly sauna became part of the culture, I am not sure. I know that in the earliest houses in Finland they occasionally heated them with a fireplace, so they were sort of smoke saunas. It was the same building where you lived. Later when people started to have more resources, they built separate buildings for living and sauna. However, it was not a bad idea to heat the house, kill all the bacteria, protect food in winter.
IF WE REFLECT ON NATURE IN FINLAND, WE AUTOMATICALLY THINK ABOUT THE NECESSITY OF PROTECTING OURSELVES FROM THE SEVERE CLIMATE, AND THE COMPACTNESS OF ARCHITECTURE. HOW DOES THIS INFLUENCE THE WAY PEOPLE SEE THEIR OWN DOMESTIC SPACE AND FOR THAT MATTER NATURE ITSELF?
Nowadays people have more free time, they also seem to accept the fact that the summer is short and tend to build terraces and balconies to enjoy warmer days. At the time when Rintamamiestalo were designed, people didn't have spare time and they didn't go out to play in the sun. We have to remember, until around the 1950’s Finland and Norway were some of the poorest countries in Europe.
Therefore, the traditional relationship with nature is down to earth and very seasonal. For instance, last night it was difficult to sleep because the house was waving in the wind, which was blowing at around 50 meters per second and on top of that, the ambient air temperature was minus 10 degrees. In these conditions the primary task of a house is to just keep you alive. The house needs to be almost like a cave where you can withdraw to the fireplace. On the other hand, in the summer, it’s more a place to sleep rather than anything else.
One of the best memories I have from my grandmother's house is during winter. There was snow all the way up to the windows, minus 30 degrees Celsius outside, and sunny weather. At that time the windows had only one pane of glass. Inside it was around 15 degrees. That means, 45 degrees difference in couple of millimeters of glass. They were putting moss around the windows because there wasn’t any extra insulation. I remember how beautiful the moss looked, green and shining with a little moisture draining from the sill. It shows a level of coexistence with nature which in a very short time became unimaginable.
I read that, around two hundred years ago, when the first Nordic people went to America, there were Finns vanishing into the forest to live with the Indians. They were at a similar level of economic complexity, they shared the same way of using nature and understanding it, so they had respect for each other. Now we have become a kind of consumerist society and these simple relationships have been forgotten.
Today in Finland, people often have a very nostalgic idea about nature. We think that we have a lot of forests and that we deal with them very well, but it's not true anymore. People don't know how to live in nature. It becomes an ideological relationship. Everybody has a cottage, but they are becoming more and more secondary houses built for the view and fresh air. I think there are still certain ideas, especially among young people, that are having a small renaissance. Typically, these are how to prepare and handle food and how to make things directly out of resources instead of buying them all the time. However, the general condition is radically different from the one not so long ago.
RINTAMAMIESTALO ARE VERY AUTONOMOUS OBJECTS. WHAT STRATEGIES WERE USED TO MAKE THEM FIT TO THEIR SURROUNDINGS?
Yes, the houses are more symbols in the landscape. They have a character of an object that landed somewhere. It is an interesting paradox of contextual design. I found out in my professional life that if I want to make a project that is very anchored to the site it is often the best idea to turn your back to the site and make an object in the landscape, a Jungian symbol. That is also very site-specific. It marks the human presence. And eventually this object is surrounded with secondary buildings that come into a more intimate, empathetic dialog with what is there. In the case of Rintamamiestalo, they are attached to the landscape thanks to those smaller objects that complement them and are kind of roots or branches that link the house with what was there before. They become also functionally the most important devices that make living in the forest possible. I also see it in my own house in Norway. I am constantly doing something around it, communication systems, trees, stones, terraces. They really work and make living there much better. I think a house can be sometimes a bit brutal to the site. The question is if you want to live in harmony with nature or in a discussion with it. Rintamamiestalo are good examples for discussion. Both from 20 km and 1 km distance they appear in different colours and they already tell the story, they are symbols of a certain time and certain culture.
WHAT IS THE PLACE OF RINTAMAMIESTALO NOWADAYS IN FINLAND?
It depends on who you ask. If you go to the North, I think they would say it is old and worthless and it would be best to tear it down. They want to live as everyone lives now. If you ask a young couple from Helsinki, they would like to have it because it’s their romantic idea of having their own potato field. It is a different kind of luxury for them, closeness to nature and having some history in the house. It would be interesting to ask my mother about it. She grew up in this kind of house, but as soon as she could she moved to Helsinki - as far as possible from it. To me, it is partly a nostalgia that makes me remember, but I also see that these houses simply offer a very good lesson.
WHAT IS THE MAIN LESSON THAT YOU TOOK FOR YOUR OWN PRACTICE?
First, I think it would be the economy of means. I like this feeling of having the necessary minimum, the fundamentals, and not trying to shout. It is interesting to think in terms of almost a machine, supplemented by the atmospheric qualities that make you feel the intimacy of the house. Of course, spatial quality is something that today we are aiming at as a discipline and it might be that Rintamamiestalo is not the most exciting building from this point of view. Anyway, I am not so worried, about spatial quality as a starting point, for me, firstly a building exists as a tool to be used and not only as an image. Spatial quality is always something that you must approach from different angles, you cannot go directly towards it. It comes together with several factors, it climbs on the scaffolding you make with structure, economy, materials, etc. It is a result of the consistency of an idea. Rintamamiestalo was a very consistent, robust one, and one could argue we need something of that kind today.
20.08.2020 and 22.01.2021