As I was pacing the sidewalk outside Finlandia Hall, trying to photograph the entire length of its facade, my mother asked why I was so interested in the back of the building. The famous concert hall by Alvar Aalto lies tucked between Mannerheimintie, Helsinki’s handsome main street, and a service road. And one could make a very compelling argument that its back — the side facing the service road — is actually its front. There are balconies there where concertgoers can congregate during intermission and peer north into the pretty park around Töölö Lake. While the street facade is low and plain, its rhythms interrupted by stands of tall trees, the service road facade features runs of stairs breaking through and hanging below the interminably long wall like notes on a staff. Yet there you are, standing by the service road, while you’re taking it all in. Perhaps the healthiest position to take is that the building has no front at all.
What’s amazing is how sprawling the hall is, like a cake that didn’t set properly. I wanted very badly for the building to be a heroic, mountain-like, sculpted mass. But it looks, from the outside, almost like a student project, where that student has diagrammed each item in the client’s program (entrance lobby, ticket booth, hallway, small auditorium, large auditorium…) and strung them together. The concert hall in Oslo is also low and long, but it’s unified; one senses the heart within. Finlandia Hall remains an enigma. This is not a building that was made to be looked at.