The Strange Home Atlas kicks off 2015 with a little known specimen in the very small genre of monumental Finnish residential architecture: As Oy Tammiväylä in Tammisalo, Helsinki – pine trees, brick, cylinder towers, symmetry, no regrets.
The buildings of architect and professor Timo Penttilä (1931-2011) were at some point nearly forgotten, or at least not in the center of attention, although his most famous buildings are so massive that it is hard to overlook them. These are of course the Helsinki City Theatre house (1967), the Hanasaari Power plant (1976) and the Salmisaari B Power plant (1985). Times have probably changed sufficiently that there is renewed interest for his sensitive pragmatism that always resisted stylistic labeling.
Residential buildings were not his genre, but the few homes he did design are all very peculiar, and I might start by presenting his probably least known project, As Oy Tammiväylä, built in 1984-1985 in Tammisalo, Helsinki. It was fairly published in its time but forgotten quite soon afterwards. Four identical family homes grouped around a central courtyard with very distinguishable cylindrical stairs that push out of the building volume. According to the project presentation from the 1986 “Suomi rakentaa” exhibition, the layout was chosen to protect the trees on the site and to ensure maximal privacy in each private garden.
There is a cubic dining room, the stair with a sky light reminiscent of a small opera house and a remarkable sauna suite that takes up half of the upper level. The terrace is positioned centrally, symmetrically and in a 45 degree angle to all this. In its postmodern form play the whole ensemble seems at first a little pretentious or even theatrical; features that do not coincide with the attributes usually assigned to Penttilä and his more serious work. After all, he has become known as the maverick of Finnish architecture, the loner who did not hesitate to say no, first to the Miesian structuralists of the 1960’s and 1970’s and later to the postmodern movements of the 1980’s.
On the other hand, one could (with the eyes slightly squinted and in a poetic mood) read it as a reference to Kahn’s archaic forms meeting in a pine forest around the brick laid patio of Aalto’s Muuratsalo. Hmm.
A possible explanation could be found in an article that Jorma Mukala wrote about Timo Penttilä in the appendix of Penttilä’s posthumous book “Oikeat ja väärät arkkitehdit” (transl. Right and Wrong architects). There he tells about a group discussion at the Finnish Museum of Architecture in 1974, where an angry Timo Penttilä argued for less dogmatism and more pluralism. He called out for an architecture that, instead of always being so damn honest and restricted could, for a change, be romantic, individual, playful, incoherent, organic, grotesque, monumental, exotic or even nostalgic.
Any of his adjectives can be used to describe these four strange little houses, and their order can be chosen according to the viewer. I could add rigid, monumental, silly and fantastic. But to search for a theory here is futile. According to Mukala’s article, in 1985 Penttilä wrote to the leading Finnish architecture theorist Juhani Pallasmaa that “the crap that architects present as theory must be got rid of as soon as possible”.
And, there is more strange (Penttilä) houses to come!