Fr. Barnabas' Helsinki Report
It has been a long cold winter in Finland. Spring is now beginning. The thaw is on.
On February 17 a letter arrived from Aalto's office informing us that DeMars and Wells of Berkeley had been contacted as associates for our library building project. Shortly thereafter I received a call from Vernon DeMars. There seemed to be a few difficulties and uncertainties in this association. (They were prudently and cautiously examining the situation.) We, too, as you know were privately discussing the delay, roadway, building site, our frustration, the development planners, etc., etc... Father Abbot then gave me permission to confer with DeMars and Wells in Berkeley.
It was not clear to DeMars exactly how the building plans would progress through the engineering stage and how the building supervision would be handled from their office on our building budget. Their office would consider a building of this size as requiring a three day a week inspection.
Mr. DeMars and Mr. Wells went over the prospect with me and charted a possible temporary solution to the road problem. We wanted a feasible temporary route around the site until further planning could develop a permanent road situation. It was beginning to look like a difficulty which might further delay the building of the library.
I explained the function of the different areas of the plan in terms of our library needs. I explained the relationship we have, to a limited contract basis, with Beck and Morse on our planning. I discussed our feeling about the prolonged delay in this building project.
DeMars is an old friend and admirer of Alvar Aalto. They shared an office at M.I.T. They have a mutual respect for the ability and completed work each has done. (The profession agrees with this judgement. Both have won many awards.) Mr. DeMars' pedigree and pictures of his buildings have now been in the Fathers' Recreation Room for a week.
Mr. Aalto's suggestion that our classroom building be placed on the South side of the hill opposite the Minor Seminary building seemed to disregard our thinking about a possible future expansion on the Southwest side and the work of future campus development planners. The endless delay and the postponement of our project over the last three years has caused us, shall we say, to lose a little of our good humor and enthusiasm. Since the proposed roadway in back of the monastery violated a long expressed feeling about our East side privacy, this too required discussion.
Mr. DeMars suggested that the squeeky wheel gets the grease with Mr. Aalto. He also indicated that Mr. Aalto reacts to people and personal contact. He is a warm personality with concern for persons rather than things.
Upon my return from Berkeley, Father Abbot agreed that I should take our problems to Helsinki and do what I could do to expedite the project, clarify the situation in regard to campus planning and in general find out more about the plans.
I departed from Portland Airport on March 8 and returned on March 18. The round trip with expenses cost slightly less than $1,000.
Mr. Aalto was not in Helsinki when I arrived. I knew this before I left. His office suggested that I come at a later time when Mr. Aalto returned and would then notify me. More delay! Mr. Aalto is most gracious. He considered flying back to Helsinki, but his doctor, who has as much difficulty seeing Aalto as we do, insisted that he stay where he was in Switzerland. A meeting was arranged in Zurich. Mr. Aalto came into the city, the Sabena Airlines arranged my return ticket through Zurich without extra cost and I thus had a conference with Mr. Aalto.
Aalto had arranged for my reception in Helsinki and my stay. I was the guest of his office. His office staff was most generous with its time. All the people there were most interested in our project. They gave me the impression that they were very proud of their "Oregon project".
I was met at the Airport by Eric Vartiainen, whom I had once met at the airport in Portland when he came here. Mr. Aalto sent his private car with his own chauffeur to meet me. I arrived at 11:30 p.m. March 9.
Eric has been in charge of the details of our building from the beginning. Mr. Aalto says that Eric will come with the plans in June and will personally supervies the construction for him. He will work with DeMars on the engineering. He will be with the building all the way.
Mr. Aalto is in his 69th year. He is in good physical health his doctor tells him. His doctor, however, insists that he take large periods of complete rest. He looks terribly tired. His friends say he is. His hands tremble noticeably at times. His doctor, he told me, says that he may have fifteen years yet if he takes care of himself. "First I rest, and then I die" he said for the benefit of Mrs. Aalto. Apparently she is on the side of the doctor.
He has about thirty people working in his atelier or studio. He has about thirty projects under way. There are twelve buildings in the construction stage. These buildings are spread over many countries.
There is no doubt whatever that Mr. Aalto is most interested in his Oregon Project. I was told that libraries are his pets. He expressed his great interest; he speaks with enthusiasm of his coming. He mentioned that libraries and the place of libraries in our civilization remain constant. Other activities and buildings planned for activities' have a changing role, the function and place of a library remains constant. Mr. Aalto's most recently completed building is a library at Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle. He has two libraries approaching the construction stage, his Oregon Library and the library for the Finnish Technical Institute. The latter is for his Alma Mater. He has been in charge of the completely new campus plan at Otaniemi, a suburb of Helsinki. (See the article or clipping "University Building by a Master Hand" taken from Architectural Record of April '65). He recently completed a library at Seinajoki. (See page 169. L'Opera di Alvar Aalto. Milano, Edizioni di Communita, 1965.)
Mr. Aalto has recently refused to accept other libraries as projects until these two are finished. The reason he gives is interesting. One of the people in his studio having a difficulty might ask the others how they are solving certain problems. He would then copy a solution designed for another problem and the institution would be cheated in not having a solution organically worked out to suit its own peculiar needs.
Aalto is somewhat pleased that international critics are in wonderment about his distant Oregon project. He mentioned again what a magnificent location we have. He said that there was never any doubt about which side of the hill our library should be placed upon. "It belongs there" and he made a spreading gesture with his hand. At dinner following our discussion he told Mrs. Aalto, Leonardo Mosso, professor of architecture at the University of Bologna, Mr. Ott, professor at the University of Zurich, that a friend of his from Montreal had told him that the only true gentlemen in America were the Benedictines.
Mr. Aalto expressed his pleasure that I had brought greetings from Father Abbot and community and from his personal friend Vernon DeMars. He stated that Mr. DeMars is a very competent designer whom he respects. He went on to say that as soon as his doctor will permit, he and Mrs. Aalto will be coming. (Mrs. Aalto you will remember is also a licensed, working architect. I gather from his staff that she is also mid-wife to many projects, diplomat and representative between doctor and Aalto, staff and Aalto. She is a very warm, genuine person. She assured me that they would come. She was very genuinely sorry about the many delays and difficulties. The many problems and extraordinary events have been very trying. Things seem to be settling down to normal again. Mrs. Aalto or "Madame Aalto", as Mr. Aalto calls her, is very self-effacing. She remains or tries to remain in the background. All decisions are his.)