Aseem Inam: How does one represent and symbolize the urbanism of democracy? I have long been interested in this question. My research on Town Hall at Säynätsalo by Alvar Aalto, the Finnish architect and urbanist, focuses on what forms the urbanism of democracy might take.
The Town Hall derives its presence from a number of sources: its paradoxical domestic scale, it sensitive relationship to nature, in its extraordinary details, and its role in the surrounding urban context. Primarily, the Town Hall is a non-monumental monument. Aalto had a specific humanizing intent in his projects: “It seems to me that there are many situations in life in which the organization is too brutal: it is the task of the architect to give life a gentler structure.” Thus, the civic piazza or atrium around which the elements are grouped is, in reality, neither.
Any sense of public or formal space is neutralized by what is presented as a domestic garden. What is more, whereas the exterior masses announce a substantial and impressive building, the architectural character of the interior court is decidedly small scale and domestic. Upon climbing the relatively monumental granite staircase, the monument itself disappears. Having made the architectural representation of dignity and significance, so that one may step out of the forest and climb into the palace of local government, Aalto then allows the observer to find herself back in a world of recognizable intimacy of house and farmyard.
In person, one is stunned by what a gem of craftsmanship the Town Hall truly is. After extensive renovations a few years ago, the palette of materials—brick, wood, glass, copper, grass, water—is warm and engaging. The two most remarkable spaces are the courtyard garden in the center and the council chamber in the tower. The garden, covered with lush vegetation, is imminently accessible to the public. The council chamber is symbolically elevated yet modestly—and beautifully—clad in the warm hues of brick and wood. These two spaces symbolize the collective while being viscerally welcoming.
Another key component of the Town Hall is the public library, which is one of the most under-appreciated institutions of an urban democracy. Free and accessible to all, the library represents a place of knowledge as well as gathering. For example, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I found that one of the only places that the homeless were actually welcome is in the central public library. At Säynätsalo, the library wing faces the south with large windows framed elegantly in wood flooding the interior with natural light [see image above]. On the inside, the beautiful elegance of the building is echoed with the white painted walls, wood floor and furniture [also designed by Aalto], and light fixtures inspired by industrial forms.
Of course, democracy is a complex and challenging phenomenon. The processes by which the forms of the urbanisms of democracy are produced are equally—if not more so—important. A key question in this discussion is how do we conceptualize, operationalize and experience democracy. The Pragmatist philosopher John Dewey talked about democracy in radical terms, including being simultaneously the expression of individuality, the protection of common interests, and as social inquiry. More recently, my friend Mark Purcell wrote a thoroughly intriguing book, The Deep Down Delight of Democracy, in which he advocates the reframing of democracy as a personal and collective struggle to discover the best in ourselves and others.
I find this notion of democracy as a collective struggle to discover the best in us as individuals and as societies to be quite compelling. A critical analysis of Alvar Aalto’s work at Säynätsalo can offer us captivating clues as to how that struggle may be expressed in the material city. AI.