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Rovaniemi is so keen to trade on its claim to be the home of Santa Claus that few people even know about the capital of Finnish Lapland’s intriguing architectural past. The result is that visitors arrive all year round for a fix of Christmas without ever discovering that many of the city’s most prominent buildings are the work of revered architect Alvar Aalto.

Finland’s most famous modernist designer was given responsibility for the urban plan to revive Rovaniemi after it was razed during the Second World War. He was also asked to design several buildings, including a library and city hall, which fan out into the main square. Aalto’s Lappia Hall reopened in September after a €20m restoration by Johannes von Martens’ Helsinki architecture firm A-Konsultit. Along with these structures, Aalto was responsible for a smattering of residences and an attractive garden suburb of apartments and terraced houses.

“Aalto’s work in the north is much less known,” says Charlotte Malaprade, who curated a recent exhibition of the architect’s Rovaniemi work. His schemes for Jyväskylä and Seinäjoki in the south of Finland and for the capital Helsinki get much more attention, she adds.

It’s a shame because here in Rovaniemi, Aalto worked with an almost clean slate, 90 per cent of the city having been destroyed during the war. Esa Laaksonen, director of Alvar Aalto Academy, says the layout of the town nevertheless remained close to the pre-war pattern. “The core is similar and is said to resemble the profile of a reindeer. Hence its name: the Reindeer Antler urban plan.”

Aalto died in 1976 and the last of his buildings he saw completed was the city’s Lappia Hall with its undulating roof that mirrors the surrounding mountains. Today it houses the Rovaniemi Theatre, offices of the Finnish Broadcasting Company and the Music School of Lapland.

“The key element is the totality, the gesamtkunstwerk [synthesis of artforms], the building with all its furniture, textiles, fixtures and fittings,” says Von Martens. To the smallest detail, everything was designed by Aalto’s office or supplied by Artek, the furniture company he co-founded in 1935. At Lappia Hall all these elements, even the original lights, have been restored to return the building “to its former glory”, says Sari Alatalo, administrative director of the theatre.

Lighting always preoccupied Aalto and never more so than when he was designing it for use in the Arctic Circle, where daylight is scarce in winter months. The library’s lending hall features large lozenge-shaped skylights in its curved white ceiling, allowing the weak northern light to be reflected onto interior walls. “The use of natural light is pretty amazing,” says Malaprade. “It’s probably one of the most beautiful libraries he built.” It is also Laaksonen’s favourite building in the city. The natural illumination was supplemented by new light fittings that Aalto’s office created for the space.

Across the way in city hall, Aalto’s lamps hang above the table in the mayor’s office, where wooden panelling and parquet flooring create a warm, homely tone. The building, dominated by a sculpted tower housing the vast council chamber, was completed by Aalto’s second wife Elissa – a Lapland native – after his death.

The value Aalto placed on light is evident in his designs for the garden suburb of Korkalorinne. Here a brace of four-storey apartment buildings are positioned to protect gardens from the chill. “There is an extraordinary microclimate,” says Tarja Outila, city architect and a resident of Korkalinne for almost 13 years. “Maple and apple trees survive and grow in our backyard,” she says.

Many of the flats and terraced houses face south so they receive more sunlight in the darker months. “The surroundings are perfect,” says Outila. “And the house is beautiful.” She singles out the window design for its “size, the ageing of the pine frames, the form”.

Malaprade describes Aalto as part of Rovaniemi’s brand. His legacy certainly stands out amid the pre-fab high-rises and uninspiring retail units, while the Lappia Hall renovation is likely to spur an overdue appreciation of his achievements in Lapland. Whether they can upstage Santa Claus is yet to be seen.

Timeline

1939-40 Rovaniemi is heavily bombed by the Soviet Union
1944 The city is almost totally destroyed by retreating German troops
1945 Aalto designs Reindeer Antler plan
1961 Korkalorinne garden suburb completed
1965 Library completed
1975 Lappia Hall completed
1976 Aalto dies aged 78
1988 City hall is completed to Aalto’s design, overseen by his widow Elissa

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