THE CITY OF THE TAR BOURGEOIS

The AaltoSiilo, Alvar and Aino Aalto’s first industrial building, was constructed in 1931 at the limits of engineering tolerance. It rises 28-metres high, springing from a narrow rectangular base divided into three bays, each 10×10 metres in plan. The walls and roof are cast-in-situ concrete of an almost impossible thinness – only 10 cm – held rigid by fins that punctuate the façade. The roof barely tapers off the vertical, with a parallel conveyor chute that carried wood chips to the top for distribution through steel funnels, suspended from concrete ring beams by flexible steel joints. Bitumen painted directly onto the concrete surface served as weatherproofing. It has the austere dignity of a secular cathedral, but one elongated and exaggerated, as if imagined by an expressionist filmmaker.

The AaltoSiilo is currently the focus of a significant transformation: its re-use is being developed by Factum Foundation and Skene Catling de la Peña. It sits at the northernmost edge of the Gulf of Bothnia in Toppila, a neglected suburb of Oulu, a place in urgent need of urban regeneration and undergoing the alarming consequences of climate change. Refugees (including people from Syria and Somalia) are arriving as the arctic ice melts. Post-glacial rebound means the land ‘bounces back’ causing Oulu to rise by more than a centimeter a year. This affects not only the relationship between land and sea, but the composition of the sea itself. The melting ice is turning the Gulf of Bothnia into freshwater, evidenced by its new population of pike and perch.

Oulu’s complex history began in the 17th century, when its ‘Tar Bourgeois’ grew rich by supplying the treacle-black pine tar (extracted by burning trees) used for waterproofing ships sent out to conquer what became the British Empire. The Silo was built when exploitation seemed natural, resources seemed infinite, and responsibility lay in satisfying human desire rather than preserving the environment. The Toppila factory produced sulphite cellulose and wood pulp for the English paper producer Peter Dixon & Son Ltd. It closed in 1985 as newspapers’ economic fortunes changed, leaving behind a ravaged landscape where once luxuriant, virgin forests grew. Now commercial sharks are once again circling, eyeing the natural resources being unlocked by the rapidly melting permafrost.

Fortunately, positive change is in the air and encouraged in Finland. Tech- and gaming-related startups thrived in Oulu with the growth of Nokia, and now have their own identities. Research into sustainable construction is ongoing in Oulu University and Oulu University of Applied Sciences. There is an awareness of the urgent need to redefine a global role for this overlooked locality, just as the world is being forced to confront its deepest prejudices around national boundaries, identity, consumption, materiality, preservation and sharing. What is valuable – and the nature of value itself – is being rethought. The Silo is on the frontline of change and Oulu is rising. Both literally and metaphorically.

ARCHITECTURE OR REVOLUTION

Walter Gropius first published pictures of silos in the Jahrbuch des Deutschen Werkbundes in 1913. The impact on the European Avant Garde was instant and electric. Le Corbusier saluted silos in 1924 as the ‘magnificent FIRST FRUITS of the new age’ in Vers une Architecture, (originally, ‘Architecture or Revolution’), and Bruno Taut published the monumental Central Elevator of Buffalo, New York, in Modern Architecture, 1929. But these reactions, and the modernist manifestos they inspired, were based purely on photographs. Only Erich Mendelsohn studied the silos first-hand, enthralled by ‘Silo Dreams’.

Beyond their architectural impact, American grain silos ushered in a new form of capitalism. Once they were able to store vast quantities of grain, merchants created a commodities and futures market they could manipulate, where traders benefit, and farmers lose out. The silo as a silent, sculptural form, embedded in cacophonous industry and compulsive activity, offered a violent rupture with the past. One can imagine a fascination with the muscular power, frenetic energy and mechanical inhumanity of these places growing against the machinations that led to the first World War. Aalto’s Silo was built as Hitler was coming to power and Europe was fragmenting.

Rayner Banham taught at SUNY in Buffalo from 1976 to 1980 where he researched A Concrete Atlantis. He sees the silos as the antecedents to modernism. Banham describes the frisson he felt exploring the derelict silo buildings, their ‘abandonment and isolation’ like ‘Roman ruins, enhanced by the flight of a bird of prey from the head-house at the sound of my approach’. He was transfixed by the Sphinx-like blankness of ‘this huge, rippled cliff of concrete… because it consists almost entirely of closed storage volumes to which there is no casual access, it remains impermeable, secret and aloof…as inaccessible as the interior of an Egyptian pyramid.’

Aalto was christened the ‘Sibelius of Architecture’ and the ‘Magus of the North’ by Sigfried Giedion in his influential Space, Time and Architecture, where he observed that ‘the Finns treat Aalto as a living god’. Aalto first appeared in the second edition of the book, published in 1949, where he was given more space than any other modernist architect. The Aaltos’ first industrial project shares the same mysterious aloofness that seduced Banham in Buffalo and it was immediately celebrated; Moholy-Nagy visited in 1931 to take photographs and a large feature appeared in Arkkitehti Magazine that year with most attention focused on this unusual, iconic structure.

SILO OF IDEAS

Aalto was christened the ‘Magus of the North’ by Sigfried Giedion in his influential Space, Time and Architecture, and was given more space than any other modernist architect. The Aaltosiilo shares the same mysterious aloofness that seduced Banham and was immediately celebrated; László Moholy-Nagy visited in 1931 to take photographs and a large feature appeared in Arkkitehti Magazine that year.

Site view

The Aaltosiilo project seeks to save the cultural heritage of the Alvar Aalto design whilst expanding its use and functions to Oulu and the world. The revival of the Silo has been conceived of in three core parts: the restoration of the Aaltosiilo, the construction of a new Research Centre, and their content:

  1. Renovation of the interior of the silo will preserve as much of the original Aalto design as possible. It will facilitate a variety of exhibitions and events with international reach. The works include, full interior and exterior renewal, new horizontal and vertical circulation and some light-touch spatial interventions.
  2. The construction of a new Research Centre adjacent to the silo will serve the conservation of art and culture, and the manufacturing of facsimiles. This building will welcome the public, with a cafe/restaurant, open air cinema and sauna. Productive workshops, offices, and residences for visiting collaborators will complete the program. Recycled concrete will be used in the buildings construction, pioneering a CO2 reduction emission strategy in collaboration with different local and international actors.
  3. Content of the silo events will be focused on artistic storytelling about the anthropocene and climate change in the arctic region. Moreover, the Aaltosiilo project is engaging in different initiatives for transforming the neighbourhood through collaborative experiences with the community and cultural institutions.

RESTORATION

More than four containers of waste, which has accumulated in years of neglect, were removed from the building. The surfaces of the lower interiors, up to the original 1930s bridge (which will undergo restoration for stability issues) were pressure-cleaned and pest control measures were also enforced to rid the Silo of the colony of pigeons that previously endangered further drone surveys

Arctic Drone Labs, in partnership with Oamk (University of Applied Sciences in Oulu), has already started recording the outside of the Silo to make a 3D model of the building. The scanning of the building and its plot was done using drone-based Lidar and photogrammetry during the summer. The model will soon be updated to include the interior of the building and will serve as a record of the building prior to restoration and also provide a base for the architectural plans.

The Aaltosiilo project ends its first operational year with the building and plot of land fully cleaned and cleared. For the first time in 40 years, the inside is illuminated by a new electricity network and dozens of working lights.

2022 will see the Siilo renovated, with sustainable practices and innovative solutions that will hopefully allow us to host the first events and shared discussions with the community about its future. Everybody in Oulu is looking forward to the revitalisation of this iconic landmark and the work will continue at a fast pace, among Northern lights in the sky and snow on the ground.

CONSTRUCTION

The new Research Centre will connect a derelict present to a former productive past in Meri-Toppila. The courtyard structure will stand separated from the Silo, and occupy the space of the demolished building where trees were once turned into wood chips. It is designed around a negative ghost of the silo footprint, generating three distinct 10m x 10m outdoor areas; a performance space, amphitheatre, and planted garden. Visitors will be drawn in and reoriented to face the silo which can be either the focus, becoming a surface for projections, or the background to events and performances.

At ground level, an entrance to the new diagonal Silo elevator generates an intimate and lively public space for the community. Amphitheatre stairs, leading to a raised planted courtyard, directs attention back towards to the silo, where visitors can appreciate the new urban landscape of Meri-Toppila. The stairs double as seating for outdoor screenings with the newly renovated silo becoming a projection surface.

The programme of the Research Centre weaves public functions with active workshops and offices. A cafe and flexible exhibition hall welcomes visitors through an entrance colonnade. At the heart of the building is a community sauna, where heat generated is efficiently recycled throughout the building, optimising its environmental performance. Offices and residences perimeter the upper floors of the courtyard, and provide an active frontage, visible to the public.

DEMOLITION / SPOLIA

The Aaltosiilo has the potential to address the urgent realities of the Anthropocene and current concerns about the future of architecture. Ephemeral structures of steel and glass using vast quantities of concrete are constructed and torn down every day, contributing to the existential crisis we are all facing. What is the role of the architect today? How can industrial architectural heritage be preserved and reused? Is the legacy of the impact of industry on the environment in the Arctic North insurmountable? How should buildings and nature be used, engaged with, enjoyed, sustained and preserved? Can changes in current architectural practice tackle some of the destructive industrial residue of the 20th century?

These industrial sites once generated and defined communities; physically, socially and economically. Abandoned, they are melancholy remnants of 20th century capitalism and architectural utopianism. It is time to rethink these spaces for a post-industrial era and to use them to examine every aspect of the way we currently live. The Aaltosiilo rethinks materiality for the 21st century and the role industrial heritage plays in memory, in shaping place and cultural identity. Oulu is the European City of Culture in 2026, this provides a target date for the completion of the New Aaltosiilo and Research Centre.

AaltoSiilo film