Architecture: A Modern icon comes back from the dead: The Cubist masterpiece library at Viipuri, on the Russian Baltic, was not destroyed - only 'mislaid'. Michael Spens has seen it

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The Independent Culture
A BRITISH aeronautical enthusiast was reported recently to have discovered, in a Baltic forest within the former Soviet Union, a forgotten wartime Focke-Wulf Fw 190. The aircraft, duly recovered and shipped to Britain, is now being restored.

Finding the Viipuri Library is a bit like that. This early white Cubist masterpiece, designed in 1932 by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, was written off, as recently as 1982, by the American critic Charles Jencks, who wrote that it had been 'destroyed' - which just goes to show that a historian should not rely on secondary sources. Better to look for oneself, as I did last week.

The early morning Repin express from St Petersburg whisks you the 110 miles north-west to Viipuri (renamed Vyborg when ceded to the Soviet Union in 1945), and a 10-minute walk along the town's main boulevard takes you to the 'destroyed' library. White on white and shrouded in trees, it is no mirage. Children play in the park around it, and constant comings and goings advertise its presence.

Far from being destroyed, this forgotten Modern Movement masterpiece has been in continuous use as the town library for 32 years, and cherished by its Russian clientele, who replaced the earlier Finnish inhabitants.

Towards the end of the war, an artillery shell hit the library's west face and shattered the windows, but that was the nearest this forgotten building came to destruction. The exact spot the shell hit was dutifully pointed out to me by Viipuri's chief architect, Sergei Krevchenko. But Aalto's building was so strongly constructed, he said, that the damage was limited and readily repairable.

Much more damaging was the period of neglect during the following Stalinist years, when Viipuri experienced total impoverishment. For a decade, the building stood unused; much of the timber auditorium ceiling was used for firewood; books and papers lay scattered around; and like an abandoned basilica in the Dark Ages, the great spaces of the main reading room and the lending library offered sanctuary to the homeless in the prevailing chaos.

In the adjacent park, the late-19th-century cathedral began to collapse, and when it had to be demolished with dynamite, some cracks appeared in the library's fabric. But again it survived.

Times improved, and after Stalin's death, two alternative schemes for renovation of the library were presented by local architects.

The first proposed an absurd Classical facade, but after Nikita Khrushchev's reforms, a faithful restoration was agreed on. This led the Russian authorities to contact Aalto in Helsinki, and ask for original drawings and copyright permissions.

Aalto was not very forthcoming; he was busy and probably not convinced that the work would be carried out properly. In any case, he felt that the building properly belonged to Finns and not to the all-conquering Russians. (Aalto died in 1976, and the latest restoration project is being carried out in co-operation with his second wife, Elissa, from the Aalto office in Helsinki.)

The Russians went ahead in their own way, rebuilding the library in piecemeal fashion. The auditorium ceiling was replaced by a crude, hand-built replica, more folk-art than Modern Movement - it will be replaced when funds are available - and the library was reopened in 1961.

That such an important and sophisticated Modern Movement building is to be found in the centre of what is now a provincial Russian town makes sense when you study Viipuri's long and complex history.

The Swedish Hanseatic town was important long before St Petersburg was a glint in Peter the Great's eye. Its position on the Baltic and the main east-west trade route in the north made it prosperous, cosmopolitan in culture and rich in fine architecture. When Viipuri, then a Finnish town, wanted a sophisticated new library in the Thirties, it naturally chose the most inventive Finnish architect of the day, Alvar Aalto.

The experience of entering the great space of the reading room, from the main entrance lobby with its low ceilings, remains one of the most poetic moments of Modern architecture. One walks up a shallow, curving ramp from the entrance into the great cubic space of the reading room.

No photograph can convey the beauty of this space, which combines abstract Cubist geometry with an ever-changing wash of daylight playing through skylights above circular ceiling voids; even at 3.30 on a winter's afternoon, there is sufficient daylight to read. Aalto incorporated sophisticated but easily serviceable lighting, heating and ventilation, which have stood the building and its users in good stead over the years.

Much work, however, remains to be done to restore the building to its pristine state. The glazing - there is a lot of it - needs to be completely renewed, as do the main doors and the auditorium ceiling. And access is required for people with disabilities: during my visit, one person had to be carried up the stairs to the lending library.

As architect in charge of the library, Krevchenko has also to be something of an archaeologist. At present, he is digging patiently. As we walked around, he pointed out the sites of his exploratory probings into the building's fabric.

Damp and consequent erosion from the Fifties, when the building was left to the mercy of the elements, have been the worst problems. And removal of the asbestos used in the library's construction has not eased restoration. But Krevchenko is a dedicated architect who is working for the sake of Russian literacy as well as a fine building, at a time when money is in as short supply as firewood was in the Fifties.

To discover for oneself this forgotten (or 'mislaid', as Krevchenko says in his excellent self-taught English) Cubist building, to see the sun cast a shadow at exactly 45 degrees across the great glazed entrance wall, is a rare experience - as if the Hermitage had suddenly rediscovered a Picasso that everyone had overlooked. The thrall of great architecture can truly be experienced on this spot.

A worldwide Finnish-Russian appeal to raise up to dollars 10m for the library's restoration was launched last May, and has already begun to receive contributions. By 1998, the centenary of Aalto's birth, this target may well be achieved. It would make a superb international millennium project: an international icon of the Modern Movement, it stands as a beacon of hope for future artistic collaboration.

At 6pm, the Sibelius express leaves Viipuri for Helsinki, three hours away across the Russo-Finnish border. The Russian customs officer looks at the drawings and photographs of the library that I am carrying out of the country. For a moment, I fear that he may confiscate them in the spirit of the old Soviet Union. Instead he smiles with pride and says: 'Our town . . . our library.'

The appeal fund for the restoration of Viipuri Library can be contacted, c/o The Alvar Aalto Foundation, Tilimaki 20, 00330 Helsinki, Finland.

(Photograph omitted)