Myyrmäki Church’s Poetic Functionalism
Finnish architect Juha Leiviskä is known for mastering the use of light. His ethereal parish centres and churches in Finland, designed and completed from the 1960’s until today, are a testament to his ongoing quest “concern[ing] people’s living environment and space – by which it is possible to make them happy. But [...] it is every architect’s dream to some day design a church.” He definitely has succeeded.
I remember clearly my first encounter with Juha Leiviskä’s Myyrmäki Church project in September 2016. It was had been recommended to me by his former client. I saw Myyrmäki Church beautiful photographs but I was in for an even bigger surprise when i visited the church myself.
In March 2018, I had the chance to sit down with Leiviskä at his Myyrmäki Church in Vantaa, a suburb of Helsinki. I wanted to get as close and as personal as possible with the architect who successfully completed this building in 1984. “Let’s go to the church. We can’t lose the light. The light is very important and I am going to explain to you. Follow my direction,” said Leiviskä hurriedly walking to the car as the day approached late afternoon.
Leiviskä began describing the design strategy of Myyrmäki Church, a project he won through a competition. The church is situated on an open elongated green space next to an elevated railway on one side with a multi-story housing complex beyond. He placed the building mass to the west in order to allow for a generous green area in front of the church, with a tall solid brick wall to conceal the elevated commuter railway tracks. The building’s overall mass runs from the north to the south where the bell tower is located. A gentle winding path leads visitors from the south parking lot to the main entrance of the church facing the green open area. There are unrealized low horizontal walls as landscape elements on the southeast corner of the site to direct foot traffic. Now, mature trees occupy much of the open space surrounding the building creating a natural setting as a prelude before entering the church. For Leiviskä, terrain contours and trees hold equal importance for his building.
The floor plan is noticibly narrow with the length roughly 6.5 times its width. The main entrance is at the midpoint of the building underneath a rectangular canopy. We entered on the building’s longitudinal axis acting as a circulatory spine. Leiviskä purposefully designed the placement of various programs, such as parish multipurpose room, meeting room, kitchen, toilets, chapel, offices etc. by staggering them horizontally to create a multilayered space rendered with generous natural light. There is an array of skylights, clerestory windows, sidelights, and full height windows which are designed to break down the solidity of the exterior and interior partition walls and ceilings. The resulting space is flowing and dynamic.
Leiviskä led the way to the main congregation space, a vast immersive environment bathed in glorious daylight. Its high point soars 13 metres from floor level marking the climax of the spatial progression in his design. Leiviskä explained that his architectural language owes its formal planar composition to De Stijl of the 1920’s Dutch architecture movement and its spatial complexity from late Baroque churches in South Germany as he recounted multiple excursions with his mentor Nils Erik Wickberg, Professor of the History of Architecture.2 We both shared an affinity for Baroque churches - specifically how these churches have the capacity to expand their perception of the interior beyond their walls by the ingenious use of daylight and different interior surfaces.
Leiviskä used Balthasar Neumann’s Vierzehnheiligen and Neresheim Abbey as models to develop his design for Myyrmäki Church. He launched a topic of double-shell concept which he further developed in solving technical and spatial problems. In the case of Myyrmäki Church, its location is right next to a commuter train station and it is also close to Helsinki International Airport so the potential intrusion of outside noise was apparent from the beginning. The double-shell concept establishes an air space between the exterior wall and the interior enclosures which counters the noise problem acoustically and also functions as a passive barrier to reduce solar heat gain. This solution adds layers of visual complexity of the main church space by making its immediate wall disintegrate into diaphanous enclosure allowing for direct and reflected daylight to shimmer.
A more contemporary example of the double-shell concept would be Alvar Aalto’s Vuoksennika Church in Imarta (1958) which we had both had the pleasure of visiting on different occasions. Aalto sculpted the interior space with curving walls and clerestory windows to modulate the natural light above the congregation space. He created sidelights and skylights around and in front of the main altar. The space for the main altar is narrow and the back wall rises to meet the skylight at its highest point while also illuminating the pipe organ. The main church space is made up of three continuous sections, each of which can be closed off as and when required. Each section has its own distinct curving ceiling yet the atmosphere of spatial intimacy is never compromised.
The main altar space at Myyrmäki Church seems to descend delicately from the long skylight above while creating a central hierarchy during ceremonial activities. A series of floating soft-coloured textile art panels by the artist Kristiina Nyrhinen direct our eyes toward the altar space with its slender walls and multiple vertical sidelights. The quality of light gracing the altar space would empower anyone giving a sermon or leading a liturgy.
Leiviskä has been very skillful and sensitive in achieving an accumulation of artistic effects. The main church space can extend into an adjacent room by opening a pair of large white painted wood strip sliding doors which simultaneously increases spatial depth and composition. Leiviskä designed a German Baroque pipe organ with the visible metallic pipes rising up with some overhanging the choir, conjuring a monochromatic sculpture of cubist and gothic interpretation.
When asked about the ceiling and wall panel design, Leiviskä explained that he took into account the technical requirements of a modern day building. He calculated the required space needed for ventilation ducts for heating and cooling, then he devised a modular design as a cover which doubles as acoustical panelling. The ceiling design is detailed in such a way that these modular planes hover effortlessly. Leiviskä cited his own Nakkila Parish Hall (1970) as an early model for the ceiling and pendant lamp design. He wanted the warm glow from the pendant lamps to be in active dialogue with the bluish natural light coming from the skylight – thereby creating an intimate space for the users below. He added, “Natural daylight and artificial light are different. Often architects want to copy daylight as if the lighting is equal between natural and artificial light.” Leiviskä’s hand gestures animated the way he explained the cupola size in relation to the hanging chandelier and how he wanted to emulate the condition he keenly observed in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia.
In designing his parish centres and churches, Leiviskä explored various asymmetrical approaches from the entry point towards the main altar. The strategy has paid off as I witnessed here at Myyrmäki Church. The planometric composition that easily suggests a linear progression of visual fields, like in many modernist buildings, suddenly reveals sectional overlaps and an oscillating depth of space. Leiviskä’s rigorous interior layering is as dynamic as the user’s vantage point and position within a spatial continuum. Being an accomplished pianist, Leiviskä believes, “Architecture and music are very close, and they both consider experience in time. We move from space to space. We build sequences of spaces and how to connect different spaces and atmospheres. It is the same as in music. We walk into architecture and music moves through modulations and sequencing. Architecture and music have processes. That’s why they are similar.”
At 82 years young, Leiviskä remains energetic and confident about the role of architecture to create a positive and sensitive impact in people’s lives. He is very mindful on his commentaries toward his colleagues and the younger generation of Finnish architects, whom he believes will carry on the spirit of Finnish architectural culture by inventing contemporary architectural solutions which are rooted in tradition. Leiviskä doesn’t rely on romanticizing historical references but, in shaping architecture’s future, he is profoundly aware of each project’s specific context and how to use tradition as a model. He remarked, “One may questions about belonging together between man-made architecture and nature in the landcsape. Aalto was the master of that. He had solutions based on the dynamics of the landscape.” Myyrmäki Church flows inward and outward naturally with its landscape and embraces light as its core architectural element.