The Lines We Draw

May 12th, 2011

I had been struggling for a topic this week, but there have been a few seemingly unrelated thoughts that have been flittering in and out of the fore of my conscious mind these past few days that I thought I'd get down in writing. I attended a lecture by Dr. Lester Borley, who is Chair of Europa Nostra UK and a well-known figure in World Heritage tourism development, and in his lecture, he pointed out the incongruities of the European borders and the actual cultural differences. The cultural differences lie not so much in an East-West divide, but a distinctive North-South diversity of lifestyle, history and society, which brings forth an interesting starting point to analyze our differences and often ineptitude to sympathize with or understand the counterpart. One culture that has spanned this divide is the Finno-Ugric. Though being geographically divided by boarders and miles upon miles, the people of the culture have held onto traditions and language more successfully than many other large groups that have immigrated to other locales, such as the United States. Having mythical routes in shamanism, the Finno-Ugric culture spread to and survives today largely in Hungary, Lithuania, Estonia, Russia, Finland and the northernmost parts of Norway and Sweden. Though Finland is part of the Scandinavian countries, its culture, language and history has been heavily influenced by various Finnic, Baltic and Germanic peoples.


Thinking on this topic, I recalled a book I had blogged a few months ago, Alvar Aalto Architecture, Modernity, and Geopolitics by Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen. In many ways, Finland spent much of the 20th century trying to distant itself from its Eastern roots in order to be accepted as part of the economically and politically advanced Western echelon of countries. Finland participated in the self-gratifying race for an iconic Nationalistic architecture. One who has pride in their home country would call themselves a patriot, but one who believes their home country is superior to all others would be a Nationalist. Each country tweaked their image to present the best face. For instance, I recently visited Rothenburg ob der Tauber in the Bavarian region of Germany, which was the golden child of the German Nationalist movement. The town remains as an almost unaltered medieval fortress town, though now it is pristinly clean, freshly painted and altogether unnerving. The town was also notoriously supportive of the Nazi Party, as it was held by the Party as the ideological epitome of the German ‘Home Town’.

When developing its Nationalist architectural style, Finland nit-picked through its historical and cultural past, choosing to emphasize some aspects and discount others. Pelkonen highlighted a passage written by one of Alvar Aalto’s teachers, Carolus Lindberg, in 1926, stating:

“Geographically speaking, Finland belongs to the eastern European continent; the Baltic Sea and its bays separate the country form Western Europe. But here, like elsewhere, the sea has rather connected than separated [us from the West]. Finland gained contact with Christian civilization through the Baltic Sea. The same source gave birth to our science and art.

The highly stylized architect of Eastern Europe, with which Finland came into contact both in peace and in war, had little influence in Finland. The roots of Finnish civilization and national art can be traced to the West since the Middle Ages. We can therefore conclude that Finland has always been, and will continue to be, the easternmost abode of western civilization.”

This of course, wasn’t wholly true, with the presence of Finnish tribes in Russian territory since the earliest times and their relation to the whole of the Finno-Ugric culture reaching from northern Russia southward to the Iranian area. Lindberg was not oblivious of this history, but saw nationalist progression as a malleable destiny, where certain cultural affinities could be highlighted to cast Finland in a modern, Westernly-admirable light. I am finally getting around to reading 1984 by George Orwell, who was undoubtedly hesitant of the aim of the Nationalist movement taking hold across Western Europe, and though it is a fantastic fiction, I can’t help but let paranoia creep in and wonder, what is it that we accept without question and how much of our daily lives and cultural affinities have been fashion by a government that told us these things are of importance?

Caroline Engel for Danish Teak Classics

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