National Pensions Institute

1956
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Photo: Richard Peters / AAM
  • PlaceHelsinki
  • Completion 1956
  • Decade1950s
  • PeriodPost-war modernism
  • Year of selection1993

 

Founded in 1937, the National Pensions Institute was initially responsible for the Finnish pension system, though later also the management of other welfare state benefits was entrusted to it.

The National Pensions Institute organized in 1948 an architecture competition for the design of an office and commercial building complex that would take up an entire city block adjacent to Mannerheimintie. It was intended to be part real estate investment and part National Pensions Institute’s own headquarters, the latter forming the culminating point of the building complex. Aino and Alvar Aalto won the competition with their proposal titled “Forum Redivivum”. The implementation of an extensive building complex proved, however, to be impossible during the post-war years.

In 1952 Alvar Aalto continued the design work from a more modest starting point: only the headquarters in a smaller urban block further away from the city centre. He nevertheless managed to implement the central idea of the competition proposal, that is, a building complex and a piazza in the scale of a single building subdivided into parts. The building construction lasted from 1954 to 1956.

Also another idea in the original competition proposal that was actually implemented is the main hall at the core of the headquarters, which receives daylight from pyramidal skylights. The main hall was a customer-service space, and so that it would not have seemed too public for discussing personal matters, “spaces within the space”, that is, “interview booths”, were created where the pensioners could sit and discuss with the officials. The materials in the foyer and main hall have a dignity appropriate for a public space: white and black marble, ceramic tiles, mahogany and brass. Behind the hall is a corridor that connects the different parts of the headquarters. Situated along the corridor in their own pavilions are the staff common rooms, a library and canteen, which in shape and details differ from the office wing. Most of the headquarters is subdivided by lightweight partitions into offices of different sizes. Aalto claimed that the building frame of the headquarters was rational, efficient and economical, even though the depth of the concrete frame and span between the pillars varied from one part to another. The rationalisation is indeed architectural: the interesting meandering line of the side and central corridors and compelling views in between the skylights of the main hall alleviate the monotony of the office spaces.

The offices and meeting rooms on the fifth floor, with their exquisitely finished details that differ from the other office spaces, constitute one of Aalto’s richest interior design complexes.

Public services in the main hall of the headquarters came to an end in 1972. Although the main hall itself was preserved, it was no longer open to the public. This was an irreplaceable loss: a public building now became a building of a public institution. The offices have undergone constant alterations. Their present appearance is mainly from the “remodelling” carried out in stages between 1985 and 1995.

The National Pensions Institute headquarters is in a good state of preservation. The interiors of the most significant areas, with the exception of the main hall, have been preserved. Even the office facilities, in spite of the changes, have remained uniform in appearance.

The National Pensions Institute headquarters is an office building of international and national significance, which deviates from the mainstream of post-war modernism and is a symbol of one of the most central institutes of the Finnish welfare state. It is also a key work of Aalto’s post-war production, a total work of art, which served as a testing ground for many of the details, lamps and furniture that were used in his subsequent buildings.

 

Jaakko Penttilä

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Penttilä, Jaakko (2006). Kansaneläkelaitoksen päärakennus. Rakennushistoriallinen selvitys. Painamaton käsikirjoitus/unpublished manuscript, Alvar Aalto Säätiö.