Advent of Industries

The second half of the 18th century witnessed a remarkable transition from craftsmanship to extensive use of machinery. The discovery and advancement of steam engines, electrical telegraphs, and advanced steel manufacturing techniques resulted in the development of ‘Industries’ – Commercial Centres of a city. Unlike the bourgeois residences adorned with frivolous ornamentation, factories were efficiently designed fairly functional spaces. Therefore, the unembellished elevation toned down steel and sombre concrete did not interest the conformist draughtsman of the 18th century.

Architects and Factories

However, by the beginning of the 19th century, the fading wallpapers, moth-eaten curtains, and congested rooms became dreadful places to live but their counterparts, the Industrial Centres thrived. With more Industrial Centres being erected, slowly and gradually architects were compelled to come to terms with a plain aesthetic. Alvar Aalto, a Finnish architect, and designer were amongst the pioneers of configuring factories. Aalto’s factories were an extraordinary blend of architecture and engineering. They not only generate awareness about industrial sites, machinery, and worker houses but also serve as a reminder of progressive technologies.

Toppila Silo by by Alvar and Aino Aalto - Sheet1
Views of Toppila Silo_Pinterest

The Construction Technology

Situated in the heart of a bygone industrial town, the Toppila Silo is a paradigm of explicit efficiency and growing complexity of Oulu, Finland. Constructed in the complex of the Toppila Pulp Mill, the Silo exhibits a raw reinforced concrete facade enveloping a wood chip container. Deriving from a geometric composition of resistance, the Silo is an independent and self-sustaining storage facility. Its Ferroconcrete surfaces, egg-shell thin roof, and ribbed timber framework contribute to the self-supporting nature of the repository. The soft corners and organic form of the Silo enabled it to function as an affordable and augmented asset.

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Interior of Topilla Silo_PhotoGrunskis

The Form 

The facade of Toppila Silo is a transitional surface, generated from an arrangement of multiple modules. Unlike conventional projects, the methodology of construction influenced the form of Topilla Silo. The initial cuboidal volume was tweaked and provided with elongated ribs stretching out from the main facade. Along with the sloping facade, the drawn-out ribs acted as an efficient medium for draining water. Despite the rhythmic interruptions, the overall frontage appears to be harmonious as well as ascending at the same time. These interventions transform a monotonous warehouse into an eloquent building establishing it as a notable Finnish landmark. 

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Ribs on Facade of Topilla Silo_DesignBoom

The Degradation

Today, almost seven decades after its erection the Topilla Silo has succumbed to environmental degradation, incompetent load calculations, and dwindling structural systems. Despite Aalto’s best attempts to prevent impairment resulting from rainwater, the moist concrete surfaces paved the way for efflorescence and biological outgrowth. Humidity in the environment has led to carbonation of lower concrete cover, corrosion of concrete facade, and cracked walls. Furthermore, the masonry foundations are weakened by buckling and crippling directly affecting the stability of the structure. Since 2016, a multidisciplinary restoration team has been attempting to minimize damage and preserve what is left of this respectful building.

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Cracks in Topilla Silo_Pinterest

The Restoration

The extensive survey of Toppila Silo aims at the identification and correction of various factors disfiguring this coherent building. The restoration process focuses on the elimination of the causes as well as the elimination of the effects. To terminate dampness, the team has suggested an improvement in rainwater pipes, installation of an insulating system accompanied by floor adjustment. The most practical way to tackle atmospheric humidity is to dehumidify walls using microwave tools and decrease the porosity of concrete. Finally, to prevent buckling and crippling the research facility relies on replacing damaged structural members, sealing cracks in concrete, and refilling mortar bonded joints.

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Toppila Pulp Mill with Topilla Silo in 1950_Pinterest

The Present – Day Topilla Silo

During the early 1950s, the Topilla District of Oulu was an industrial locality bounded by water in the south and west along with an adjoining district in the east. The residences were mainly built along the railway lines in the north. However, with the suspension of the Toppila Pulp Mill in 1985, the commercial sector began converting into a residential community. Today, the premises of the defunct Toppila Pulp Mill provides accommodation to natives of Oulu, Finland. Amongst these contemporary buildings, a partially degraded yet striking Topilla Silo stands as an emblem of the deceased diligent era.

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Toppila Silo in 2021_Teller Report

Conversion into a Research Center

To preserve the cultural significance and Aalto’s distinctive vision, Factum Foundation, an NGO based in Madrid and Skene Catling De La Pena, an architectural firm in the UK have been involved in transforming the structure since 2021. Contrasting their counterparts, both organizations promote the incorporation of digital technologies in the conservation and restoration of strategic edifices. This associative body intends to convert a deteriorating warehouse into a cutting-edge research facility for digital preservation. In collaboration with the Oulu University, the restoration program offers a practical experience to students and research interns.

Hence, the Topilla Silo, a simple volume used for storing wood chips in a pulp mill was envisioned and redefined by Alvar Aalto, one of the greatest architects of the 20th Century. Being Aalto’s first industrial project, the Silo was Aalto’s experimentation with modernism stemming from economic constraints, unusual function, and rigid construction norms. Despite the limitations, Aalto’s choice of an inexpensive, mouldable, and easily imitable material teamed with a proficient design sense revamped a modest storehouse into an icon of the illustrious industrial era.

Bibliography

Design Boom. (n.d.). alvar aalto’s concrete silo to be turned into research center by skene catling de la peña. alvar aalto’s concrete silo to be turned into research center by skene catling de la peña. Retrieved May 21, 2021, from https://www.designboom.com/architecture/alvar-aalto-concrete-silo-research-center-skene-catling-de-la-pena-03-09-2021/

Piccolo, F. (2017, june 9). Identification and conservation in Alvar Aalto’s industrial sites: The case of Toppila Pulp Mill. Alvar Aalto Researchers’ Network Seminar – Why Aalto? https://www.alvaraalto.fi/content/uploads/2017/12/FransescaPiccolo.pdf

Author

Tanisha Bharadia is a student pursuing Bachelors in Architecture from the University of Mumbai. She has a keen interest in architecture, a consistent approach along with a willingness to learn and persevere.

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