Aila Kolehmainen: Sculptors of Light

Aila Kolehmainen

Sculptors of Light

What happens when two professional artists, using light as their central element and tool, meet? What happens is challenging dialogue and synchrony of light and colour in a sacred space – the church. Juha Leiviskä, architect and member of the Finnish Academy, and the visual artist Markku Pääkkönen joined forces for a second time – they created the St John’s church in Männistö, Kuopio in the late 1980s – early 1990s, and more recently, the church of the Good Shepherd in Pakila, Helsinki.

The architect Juha Leiviskä has gained particular acclaim as a designer of pure, restrained sacral spaces, churches and parish buildings, and as a master of light. In his projects, he has closely collaborated with a number of artists; the St Thomas’ church in Oulu (1971-75) has a 14-piece work of art by Hannu Väisänen, Kärsimyskruunu ja elämänseppele (The Crown of Passion and the Wreath of Life); the altar wall of Myyrmäki church (1980-84) has a textile work of art by Kristiina Nyrhinen; and the Mikkeli Harju funeral chapel (remodelling and additions, 1996-98) has a textile work by Kaija Poijula. Markku Pääkkönen has designed and made the altarpieces for both St John’s church in Männistö, Kuopio (Juha Leiviskä, Pekka Kivisalo, 1986-92) and the church of the Good Shepherd in Pakila (Juha Leiviskä, Pekka Kivisalo, 1997-03). According to Leiviskä, architecture and the visual arts speak their own language, but they also support and reinforce each other.

”Our aim was to create an active dialogue and affinity between architecture and the visual arts. They complement each other, with the whole becoming more than the sum of the parts. Yet it is also of utmost importance that both genres retain their independence – my collaboration with Markku Pääkkönen serves as a prime example.”


Markku Pääkkönen has noted that Leiviskä may have designed the best bases for painting he has ever met. How did this flourishing collaboration start?

”In the mid 1980s I happened to see Markku’s works in a Helsinki gallery. He had hung panels at different levels near the walls on the window side, and the light indirectly reflected from one panel to another, creating a phenomenon of light that was under constant change – I had used the same trick in my recently completed Myyrmäki church and parish centre. The exhibition, where Markku had added colour to these reflections of light, impressed me, but the intervention of the architect Pentti Kareoja was also needed: he reminded me about Pääkkönen when I was making the designs for Männistö church. I contacted Pääkkönen and asked if he was available. He said yes, and they also accepted my choice in Kuopio. It was as simple as that.”

St John’s church in Männistö has a grand location on a slope in front of a line of blocks of flats in a suburban housing development. The tall church hall and the bell tower dominate the scenery. The main entrances are on the terrace on the lowest level.

”Anyone entering is gradually led through low-ceilinged entrance halls to the tall church hall with plenty of light, which is the culmination of the artistic concept and the climax of the spatial process. The entrance halls have works of art that you need to look at close up: delicate watercolours by Mirja Airas on the life of the preacher Paavo Ruotsalainen. Inside the church hall, the altarpiece by Markku Pääkkönen, Light, Grace, Consolation, fills the entire altar wall”, says Leiviskä.

”The most important building material in the hall is light. I asked Markku to work along the same lines as in his exhibition, to study the reflections of light in space. In Männistö, the colour surfaces of the lower parts of the altar zone are painted on the wrong side of the glulam boards and panels that reflect light as vertical surfaces from bottom to top. Depending on the direction and amount of light, the reflections can be gentle or stark. In the upper parts, the colours form bright, clear, vertical series in the hall, fading downwards. As Markku said: ’I brought the coloured reflections down on the level of people, where the faith and the prayer are; the colour series descend from near Heaven like answers. There are a multitude of colours, as there are questions and answers.’ Pääkkönen’s work is in a constant dialogue with the space”, Leiviskä describes the process between reflecting light, immaterial veil of colour and colour surfaces.

”You could say that Markku sculpts light. Although the colour takes no specific shape, it emphasises the verticality of the altar zone. The work of art is based on a space I designed for this purpose. The values change gradually, becoming lighter and lighter. The colours fade in the background, which is darkened with grey. The value of the background is between the values Markku selected. – Watching Markku work on the scaffolding was particularly impressive: he painted each colour field with meticulous care, as he always does. I followed the process through different stages and under varying lighting conditions. When the work was finished, I wondered for a fleeting moment whether it was too sugary. Yet I do not think it is. Some colours are even austerely intensive.”

The fluctuation of hue and value has a rhythmic, musical movement. Markku Pääkkönen’s work of art is alive in the constantly changing light and looks different depending on the season and time of day. No two moments of experiencing the work are identical.

”The altarpiece is still impressively different every time. The best moment is the fading of the sunset, the ’blue moment’, when the sun has turned in another direction and there is hardly any sunlight on the altar wall. At that moment the colour reflections are the strongest, appearing for a brief moment in a magnificent series. As if they were scraping the rough, plastered surface, which comes up like live tissue or human skin.”


The architects Juha Leiviskä and Pekka Kivisalo recently completed the church of the Good Shepherd in Pakila, Helsinki; the old church is part of the new complex. The original altar wall was demolished. The old and new church halls unite where the altar used to be. The new altar is comprised of wall panels positioned in different directions and reflecting incoming light indirectly. The directions are carefully planned to follow the cycle of the sun. Between the panels there are four vertical openings through which the sun sometimes shines in. In the openings is Markku Pääkkönen’s work of art, Gabriel’s Wing.

”I provided the plan with triangular symbols, like prisms permeating light, which could be placed either inside or outside. What I had in mind were Pääkkönen’s stick-like, spiralling sculptures with a triangular cross-section, which I had seen before. Glass was a self-evident material choice. I left the decision up to Markku, of course. He had been involved in the process since the early stage, but only started his work proper when the design of the altar wall had been more or less completed.”

Markku Pääkkönen designed a work of art consisting of glass and light in the openings: four pillars with 50 glass prisms on top of each other, adjusted in different positions. In the dark, you can see the spotted light of light fibres behind the prisms.

The glass prisms turn light into exciting shapes that play tricks with the light. The back sides of the panels have painted colour surfaces, with the light reflecting their hues.

”My first impression of Gabriel’s Wing and the entire altar wall was superb. The sun shone right in and made the prisms glimmer. Amused, I tried to look for the spots where the reflections were. They were not only on the walls, they sparkled all around the hall. In the consecration ceremony I was sitting in the rear end of the loft when a strong reflection of green light came straight in my eyes. At that very moment the bishop preached from the pulpit: ’Let the Lord of Light enter!'”


There is a certain kinship between the works of art in Männistö and Pakila, yet there are differences, too, starting with materials and methods.

”In Männistö, the colours are at their strongest when the light begins to fade. In Pakila, bright sunlight makes the prisms alive. The differences between the works of art lie more in the buildings and the directions than objectives and aims. I find the two works different, although photographs reveal a surprising similarity. In Männistö you can see vertical colour zones; in Pakila, spots of colour, and, in the leading part, the vertical pillars of light of the glass prisms. As Markku Pääkkönen put it: ’Archangel Gabriel is resting his wing on the upper railing. God has just been scratching his head, and a piece of dandruff drops behind the wing, lighting the entire church hall from between the feathers of the wing.'”

Collaboration with Markku Pääkkönen has been rewarding and the mutual friendship was a bonus.

”Markku and I speak the same language. I know that this artist is ’my guy’.

Our co-operation towards the same objective has been straightforward and precise. We both aim at creating something where you cannot necessarily say where the work of the architect ends and that of the artist begins.”