At the 11th Alvar Aalto Symposium in Jyväskylä, Finland, the fringe moved to center stage. Entitled “Edge,” the triennial event brought together speakers from the periphery of the architectural profession—people who work outside the usual power centers either geographically or in terms of the kinds of clients they engage.

     So instead of Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, and Rem Koolhaas, more than 600 attendees listened to Carin Smuts from South Africa, Diébédo Francis Kéré from Burkina Faso, Bijoy Jain from India, Patama Roonrakwit from Thailand, Mauricio Pezo and Sofia von Ellrichshausen from Chile, Alexander Brodsky from Russia, and Dan Rockhill from a country called Kansas. Austrian architect Anna Heringer spoke of her work in Bangladesh, while Finnish architects Saija Hollmén, Jenni Reuter, and Helena Sandman showed projects in Senegal, Tanzania, and Lapland. And using wonderfully deadpan photographs of his hometown on the coast of Norway, artist Geir Tore Holm turned the quotidian into something both exotic and comforting. Ecologist Yrjö Haila gave the keynote talk, highlighting some critical moments in the 3.9 billion-year history of the biosphere. Looking at the current moment, he reported that our source depletion (the shrinking amounts of things like oil and coal) is less critical than our sink problems (what to do with all the wastes we create).

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The general session at the 11th Alvar Aalto Symposium drew more than 600 people at the 2-day event.

     Amidst such presentations, Juhani Pallasmaa’s talk “The Limits of Architecture—Between Reality and Fiction” seemed out of place. A pillar of Finnish theory and practice for the past four decades and a three-time presenter at the symposium, Pallasmaa’s critique of architectural freedom came across as less connected to the pressing issues at hand than the work of Smuts, Kéré, and Roonrakwit, who are designing community centers, housing, and schools for the rural and urban poor.

     Finnish architect Sami Rintala, who organized the symposium, started planning it more than a year ago when the world economy was still humming. But its theme and speakers were perfect for the less secure, more humble situation we find ourselves in now. He spoke of “paracentric” architecture, which catches our attention like movement at the periphery of our vision and stated that the symposium speakers were “pathfinders of the next revolution in architecture, one that doesn’t deal with style or form.”

     At the very moment people are turning away from the excesses of the recent past, a group of architects suddenly are engaging socially and economically challenged communities. The timing seems perfect. Then I remember that Smuts has been working in Cape Town’s toughest neighborhoods since 1982, Roonrakwit with Bangkok’s underclass since 1997, and Kéré in his home village of Gando since 1999. Some architects have been doing the right thing for a long time. Only now, the rest of us are finally taking notice. (To check out the symposium’s web site, go to:

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 Alexander Brodsky (left) and Bijoy Jain (center) are interviewed by journalist Mark Isitt (right).