Preserving History, Enriching Communities
How Volunteer Travelers Contribute
to the Legacy of Säynätsalo Town Hall
"Travel broadens the mind" is a familiar saying, but the term "transformative travel" is a relatively new concept. The goal of transformative journeys is to enable a life-changing experience or an experience that has a lasting impact on a person's lifestyle and quality of life – or, at the very least, causes at least a small change. At best, the visitor leaves behind a better destination than when they arrived.
Transformative tourism can be, for example, a well-organized volunteer tourism destination and activity period. When it comes to volunteering, we are reminded of, for example, an Indian slum area, where there is a need for skilled and competent staff to improve the living environment and living conditions. The effects are immediate, and the results are visible. However, Säynätsalo is not a slum area and does not suffer from problems that tourists could solve directly. So, how do we approach transformative tourism?
An Iconic Site
Säynätsalo Town Hall (1949-52) is a building designed by Alvar Aalto and is one of his most significant works: an admired and beloved place to visit. It is also on UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative List to be nominated as a cultural heritage site along with other Aalto buildings, including the nearby Muuratsalo Experimental House, four kilometres away. The influence of Aalto’s second wife, Elissa Aalto, can be seen in this house, their first joint project and their summer home.
A Human Scale
What kind of transformation can a traveller leave behind in Säynätsalo? Day visitors can act in such a way to strengthen this characteristic. They should not destroy the environment and the delicate nature of the archipelago; they should follow instructions and limits in a protected building and use and support local services. At best, the visitors recognize their role and get to know the local way of life and the people who form the active community in Säynätsalo. In managing the Town Hall, we are well on our way to achieving this: the building has plenty of well-maintained elements to see and experience, thus ensuring that Aalto's legacy is safe for future generations. The area should be developed so that the needs of residents are taken into account, and tourist movements and services are adapted to a suitable size, as Town Hall itself has been described as being “on a human scale”.
Tavolo Bianco Company and Responsible Tourism
The former Town Hall – no longer in its original use but a tourist attraction – is run by a private limited liability company, Tavolo Bianco, and its entrepreneur, Harri Taskinen.
"We have been aiming for responsible tourism for several years, and it has clearly given direction to business development – also together with other small entrepreneurs on the islands. As someone who has recently experienced volunteer work in the slums of India, I have been thinking about and developing opportunities to implement more systematic, productized, transformative tourism in Säynätsalo."
How to Volunteer
The volunteer period at Säynätsalo Town Hall, Aalto Residence, is described and displayed on the company's website. The target group consists mainly of foreign Aalto enthusiasts, professionals, and students – but in no way excludes domestic volunteers.
The volunteering period can vary from one week to two months. Before confirming the visit, the volunteer will write an application and, if necessary, arrange a remote interview. In the off-season, accommodation is included in the program, but we have set a 200 € application fee to avoid unnecessary inquiries, applications, and cancellations. There is a formal accommodation fee but no application fee during the mid-season and summer seasons. After all, voluntary work is not paid.
'We invite you to join our volunteer program at Säynätsalo Town Hall, Alvar Aalto's masterpiece. Depending on your abilities, volunteering includes developing travel experiences, guiding, and selling tickets – new information and experiences for you and our visitors. You can also participate in the daily activities at the accommodation and in our design shop. Flexible working hours consider your schedule and welcome you anytime throughout the year. This is an opportunity to honour the history and Aalto's legacy, inspire the community and shape the future.'
In the summer of 2023, pilots were already at the Town Hall developing the concept of volunteering. Scottish Aalto enthusiast who has made a career in urban transport, a degree in architectural history, and studied Chinese architecture in Beijing, Gladys Frame, describes her volunteer period:
"Volunteering at the Town Hall was a two-way street – I received new information and perspectives from colleagues and visitors and was welcomed into the community. I also felt that I had personally contributed something valuable to the development of the Säynätsalo community and Town Hall and to the preservation of Aalto's legacy.'
"Relaxation, recovery, recuperation, flexibility, respect, recreation, rest, renewal. These are the words I would use to describe my volunteer work in Säynätsalo."
Belgians Annika Vandevelde and Peter de Groot visited Säynätsalo for the third time. Their visit was not yet within the framework of volunteer tourism, but they also enthusiastically participated in the site's activities. On a busy day as a shop assistant and as a group guide. Peter is an architect by profession and brings new dimensions to the guided tour, some of which we, local guides, can also apply to our own guidance. Annika is also a member of Tavolo Bianco's Advisory Board.
"When we visited the 'town hall', we experienced it as more than just a tourist attraction; We have visited it three times and plan to return as volunteers. Säynätsalo Town Hall is living a new life, not in its former role as a town hall, but as a community center for residents, artists, small entrepreneurs, tourists, and now volunteers. Respecting Aalto's architecture, it is not just a museum but a living unit. The creativity and enthusiasm associated with the current business of the Town Hall make it feel like a nice and warm place that it is good to be a part of, not only as a tourist but also to experience the building with all its possibilities and as an opportunity to contribute to building sustainable and inclusive experiences."
"You don't have to be an architect to appreciate Säynätsalo Town Hall.
When you live and work within these walls, you experience the remarkable quality of Aalto's architecture firsthand: it exists not only to create buildings but also to form communities, no matter who you are or where you come from.'
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