The Alvar Aalto Foundation maintains the material and intellectual legacy of the world-famous architect and designer Alvar Aalto, and acts to make his work and thinking more widely known.
Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto was born in the small village of Kuortane in western Finland. His father was a Finnish-speaking surveyor and his mother a Swedish-speaking postal clerk, so they were educated people.
When Alvar, the eldest of their four children, was five the family moved to Jyväskylä where there was a Finnish grammar school.
There were various aspects to the change in the environment: the flat plain changed to the hilly area surrounding the lakes, the village street turned into a grid-plan town, the lowing of cattle was replaced by the hustle and bustle of the marketplace and the sirens of the lake steamers.
Young Aalto, whose favourite subject was drawing, matriculated from the celebrated Jyväskylä Lyceum in spring 1916. Having chosen a career as an architect, he travelled to Helsinki, where the Polytechnic (now Aalto University) was the only place in Finland where architecture was taught.
Aalto’s student years took wing on a wave of revivalism and rising national identity. Finland became independent in 1917, but it was not a painless process. The Polytechnic students had to take part in a civil war that caused an enormous upheaval in society.
When Aalto returned to his studies he pursued them with vigour, painted eagerly and made a little money by writing articles on art for the newspapers. Aalto qualified as an architect in summer 1921, with distinction.
Aalto started practising in Helsinki, but did not receive the kind of work he was hoping for.
He received his first commissions far away from the capital through friends of friends: the tower of Kauhajoki Church, in 1921 and the Villa Manner, in 1923.
In autumn 1923, Aalto established an office in Jyväskylä where, as a local boy, he presumed he would receive plenty of work. And so he did.
Jyväskylän Workers´ Club (1924-25).
Aalto employed Aino Marsio as an assistant and they were married in autumn 1924. Aino Marsio, who had qualified as an architect a couple of years earlier, was a practical, modern young woman who travelled extensively.
Jyväskylä Workers´ Club (1924-25) lobby.
They went to Italy for their honeymoon via Switzerland, in a spirit of studious exploration. The influence of their Italian trip can be seen in the interiors of the Jyväskylä Workers’ Club, Aalto’s first masonry building. The Aaltos spent three frantically busy years in Jyväskylä, they had a daughter and took part in numerous architectural competitions.
In 1927, Aalto won the competition for the Southwestern Finland Agricultural Cooperative Building and the family moved to Turku, where a son was born and a whole group of buildings came into being that were inspired by Functionalism, the new movement in architecture.
South-Western Cooperative Building (1927-28).
Office building for a newspaper company Turun Sanomat (1928-29).
Turku was an inspiring town for Aalto in many ways: it had a long history and good communications with other parts of Europe through its busy harbour.
Turku 700th Anniversary Exhibition (1929).
He met a whole group of stimulating colleagues in Turku, including Erik Bryggman who was also interested in Modernism. In 1929, Aalto designed the Turku 700th Anniversary Exhibition with Bryggman, which was an important event for modern architecture in Finland.
The year 1929 was an important one for Aalto for other reasons, too. Through CIAM he became acquainted with several interesting advocates of the new architecture, people who were to become friends, such as Carola and Siegfried Giedion, the critic, and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Bauhaus teacher and exponent of art in many different forms.
Paimio Sanatorium (1929-33).
The new ideas that Aalto adopted reached a synthesis in the tuberculosis sanatorium he designed for Paimio. It was finished in 1932 and with it Aalto demonstrated that a masterpiece of modern architecture could be created by adopting ideas rapidly and building far away from centres of population.
Paimio Sanatorium (1929-33).
In 1933, with the building of Paimio, Aalto’s reputation abroad was firmly established and he set out to conquer Helsinki. Finland’s capital was a stronghold of old-guard architects and obtaining commissions there was not that simple.
Viipurin kirjaston (1927-35) luentosali.
Aalto was thus not entirely dependent on clients from Helsinki, and instead began to build a house for himself. He designed a home in Helsinki’s Munkkiniemi, where he lived for the rest of his life.
The house was finished in autumn 1936 and was a kind of precursor to the manifesto that Aalto finally brought into being in the Villa Mairea, the house designed for his friends Maire and Harry Gullichsen.
The building combines modern materials and a modern vocabulary of form with tradition, and gives nature a foothold in an entirely new way.
Aino ja Alvar Aalto in the studio at the Aalto House.
Villa Mairea (1937-39).
Villa Mairea (1937-39).
Making use of the natural surroundings as a starting point for his designs became Aalto’s trademark. He applied it to master planning and to social building alike; the Sunila factory community which was started at the end of the decade is a good example of this.
Sunila Pulp mill and residential area (1936–38, 1947, 1951–54).
After travelling to the United States in 1938 and 1939, Aalto became more and more interested in standardization. Here he stressed the example of nature, where by combining cells together a huge number of different variations can be achieved.
He began to ponder the potential of organic forms to an increasing degree and, on this basis, he designed the pavilion for the New York World’s Fair.
The outbreak of the Second World War was a shock for the optimistic Aalto, in whom the idea of the new and better world represented by the United States still lived strongly.
His sense of social responsibility made him begin to search for new approaches; how was Finland going to rebuild after the war? He put a good deal of effort into the development of prefabricated housing and into master planning. In this he received plenty of stimuli in America, in his capacity as visiting professor at MIT in Cambridge, Mass.
When the Second World War came to an end, Aalto began designing his first building to be constructed abroad, the student dormitory building for MIT. There he continued the consideration of organic forms that had been interrupted by the war. For Aalto, the building opened up a new way of using brick as a material for urban architecture.
MIT Baker House (1947-49).
Aino had been responsible for everything to do with the interiors of Aalto’s buildings and the crisis he experienced when she died in January 1949 also brought a new depth and monumentalism to his architecture.
Aalto sought comfort in travel and in work.
Aalto’s first commission in Helsinki, the office building for the Finnish Engineer’s Association was followed by a series of competition wins at home so he decided to return to Finland.
The head office for the National Pensions Institute (1948), the Otaniemi master plan for Helsinki University of Technology (1949), Säynätsalo Town Hall (1949), the Rautatalo office building (1951) and the present University of Jyväskylä (1951), were all important works that were constructed in the 1950s, and all of them explored the nature of public building and urban space.
Säynätsalo Town Hall (1949-52).
In 1952, the young architect Elsa-Kaisa (Elissa) Mäkiniemi became his colleague and his second wife. The Muuratsalo Experimental House, where Aalto returned to the landscape of Central Finland, was built as their shared summer home.
Muuratsalo Experimental House (1952-54).
The Experimental House became a new playground for Aalto. He tried out different arrangements of brick surfaces there, carried on painting and started to design a fast motor boat for himself, which in due course was given the name Nemo propheta in patria.
Brick, as a material, catalyzed Aalto into developing a special brick himself, which made it possible to use many different kinds of forms.
This brick was used in the construction of the House of Culture in Helsinki in 1958, where the free-flowing lines are a continuation of the free-form glass vase he designed in 1936.
House of Culture, Helsinki (1952-58).
The closed, red brick, shell-like form of the House of Culture was given its counterpart in the pure white shell of Vuoksenniska Church, which opens up into a fan-shaped, window opening.
Red brick released Aalto from Modernism’s vocabulary of form.
Although as a material it harked back to Modernism, Aalto’s characteristic white rendering acquired a new invention in parallel with it – the half-round ceramic tile which he originally developed for the interior walls of the Rautalo Office Building as a light-reflecting material.
In 1958, Aalto relinquished the chairmanship of the Finnish Association of Architects, a post he had held for 15 years. Aalto felt the criticism of the younger generation of architects very strongly – he was being accused of elitism, just at the time when the new rationalist Aalto was emerging.
Aalto, who had spoken and written a good deal, withdrew into himself and concentrated on designing. Up to the end of the decade there came a multitude of invitations and competition wins, Kiruna Town Hall (1958) for example, Aalborg Art Museum (1958), the Essen Theatre (1959) and so on.
The 1960s also brought the construction of the Seinäjoki and Rovaniemi city centres.
He travelled a lot with Elissa, regularly to both Switzerland and Italy. They met friends there and Aalto, who loved the open air enjoyed the great outdoors through skiing and swimming. The 1960s brought an ever-increasing number of honours of various kinds at home and abroad. Aalto acted as President of the Academy of Finland from 1963 to 1968.
Alvar Aalto and William Lehtinen with a scale model of Helsinki City Centre.
Helsinki City Centre plan.
Although Aalto’s later years were troubled by tiredness, his inventive turn of mind remained. The rippling concave walls of the Finlandia Hall Congress Wing, which Aalto had also proposed in his design for the new library at the University of Jyväskylä communicated with the surrounding trees in a way that had never before been seen in Finland.
The city that Aalto dreamed of, with green areas extending into the centre like arteries and elks roaming in them, has crumbled, bit by bit.
His importance to the architecture of the twentieth century is, nevertheless, still growing. His understanding about people as a part of the diversity and complexity of nature is completely in harmony with the new ecological way of thinking of today.
Text: Teija Isohauta (1998)
Web version: Mari Murtoniemi and Tomi Summanen based on an earlier web exhibition. Photos © Alvar Aalto Foundation.