Possibly one of the worlds best-known architects from the 20th century, Alvar Aalto – together with his wife Aino, also an architect – enjoyed a great popularity since the beginning of his working career. He began with experimental works mostly based on mixing and harmonizing many styles from different ages and countries – especially Italy, a Country the Aalto couple visited for the first time during their honeymoon, and which they fell in love. In the last 1920s with the birth of the functional style Aalto became a herald of this new architecture, which he mixed with an instinctive and very personal vein, resulting in something really original and easily identifiable. Aalto’s creations usually feature a great care for any detail, making any room in his buildings natural to use for its intended function.
Aalto’s work is of course well represented in his Finnish mother country, a nation which always acknowledged him as a great artistic personality and which he never left for long.
This short post presents some of the highlights of Aalto’s production in Finland. While far from complete, the sites listed here may offer already an idea of the diversity of the functions of Aalto’s buildings.
Photographs were collected on a visit to Finland in August 2017.
Villa Mairea, Noormarkku
Surely one of the best known creations of Alvar Aalto, this beautiful mansion was built in 1938 for the Gullichsen family, owner of a successful wood pulp business and paper factory. This was not the only work commissioned to Alvar and Aino Aalto by this family.
This residential building was designed in Aalto’s typical interpretation of functional-organic architecture. The great variety of the materials and the attention to all details both inside and outside is also typical to this architect, which in this case could work without any relevant budget constraints.
The mansion is immersed in a young forest, in the hilly countryside north of Pori, close to the western coast of Finland.
The front façade features a small covered porch leading to the door.
Access to the slightly overhead garden is through a pergola on the northeastern corner of the house. The garden features a large swimming pool, a fireplace and a dinner table.
The large windows can be removed completely to transform the large ‘double living room’ occupying most of the ground floor into an open space communicating directly with the garden and nature around.
The windows are pretty heavy though, and this technological feature was used only rarely.
The villa is still property of the Gullichsen family, and sometimes used for vacation or party time by the owners. Tours are arranged through a local guide by permission of the owners on a semi-regular schedule. You will need to make a reservation through their website for visiting, picking one out of the available dates. Payment is due on the day of visit, credit cards accepted. Parking is possible close to the villa. Unfortunately, on regular tours it is not possible to take pictures of the inside, and only the ground floor can be visited. Anyway getting a view from inside will add value to your visit, so it is highly recommended. The guided tour of the inside takes about 45 minutes.
Finnish Glass Museum, Riihimäki
This beautiful museum traces the history of Finnish glass design. While not an ancient tradition in this Country, Finland has reached in the 19th and 20th century a great fame in this field.
A first part of the museum is dedicated to the evolution of the techniques for glass manufacture.
Then follows a huge collection of glass artifacts produced in Finland in various ages and for different purpose. Among them, there are also some very famous designs by Alvar and Aino Aalto, as well as other Finnish designers.
The museum is a famous attraction and can be reached quite easily. All information here. The visit may take 1 to 2.5 hours depending on your level of interest. The sight of all those glass artifacts is captivating even for those with little interest for design and art!
Säynätsalo Town Hall
Another well-known masterpiece, the complex in the small town of Säynätsalo was built in the years 1949-52 to host the local town hall, a public library as well as some private business. Red bricks cover the exterior, which is articulated in two main buildings designed around an inner courtyard for pedestrian access.
The inside of the city hall building presents a series of smaller rooms on the main level, aligned along a corridor opening on the courtyard. Anything from the chairs to the door handles and lamps was designed by Aalto, making the ensemble really harmonious.
The upper floor is present only in a square-based corner tower, and here you find the main hall. It is very tall, but lighting is through narrow windows and together with the colors of wood and brick, it induces a sense of calm, warmth and concentration.
Today the town hall is not used for this function any more. Actually there are some small businesses like a bistro and a bed and breakfast in it. Yet the place is preserved mostly as it was, and a good part of the main level and the former town hall can be visited. Visits are offered on a regular basis at least in summer. Website here.
Muurame Church, Muurame
The church of Muurame is one of the last ‘eclectic’ works of Aalto (1929), in an age when modernism was already spreading among avantgarde architects. The inspiration from Italian architecture is pretty evident, testifying on the close bond between Aalto and the Italian architectural heritage.
The location on top of a small hill is pretty suggestive.
Not well signaled unless you come very close, the exact address is 7 Kirkkotie, 40950 Muurame. The place is only open for ceremonies. I was very lucky as I happened to pass by when a marriage was just going to be celebrated, so I could get a quick view of the sober, elegant interior. The exterior can be neared without problems all the time. Official website in Finnish here.
The town where Alvar Aalto spent his youth did receive much in return from its illustrious citizen. Surely one of the most prominent examples of social architecture is the main campus of the local University – today one of the three top-ranking educational institutes in Finland.
Several buildings were designed as the backbone of this campus between 1951 and 1958. The inspiration came again from classical architecture, especially Greece, as Aalto’s view was that of reproducing the basic plant of an acropolis. Among the buildings in the campus probably the most notable are the library and the teacher’s training school nearby.
A very nice scenery is constituted by the sports ground, with a series of low-profile buildings around it forming a really proportionate ensemble, like the stage of a theater.
Another notable building by Aalto is the city theater, completed after the death of the architect based on his design, and the former building of the Police department nearby, conceived to somewhat deceive the role of the institution making it look somehow less ‘martial’ than its usual function may imply. An older design close to the city center is that of the building of the Trade Unions, closer to the eclectic period of the designer.
Finally, a unmissable highlight in town is the Alvar Aalto Museum. Designed by the architect, it hosts a nice collection of prints, drawings as well as pieces of furniture tracing the evolution of Aalto’s style with many interesting details.
Jyväskylä benefits from a generally fortunate setting – here are some photographs of the lake and some new buildings in town.
A visit to Jyväskylä with the museum and a walk along a trail touching all Aalto’s works may take from a half to a full day. A website suggesting a trail with links to the pages of the corresponding attractions is here. The University campus is still in use, like the theater and the building of the Police – today an office building. As a result, visiting the interiors may be tricky. Despite that, a walk in the campus and in the city center together with a visit to the Alvar Aalto Museum may fully justify a detour to this lovely town.
The town of Rovaniemi was totally destroyed by the retreating German Army in the closing stages of WWII – the so called Lapland War. As a result, construction work could be carried out without the constraints typically bound to the presence of an older neighborhood. Alvar Aalto was tasked with the design of a new city center, featuring a city hall, a theater – ‘Lappia-talo’ – and a public library.
The buildings were erected in multiple stages between the Sixties and the Eighties, after the death of the architect. The ensemble is very harmonious and nice to walk, not intimidating as mostly usual for similar buildings especially in the US.
A possibly more famous building in Rovaniemi – not by Aalto – is the Arktikum, built in 1993 and hosting some local museums.
The civic center is still used for its original function. At the time of my visit it was closed for Sunday. A website in Finnish with information on the history of Aalto’s building in the northernmost region of the Country, including his works in Rovaniemi, can be found here.
Aalto’s contribution to Finland’s capital city has its most visible example in the Finlandia House, or ‘Finlandia-talo’ in the local idiom. This long and flat building is located close to the parliament and was built in 1971, among the last works of the architect. It is a ‘social event’ building, hence it hosts a theater, conference rooms and areas for exhibitions.
The inside is on two main floors. As usual with Aalto’s buildings, despite the size, which for the case of the Finlandia house can be appreciated from outside looking at the length of the eastern façade, you don’t feel disoriented nor overwhelmed especially once inside.
All details of the furniture have been designed with the building. Unfortunately, I could not visit the upper floor thoroughly for a congress was taking place there.
The building has a historical significance, for it was here that the Helsinki Accords involving the US, USSR and most European Countries of the time – including those belonging to the Soviet sphere of influence – were elaborated and signed in 1976, forcing an evolution of espionage and repression systems in communist Countries.
Further buildings by Aalto include the House of Culture – or ‘Kulttuuritalo’ -, inaugurated in 1958. It is composed of two main blocks with a theater and offices. The blocks are fused together by a covered passage and a low building with a connecting corridor, so they appear as an ensemble.
Originally built for the questionable cultural and propaganda activities of the local Communist Party, the complex has been used for long now as a popular rock concert venue.
An example of business architecture is the Headquarter of the Social Insurance Institution – known with the abbreviation ‘Kela’ in Finnish. The effort of the designer to avoid creating an imposing, bulky and intimidating building inspite of the narrow streets around, and the need to host rooms and offices for about 1000 people, is evident. The façade is broken and made partly modular, the height of the building is reduced as much as possible, and the horizontal lines of the windows tend to evidence the horizontal dimension. The volume is made lighter by including an open porch at the level of the entrance. The warm tones of the materials produce a sense of calm, yet preserving the sobriety of the appearance, where there are no decorations nor any curved line.
The Finlandia House is located in central Helsinki and used for congresses, concerts and exhibitions. Having a walk around and inside is possible without particular restrictions except during official events. It is also possible to take a guided tour of the venue, information here.
Similarly, part of the House of Culture can be accessed most of the time without prior notice, but full visits are offered at least in summer on a regular basis. Information here.
As far as I know, the ‘Kela’ building is not open to the public, but it is possible to have a look around and come close to it without restrictions. The location is nearby the northwestern corner of the Olympic Stadium.
Probably the best-known work of Aalto’s production, the hospital in Paimio is unanimously regarded as a milestone in the history of modern architecture. The hospital was built in 1933, and used as a sanatorium for tuberculosis and later as a general hospital.
Today it is a rehab center owned by the University of Turku, which is not far away on the coast and where Aalto had his studio. Visiting the inside is usually not possible, but you can walk around the complex without being disturbed. The location deep in the countryside, far from any crowded town and away from traffic, is really suggestive and peaceful.
The central building for patients is the most distinctive – a tall, flat and narrow wing where the rooms are aligned along a long angled façade looking south. The main wing is connected to other blocks – for surgery, administration, etc. – through a central volume where the entrance to the building is also located.
The complex of the hospital is completed by a series of residential buildings for the staff. These are small examples of residential functional architecture, not designed to be luxurious, and still inhabited today.
As far as I know, visiting is not possible inside. The outside can be toured de facto, even though I guess the land around the hospital belongs to the hospital, so you’d better avoid attracting too much attention. The hospital is a bit tricky to find, cause it is not advertised as an attraction and it is well out of the village of Paimio. The GPS coordinates to reach the entrance are 60°27’53.0″N 22°43’54.4″E.