Aalto’s Highlights in Finland

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.

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Sights

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.

Visiting

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.

Visiting

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.

Visiting

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.

Visiting

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.

Jyväskylä

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.

Visiting

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.

Rovaniemi

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.

Visiting

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.

Helsinki

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.

Visiting

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.

Paimio Sanatorium

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.

Visiting

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.

Frank Lloyd Wright in California

Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings in California include many works from various stages of his artistic development. Considered together, these offer a good insight in the evolution of his style.

Differently from the front-page works visible elsewhere in the US, the buildings in California are mostly privately owned still today, so on one side they are totally part of the urban landscape and not just museums – they are still used for their intended function. On the other hand, they are not accessible to the public. To say it all, some of them are up for sale and a few in a state of disrepair. You may try scheduling a visit with a seller sometimes, but you’ll probably receive no answer if you say you just want to take pictures, at least if you ask to go for free…

Anyway, in some cases even looking at these buildings from the outside may be interesting for architecture-minded people, and this is usually possible.

The following photographs show some of FLW’s buildings in the metro areas of LA, SLO and SF. They are listed in chronological building order.

Sights

The following map allows to quickly check the position of the sights listed below. These are not all FLW sites in California, but only those I’ve visited and which are described in this page.

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Hollyhock House – LA

This house is also known as Aline Barnsdall’s house, from the name of the lady who commissioned it. The building is an exception in the panorama of FLW’s houses in LA, for it is usually opened to the public (see website here for visiting info). It was designed and built between 1917 and 1920, some 18-20 years before the famous ‘Fallingwater’ (Kaufman’s house) in Pennsylvania.

Similarly to most buildings of FLW in California, the typical prairie style with exposed red bricks is altered to include concrete elements studied to prevent excessive heating. The decoration, the balanced use of very simple shapes to create an articulated façade and the prevalence of horizontal lines are all characteristics of FLW’s architecture which can be appreciated also here.

The place can be reached easily on 4800 Hollywood Blvd., on top of a small hill. Parking inside is possible.

Charles Ennis House – LA

This private house is located on the same hill as the Griffith Observatory, and has a wonderful panorama to the south and LA. With respect to other works of FLW, this is particularly massive and develops consistently along a vertical direction, while still retaining a good proportion between the area of the base and the overall height. Another distinctive feature is the façade composed of prefabricated concrete blocks, a feature that can be found also in others FLW’s houses in LA. Ennis house dates from 1923-24, when the size of LA was exploding.

You can reach the house on 2607 Glendower Ave. Public parking possible nearby.

Samuel Freeman House – LA

This smaller private house is particularly interesting for it was damaged by some seismic activity and looked in partial disrepair when I last visited in 2014. This made it possible to come close to it and have a close look to the prefabricated concrete bricks constituting the basic building module. The plant of the house is more complicated than Ennis house, but the size is comparatively much smaller, and the building less imposing. Similarly to Ennis house, Freeman house dates from around 1923.

It can be approached easily on 1962 Glencoe Way, a quick detour from Hollywood Blvd. and Franklin Ave., very close to the Hollywood Bowl. Limited public parking around.

John Storer House – LA

This is a private mansion built in the same years as Ennis and Freeman houses (around 1923), with which it shares much of the architectural features, including the building materials. It is comparable in size to Freeman’s house, but is more mimetic, cause it is separated from the road by a small garden and built very close to the side of the hill.

It is located on the hilly section of Hollywood Blvd., exact address 8161, to the west of the intersection with Laurel Canyon Drive. Very limited public parking nearby.

Wayfarers Chapel – LA

The design of this chapel at a first glance is a departure from the traditional prairie and usonian styles adopted for residential buildings by FLW. Yet at a closer look you realize the main features of functional-organic architecture are all there, reflected by the choice of materials and the inspiration of the shape of the chapel taken from natural structures.

Once inside you feel like being in contact with the exceptional surroundings, which are not just in the backstage, but all around in the premises of the chapel.

The complex dates back to the late Forties. It is on the tip of the beautiful Palos Verder peninsula, south of LA. The exact address is 5755 Palos Verdes Drive South, Rancho Palos Verdes. No serious walking necessary for visiting, the place is open to the public and is in the list of historic landmarks. Website here.

W.C. Morris Gift Shop – SF

This shop was the result of a radical restoration of an existing space between 1948 and 1950. The very central location next to Union Square has made it the perfect place for art galleries and luxury exhibition rooms. Actually until recently the place hosted an art gallery. The spiral ramp leading to the first floor was inspired by the Guggenheim museum in New York City, which FLW had started designing in 1943. The brick façade is a one-of-a-kind example in Wright’s production and in the panorama of San Francisco.

The address is on 140 Maiden Lane, .1 miles from Union Square.

Anderton Court Shops – LA

Barely noticeable after somewhat losing its architectural unity due to later additions, this building shows its FLW roots thanks to the vertical spire, typical also to other designs of this architect. The building dates from 1952, and was conceived as shopping center. Since then the property has been divided, and some changes to the facade applied.

Centrally located on 333 N. Rodeo Drive.

Kundert Medical Clinic – SLO

This building was completed in 1956 and specifically designed as an ophtalmological clinic – a unique example in the list of works of FLW. It turned out to be one of the last designs by this architect, who died in 1959. The building makes the best use of a standard size lot in central San Luis Obispo. Today it is still used as a clinic. The red bricks, flat shape, and the assembly dominated by horizontal lines are typical to the style of FLW.

The address is 1106 Pacific Street, San Luis Obispo. You can park right in front of the building, which is centrally located.

Marin County Civic Center – SF

The place was designed beginning 1957, but it was not completed until 1966, well after the death of FLW. This is one of the few institutional buildings of FLW, and unique in the panorama of American public