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.

War Museums in Moscow

People visiting Moscow from abroad usually spend much of the time in the Kremlin and the nearby districts, where they can find many cultural attractions, as well as fashion stores, great hotels and restaurants. Among the features of Russia’s capital city less known to the average tourist are the many monuments and museums dedicated to war history, which in some cases host extremely interesting exhibitions and artifacts from various ages, which would tell the visitor as much as the most prominent attractions in town.

Three I could visit in person are cited in this post, all of them easily reachable with the usual metro rail in a few minutes from the downtown.

The following photographs were taken during a visit to Moscow in September 2015.

Central Museum of the Armed Forces

This is a purely Soviet installation Cold War buffs will definitely like very much… Despite the old-fashioned website – which after all contributes to the picture of a Soviet-state-owned company… – the building was built following WWII, better known in Russia as the Great Patriotic war of  1941-1945. On the outside, besides the entrance there are a missile and a tank. Once inside you immediately find yourself in a large two-levels hall, dominated by a sculpture of Lenin and a huge mosaic wall, plus paintings of battles and other war-themed scenes all around.

From soon after your arrival, you get to grips with the only real ‘problem’ of this installation, where – just like many others touristic sights in Russia – everything – including the escape plan in the event of fire… – is written in Russian only. So, from the viewpoint of history, you’d better go prepared if you want to get the most from this exhibition, for you won’t find any understandable written information, unless obviously you understand some Russian.

There are several halls in the museum, related to historical moments from WWI up to the present day. A first notable room presents a lively reconstruction of a WWI trench fight, with lights and sounds.

The path through the museum follows the course of history, including the revolution, which put an end to WWI for Russia. Then follows WWII. I have to say I never found a collection of Nazi artifacts so rich as the one preserved here in any other place I visited. Literally hundreds of items, from propaganda posters to flags and banners, weapons, medals, papers,… Also present in due quantity are flags and banners of the Soviet Union, as well as Soviet uniforms, weapons and medals from the age of WWII.

Probably the most notable items from the time are the red banner raised on the Reichstag in Berlin – the corresponding b/w photograph is today one of the symbols of the end of WWII – and an original metal eagle with a swastika, probably taken from the Reichstag or the Reichkanzlei. The flag and the eagle are put together in a kind of monumental installation in a large central hall, celebrating the victory of the Soviet Union in the Patriotic War.

An old coat and a hat belonging to Stalin are also part of the exhibition.

Moving on to the Cold War period, a first focus is on the early history of the Soviet atomic program, leading to the detonation of the first nuclear asset in 1949, and to the testing by the Soviets of the largest thermonuclear device ever. Many models and some documentation are available – I could not understand the details, in that occasion I really regretted having no knowledge of Russian! The development of strategic missiles is covered next, including the much connected race to space.

The highlight of this part of the exhibition – at least for western visitors – may be the wreck of Francis Gary Powers’ aircraft, downed in 1959 by a SAM, basically a Soviet invention, during an illegal flight over the territory of the USSR ordered by the CIA. A large part of the fuselage and of the wings can be seen, with technical labels in English. Also part of the ejectable seat and other parts of this Lockheed U-2 are packed together somewhat inelegantly. Some original papers and maps the pilot had with him at the time of the accident are exhibited, together with many photographs. Extremely interesting.

Approaching the last stage of the Soviet Union, scale models, mockups and parts of larger nuclear missiles are presented. Also the war in Afghanistan is mentioned and the more contemporary war actions in Chechnya and other theaters following the collapse of the USSR are outlined and artifacts and photographs showcased. A window from the relic of the ill-fated Kursk submarine remembers this more recent tragedy – together with a monument on the outside to the right of the entrance.

Finally, the backyard is full of interesting items like missiles, gantries, heavy vehicles, tanks and so on. Unfortunately, it started raining heavily at the time of my visit, so photographs were not possible.

All in all, I would say one of the best museums in Europe on the topic of 20th century war history, and probably the best on Russian/Soviet operations in the 20th century. The presentation may be perceived as antiquated for todays standards, nonetheless this may be appreciated by people who are not totally new to this piece of history and who are more interested in seeing valuable and unusual ‘hardware’. I would recommend at least a full hour for the interested visitor, extendable to 1.5 hours rather easily including a detailed visit to the outside exhibition.

Getting there and moving around

The museum is not far north from downtown Moscow, less than .2 miles from Dostoyevskaya metro stop (line 10). The building can be approached walking along ul. Sovetskoy Armii, on the side of the park. The neighborhood is decent and safe, I had no bad feelings visiting alone.

Museum of the Great Patriotic War

Moscow is scattered with monuments remembering the Soviet effort and the victorious outcome of WWII, but the focal point of the celebration is the park at Poklonnaya Hill with the museum of the Great Patriotic War. The park is an extensive area, built around a perspective leading to the top of the hill, where the museum can be found (website here). This is hosted in the curved building behind the very tall spine which can be seen from the distance.

Approaching from the east, from the famous Kutuzovski Prospekt where many important political players of the USSR used to live, including Brezhnev, it is possible to spot first a huge arch, just in the middle of the road, and departing from it the perspective leading to the hill, just to the left of the Prospekt. To the left of the hill as well as beyond the spine there is a park with several smaller installations remembering war actions involving the USSR and more recently Russia, and following WWII. It is also possible to find there an exhibition with cannons, armored vehicles and other warcrafts.

The museum, accessible from the front of the circular building, is intended basically to celebrate the heroism of the Red Army in the war against Germany. It acts as a place of remembrance for the many who never came back, and during my visit there I coincidentally could assist to a ceremony with high ranking military staff celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII.

Inside the most notable items are huge and very vivid dioramas – I must say, very well made, especially for the age – reconstructing some scenes from some especially dramatic battles of the war against Nazi Germany.