Alvar Aalto Centenary of his birth


            Alvar Aalto was born at the end of the last century in the town of Kuortane in central Finland. Although he developed as an architect during the Functionalist period, he succeeded in making his own architectural expression both personal and human. His insistence on the importance of design and his special handling of materials, light and space made him one of the great architects of the 20th century. As a humanist, he believed in the need to focus design on humans and their feelings; indeed, he was the first of the pathfinders of modern architecture to turn back to tradition and the use of natural materials. His influence on Finnish architecture was vast; thanks to his success, Finland became a center of worldwide importance in modern architecture. In his 54-year career, he created a romantic synthesis of practical ideas. His desire to realize local culture was expressed in a clear preference for free form, as well as in his loyalty to Finnish tradition and landscapes. Many of his works were the fruit of prize-winning designs in public competitions.

            A man of many talents, Aalto also engaged in art, wrote poetry, was active in sports, designed patterns for carpets and stage sets for the theater. His work may be divided into four periods: the Classic period of the 1920s, the Functionalist ('white architecture') period of the 1930s, the mature ('red brick') period of the 1940s and 1950s, and the 'ceramic and marble' period of the 1960s and 1970s. The transitions between periods are gradual, expressed as different accentuations of ideas recurring in each of his works.

            After completing his studies at the Helsinki Polytechnic, he opened his office in Jyväskylä in 1923. A year later, he married Aino Marsio, a young architect who worked in his office. In 1925, he designed the Labor Club in Jyväskylä , a building which denotes his personal transition from Neo-Classic to Functionalist architecture. In 1927, he transferred his office to Turku, at the time a focus of architectural innovation due to its proximity to Sweden (which was then the gateway to the new ideas developing in Europe). The Turun Sanomat newspaper building, constructed in 1927, was one of the first buildings reflecting the ideas of the period. In this structure, with its concrete frame, on a commercial street near the market square, the principles of Le Corbusiers 'modern building' are literally applied.

            In Turku, he worked with Erik Bryggman, a young architect no less talented than himself. Aalto and Bryggman were the architects of the exhibition held in Turku in 1929 to mark the citys 700th anniversary. A year later, the Swedish architect Eric Gunnar Asplund designed an exhibition of modern residential buildings in Stockholm; the affinity between the two exhibitions is remarkable.

            In 1927, a year defined as the 'breakthrough of Functionalism' in Finland, Aalto won two public competitions: the 'Peasants House' building in Turku and the library in Viipuri. The 'Peasants House' is an office building surrounding an internal courtyard; its clean design features a monotone facade with square windows. The roof is sloping and the facades are void of ornamentation, except for a cornice providing shade above the ground floor. Gunnar Asplunds influence is reflected in the monumental entrance door, similar to that of the library in Viipuri, which was completed in 1935. The library, renowned for the wavy wooden ceiling in the reading room, was a simple asymmetrical structure, composed of two distinct functional blocs, plastered in white and erected on a granite foundation. In this project, Aalto established his principles for library design, which included the introduction of filtered light and the use of natural materials to achieve acoustic effects. The reading room was on two levels, with the roof lighting coming in through conical skylights to avoid glare.

            In 1929, Aalto won a competition for the design of a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients in Paimio. The building is composed of three distinct functional blocks: hospitalization, patient services and general services. Horizontal balconies on the southern side ensured maximum exposure to sunlight. The staff rooms were located separately, facing the forest. In this building, Aalto began to develop a personal style, expressed in the free lines of the entrance portico and bent iron railings - all in the framework of the international style. In order to meet the special sanitary needs of the hospital, he developed furniture made of bent birch wood. The library in Viipuri, completed at the same time, was also furnished with chairs of this type. Artek, a plant manufacturing Aaltos bent wood furniture, was established in 1935.

            In the early 1930s, Aalto began to develop social awareness and endeavored to find housing solutions for the workers of the Enso-Gutzeit factory in the Sunila forest. In 1935, he designed Villa Mairea for his patrons, Harry and Maire Gullichsen, in Noormarkku; the villas architecture freely reflects his love for wood, bricks, ceramics and copper, emphasizing the connection between indoors and outdoors in a synthesis of various traditions and contents. He gradually freed himself from rectangular forms and began to adopt the 'free wave form', made of vertical wooden panels. The Savoy restaurant which he designed in 1937, on top of a commercial building in Helsinki, has been preserved in its original form to this day and was recently renovated according to his original design.

            The Finnish pavilion at the 1937 exhibition in Paris (which won two first prizes for Aalto) and the pavilion at the 1939 Worlds Fair in New York (designed by Aalto as a symphony of details) won him an international reputation. His works were displayed in a personal exhibition in 1938 at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York.

            After World War II, Aalto explored new directions for his architectural development. Starting in the 1950s, he sought new forms, began to use more durable materials on his facades, and developed advanced technical and acoustic solutions. He came to view white plaster as a material which loses its value in the course of time, and red brick - Finlands traditional building material - took its place. The first red brick building he built was a student dormitory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he was a guest professor. The wave-shaped building provides diagonal views toward the river.

            The Cultural Hall inaugurated in Helsinki in 1955 also shows the new accents: the curved line, the columns opening upward, and the acoustic ceiling became dominant elements in Aaltos inner spaces from that point on.

            In 1950, Aalto won a competition for the design of Jyväskylä University, which had begun as a teachers college. When the campus construction was completed in 1957, it was referred to as 'a city in a forest'. The main building housed the library, lecture halls and a sports center, organized in an urban array. The entrance foyer functioned as a city square; a 'main street' led to the lecture halls. Most of the buildings were made of red brick, except for the faculty club, which was designed as an elevated temple.

            The office building of the Helsinki Pension Company was also built of red brick. The structure, completed in 1952, is integrated into an urban tissue of residential buildings. The same year marked the inauguration of the Municipal Center in Säynätsalo, also characterized by variable forms in red brick around a central courtyard.

            Despite the overwhelming use of red brick, Aalto knew how to adapt his style to the environment. After winning the competition to design the Steel Company building in downtown Helsinki, he built the structure on a steel frame, next to the Eliel Saarinen building. The existing building affected Aaltos division of the structure into floors and the height of the new building. The facade of the 'Akademika' book store, completed by Aalto in 1966 on the other side of the Saarinen building, was treated in a similar manner. That building, too, was constructed with glass walls on a steel frame; in its center is a three-storey space with marble wall coverings, illuminated via the roof.        

            In 1959, the Vuoksenniska Church in Imatra was completed. In this church, built in the heart of a forest which was uprooted in a hurricane, Aalto demonstrated his ability to transform a two-dimensional plan into a three-dimensional plastic structure. The outside of the church recalls a bunker with a copper roof; inside are three prayer halls, separated by movable partitions. The building marks the first appearance of the double-shell wall, more fully developed by Aaltos successor, Reima Pietilä .

            The Seinäjoki City Hall, completed in 1965, is the dominant building in the municipal complex. The use of rounded blue ceramic wall coverings enabled him to create free lines. The upper part of the building houses the City Council meeting hall, which also functions as a concert hall. The roof is covered with copper, with lighting from above. The church in the complex was also designed by Aalto; a stained-glass window, designed by the architect, is a fitting ornament to the small church, and the churchyard is used for parties and events.

            In the same year, Aalto designed the childrens library in Seinäjoki, whose characteristic feature is its fan-shaped roof above a two-level reading area. The library in Rovaniemi was built as part of the city center, in the framework of a master plan made by Aalto for the city, which had been destroyed in World War II.

            The Technion campus in Otaniemi, built in 1964, is one of the most interesting complexes in Aaltos work. The dominant component here is a group of semicircular lecture halls. The construction of the roof, which rises parallel to the tiers of seats, creates an outdoor theater, used as a meeting place for students. The study and research areas and the laboratories are scattered around the lecture halls. The building materials are red brick, black granite, copper, glass and wood. Marble also appears in the Faculty of Architecture building.

            The Finlandia Hall (1971) and the Convention Center (1975), the last building inaugurated by Aalto, is part of the new design for central Helsinki, also planned by Aalto. In addition to a concert hall seating 1750, it also includes a chamber music hall seating 350, a restaurant and a large foyer. The facades are coated with Italian marble; the foundation is made of granite and the roof of copper. The acoustics in the hall are poor and the Italian marble, which cannot resist the Finnish climate, absorbs moisture and peels. It was recently found necessary to replace all of the marble wall coverings; after public debate, it was decided to preserve the original idea and recoat the building in Italian marble, although it is already known that this will require recoating in about five years time.

            The summer house in Muuratsalo, designed in 1961 by Aalto and his second wife, Elissa (whom he married in 1952 after Ainos death), is built around a square courtyard with an open fireplace at its center. The house zis on the shore of a lake, at the foot of a hill near Jyväskylä. In the inner courtyard, experiments in building with various types of brick were used; accordingly, the structure is known as 'the experimental house'. The outside walls are made of white-painted brick and resemble a fortress. The living room has a gallery reserved for Aaltos drawing; his easel stands there to this day. A separate sauna is located on the lake shore, where his boat is also anchored. A students competition for the design of a house for Aaltos boat was held three years ago, and won by two women students from Denmark.

            After his death on May 11, 1976, his office continued to operate under the management of his second wife, Elissa, until she died in 1994. During this period, several projects planned before his death were completed, such as the theater in Seinäjoki, the theater and library in Jyväskylä, the church in Lahti (built on the ruins of an old wooden church that had burned down), and the expansion of the Jyväskylä Museum. These buildings, constructed in the 1980s, appear heavy and frozen in time. Had Aalto been alive in those years, he would quite probably have continued to refresh and develop his style, in his typically dynamic way.

            Sadly, Aalto ended his days with the feeling that he had not won as much appreciation in his own country as he had in the international community. On his boat he inscribed in Latin, 'There is no prophet in his home city.' His own home, which he had designed in Munkkiniemi in the 1930s, was sold, renovated and transformed into a museum. His successors, Finnish architects Reima Pietilä, Juha Leiviskä, Juhani Pallasmaa and Markku Komonen, have adopted his design principles and given them personal interpretation in the spirit of the times.



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