Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) is considered a modern architect, yet his work exhibits a carefully crafted balance of intricate and complex forms, spaces, and elements, and reveals a traditionalism rooted in the cultural heritage and physical environment of Finland. Over the course of his 50-year career, Alvar Aalto, unlike a number of his contemporaries, did not rely on modernism’s fondness for industrialized processes as a compositional technique, but forged an architecture influenced by a broad spectrum of concerns.
Alvar Aalto ‘s is an architecture that manifests an understanding of the psychological needs of modern society, the particular qualities of the Finnish environment, and the historical, technical, and cultural traditions of Scandinavian architecture. Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto was born in the Ostro-Bothnian village of Kourtane in 1898. The family soon moved to Alajarvi, where his mother, Selma Hackstedt Aalto, died in 1903. By 1907 Alvar Aalto ‘s father, J. H. Aalto, a government surveyor, had remarried and moved the family to the central Finnish city of Jyvaskyla. In Jyvaskyla the young Alvar Aalto attended the Normal School and the Classical Lyceum, and in the summer months during his teens often accompanied his father on surveying trips. Alvar Aalto entered the Helsinki Polytechnic in 1916, and became a protege of Armas Lindgren (who was partner of E. Saarinen and H. Gesellius during the formative period of Finnish National Romanticism). While a student, Alvar Aalto worked for Carolus Lindberg on the “Tivoli” area for the 1920 Finnish National Fair, and served in the militia during the civil strife following the Russian Revolution. After graduating from the Polytechnic in 1921, Alvar Aalto sought employment in Sweden; unable to secure a position with Gunnar Asplund, Alvar Aalto worked for A. Bjerke on the Congress Hall for the 1923 Goteborg World’s Fair.
After having executed several buildings for the 1922 Industrial Exhibition in Tampere, Alvar Aalto established his practice in Jyvaskyla in 1923. While securing local commissions, Alvar Aalto also followed the normal practice in Finland of participating in architectural competitions. In 1924 Alvar Aalto married the architect Aino Marsio. Exemplary of the classicism found throughout Scandinavia during the 1920s, Alvar Aalto ‘s early work was influenced by contemporary Nordic practitioners such as Asplund and Ragnar Ostberg, as well as by the simple massing and ornamentation of the architettura mirwre of northern Italy. His work evolved from the austere quality of the Railway Workers Housing (1923), to the more Palladian inspired Workers Club (1924-1925) (both in Jyvaskyla), and from there to the deftly refined and detailed Seinajoki Civil Guards Complex (1925), Jyvaskyla Civil Guards Building (1927), and the Muurame Church (1927-1929). Composed of simple, wellproportioned volumes rendered in stucco or wood, these works are characterized by their sparse decoration and selective use of classical elements.
In 1927 Alvar Aalto won the competition for the Southwestern Agricultural Cooperative Building (1927-1929), and moved his office to Turku. Located on the southwest coast of Finland, Turku, the former Swedish capital, was a major cultural center where Alvar Aalto made numerous contacts that proved important to his development. His friendship with architect Erik Bryggman was coupled with Turku’s proximity to Sweden, where associations with Asplund and Sven Markelius provided connections with the continental architectural avantgarde. Alvar Aalto not only attended the 1929 meeting of Les Congres Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM), but traveled regularly throughout Europe, making him one of the most knowledgeable architects in Finland of the “new architecture.”
During the six years spent in Turku (1927-1933), Alvar Aalto designed the series of buildings that would establish his international reputation. His architecture evolved from the stripped classicism of the Agricultural Cooperative Building toward a full acceptance of the formal and theoretical canons of International Style modernism or “functionalism” as it was termed in Finland. The Turun Sanamat Newspaper Building (1928-1930) was the first work in Finland to incorporate Le Corbusier’s les cinq pointes d’une architecture nouvelle. The Standard Apartment Block in Turku (1929), the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium (1929-1933), and the Turku 7th Centenary Exhibition complex (designed in collaboration with Bryggman in 1929) indicate Alvar Aalto ‘s level of understanding of both International Style modernism and the other avantgarde movements in art and architecture that occurred in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In addition to functionalist principles, Alvar Aalto ‘s work demonstrated an awareness of Russian Constructivism and the Dutch de Stijl movement, not to mention the work of Johannes Duiker, Andre Lurcat, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. During this period, Alvar Aalto was an active polemicist who advanced the cause of modernism in Finnish architecture.
Alvar Aalto moved his office to Helsinki in 1933, hoping the capital would provide greater opportunities for commissions, as well as bringing him closer to the city of Viipuri where the Municipal Library (1927-1935) was under construction. Although Alvar Aalto would not receive a major public commission in Helsinki for another two decades. Alvar Aalto ‘s practice expanded. This was an important period of transition in his work which, with the Viipuri Library, included his house and office in the suburb of Munkkiniemi (1934-1936), the Finnish Pavilions for the 1937 Paris and 1939 New York World’s Fairs, the Villa Mairea (1937-1938), and the factory and workers’ housing at Sunila (1935-1954). At this time Alvar Aalto received the patronage of Harry and Maire Gullichsen, prominent industrialists, for whom Alvar Aalto had designed the summer house Mairea on the Ahlstrom estate in Noormarkku. The Gullichsens provided Alvar Aalto with entry into Finland’s industrial establishment, which resulted in a number of factory and housing commissions throughout Finland, including the complexes at Sunila, Inkeroinen, Kauttua, Vaasa, Karhula, and Varkaus for the Ahlstrom and Stromberg companies. In 1935, with the assistance of Maire Gullichsen and with Nils Gustav Hahl as director, the firm of Artek was formed, which produced and marketed Alvar Aalto ‘s furniture, fabric, and glassware designs.
During the mid-1930s Alvar Aalto ‘s work began to embody a more tactile, romantic, and picturesque posture, becoming less machinelike in imagery. The presence of these characterisl ics in his work, coupled with a seemingly rekindled interest in Finnish vernacular building traditions and a concern for the alienated individual within modern mass society, signals a movement away from the functionalist tenets that formed his architecture in the early 1930s. In renouncing industrialized production as a compositional and formal ordering sensibility, Alvar Aalto moved toward a more personal style which solidified over the next decade, a direction achieving maturity in his work executed after World War II.
- 1921 – 1923: Bell tower of Kauhajärvi Church, Lapua, Finland
- 1924 – 1928: Municipal hospital, Alajärvi, Finland
- 1926 – 1929: Defence Corps Building, Jyväskylä, Finland
- 1927 – 1935: Municipal library, Viipuri, Finland (now Vyborg,Russia), new drawings, 1928, 1929, 1933, built according to last drawings 1934 – 1935.
- 1928 – 1929, 1930: Turun Sanomat newspaper offices,Turku, Finland
- 1928 – 1929: Paimio Sanatorium, Tuberculosis sanatorium and staff housing, Paimio, Finland
- 1931: Central University Hospital, Zagreb, Croatia (former Yugoslavia)
- 1932: – Villa Tammekann, Tartu, Estonia
- 1934: Corso theatre, restaurant interior, Zürich, Switzerland
- 1936 – 1938: Ahlstrom Sunila Pulp Mill, Housing, and Town Plan, Kotka
- 1937: Finnish Pavilion, 1937 World’s Fair
- 1937 – 1939: Villa Mairea, Noormarkku, Finland
- 1939: Finnish Pavilion, 1939 World’s Fair
- 1947 – 1948: Baker House, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts
- 1949 – 1966: Helsinki University of Technology, Espoo,Finland
- 1949 – 1952: Säynätsalo Town Hall, 1949 competition, built 1952, Säynätsalo (now part of Jyväskylä), Finland,
- 1950 – 1957: Kansaneläkelaitos (National Pension Institution) office building, Helsinki, Finland
- 1952 – 1958: House of Culture, Helsinki, Finland
- 1957: The Experimental House, Muuratsalo, Finland.
- 1958 – 1987: Town centre, Seinäjoki, Finland
- 1958 – 1972: North Jutland Art Museum, Aalborg, Denmark
- 1959 – 1962: Enso-Gutzeit Headquarters, Helsinki, Finland
- 1965: Regional Library of Lapland, Rovaniemi, Finland
- 1962 – 1971: Finlandia Hall, Helsinki, Finland
- 1963 – 1965: Building for Västmanland-Dala nation, Uppsala, Sweden
- 1965 – 1968: Nordic House, Reykjavík, Iceland
- 1970: Mount Angel Abbey Library, Mt. Angel, Oregon
- 1959 – 1988: Essen opera house, Essen, Germany