Remembering Alvar Aalto and his influence on architecture

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Alvar Aalto, born on 3 February 1898 in Finland and passed away on 11 May 1976, is a Finnish architect who graduated from the Helsinki University of Technology with an architecture degree. His education was interrupted by the Finish Civil War, which he joined. After the war, he continued his education and built his first structure for his parents. In the 1920s, he went to Stockholm and Gothenburg; during that time, he worked with Swedish Architect Arvid Bjerke.

In 1923, he returned to Jyvaskyla, where he opened an architectural office named “Alvar Aalto, Architect and Monumental Artist.” During that time, he collaborated on many national projects and designed several single-family homes in the Nordic Classicism style. He finished his first public structure during this time, the Jyväskylä Workers’ Club, in 1925.

Muurame Church © Alvar Aalto Museum

Most people agree that Alto was the most important Nordic modernist architect. Muurame Church presents his transition from Nordic Classicism to Functionalism. The Viipuri Library in Vyborg (1927–1935) is a prime example of Aalto’s transition from a classical to a modernist architectural approach. It began as a classical competition entry plan and eventually transformed into a high-modernist building.

The most difficult problems are naturally not involved in the search for forms for contemporary life. It is a question of working our way to forms behind which real human values lie.

Alvar Aalto
Viipuri Library © Denis Esakov

Aalto’s architectural work gained international recognition after he completed the Viipuri Library in 1935 and the Paimio Sanatorium in 1932. He became increasingly popular in the United States after a retrospective show of his works was held at MOMA in New York in 1938. Although his design for the Finnish Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair received negative reviews, his reputation in the US continued to grow.

Viipuri Library was built during the Soviet Union times, and actually was abandoned for over a decade and allowed to fall into complete disrepair; the building was once so forgotten that many believed it had been demolished. It took attention with a media breakthrough in late 2014. The library’s massing consists of two simple rectangular blocks that are offset horizontally from one another, but the internal spatial organization is deceptively more complex. What is often described as three floors in plan is actually six or seven in section, resulting in a variegated array of volumetric conditions and a complex field of transitional spaces.

Alvar Aalto
Baker House

His growing popularity resulted in several invitations and job offers from outside Finland. In 1941, he accepted an offer to work as a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During the Second World War, he returned to Finland to lead the Reconstruction Office. After the war, he returned to MIT, where he designed the Baker House student dormitory, which was completed in 1949.

Baker House can accommodate up to 300 students. Much of the building’s furniture was made especially for Alvar Aalto. The form of the building was shaped by this concept. The outside of Baker House is red brick, just like most American academic buildings. Aalto did not want any rooms on the north side of the structure. This leads to all of the rooms being oriented east-west around one hallway. As they extended towards the north, a few rooms were converted into double or triple student rooms. The Baker House’s curving architecture also had an impact on the shapes of the rooms within. There are versions of each of the dorm’s 22 unique room types on each floor. Every one of the 22 room types has a different interior orientation, even though they all share similar architectural concepts.

Alvar Aalto
Pavilion of Finland

In 1955, Alvar and Elissa Aalto were commissioned to design a small pavilion for the Finnish exhibits at the biennial international art exhibitions in Giardini, Venice. They came up with the idea of a wedge-shaped structure that could be assembled using light, dismountable wall, and roof units made in Finland and then transported to Italy. The pavilion was designed to be easily dismantled and stored between exhibitions or re-erected on another site. After being restored in 1990, the pavilion is now used by the Biennale for temporary exhibitions.

Alvar Aalto
Finlandia Hall © Jonathan Reid

Finlandia Hall is located in Helsinki and completed in 1971. the project was part of a plan for a grand new monumental center for Helsinki. The main feature of the Finlandia Hall building is a tower-like section with a sloping roof. Alvar Aalto’s idea behind the design was that a high empty space would provide better acoustics. A lattice ceiling hides the space to the audience but it allows the creation of the same deep post-echo as tall church towers.

Another well-known and important project of Aalto is Saynatsalo Town Hall, a multifunction building complex that was constructed in 1949. The design of the Town Hall was influenced by both Finnish vernacular architecture and the humanist Italian Renaissance. It was the Italian Renaissance that inspired Aalto to draw inspiration for the courtyard arrangement. It was important to Aalto that the design represented democracy and the people’s relationship with the government, which is why he included a large public space, along with sections dedicated to the public.

Alvar Aalto
Riola Parish Church © Franco Di Capua

The Riola Parrish Church is a remarkable concrete structure that imitates and modulates the contours of the Italian landscape upon which it is built. The baptistery, which was finished in 1978, can be found in the small town of Riola, situated eight kilometers south of Bologna. The church’s unique exterior profile is inspired by the three mountains surrounding Riola: Montovolo, Monte Vigese, and Monte Vigo. The structure blends harmoniously with nature, which is present in Aalto’s intentionally pure geometric forms. These converge at a central point to symbolize the center of the church. The interior chapel is particularly notable for its use of light. The northern light is diffused through vertical, asymmetrical ribs that create a magnificent grid of soft light, casting a projection onto the worshipper below. The presence of light brilliantly elevates the occupant into a state of holiness.

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