To know the work of Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) and Aino Aalto (1894 –1949) is to know Finland. Pioneers of modern architecture and design, the Finnish designers’ oeuvre — which spans architecture, furniture, textiles, glassware, sculpture and paintings — can be employed as a map of the country, as well as a chart of time along the nation’s esteemed design history.
Starting big with a visit to Jyväskylä, a city in the western part of the Finnish Lakeland formerly known as the ‘Athens of Finland’ thanks to it once being the center of Finnish culture and academia. It’s also home to the largest number of Alvar Aalto-designed structures in any single location, including his 1953 university campus. Here, a ‘horse-shoe’ blueprint dictated that the structures should be arranged in a semi-circular format with a sports field at the centre — this was followed by second phase comprising a main building, library, gymnasium building and staff accommodation. The result is a masterful city within a city; the exploration of which is best combined with tours of other Aalto-designed structures nearby, such as the Alvar Aalto Museum, Muurame Church and Säynätsalo Town Hall.
In Helsinki, The Aalto House is a good starting point from which to explore the tenets of the Aaltos’ work in the capital. Located in the capital’s Munkkiniemi area, the multifunctional 1936 structure was designed as a family home and office by Aalto and Aino (Aalto’s first wife), and as such also features a number of iconic furniture items by the couple including the Paimio Chair, the Beehive Pendant and the Tank Armchair. Simple, uncluttered and light, the property combines dark-stained timber and rendered brickwork with subtle references to Functionalism, while Alvar’s progression toward Romantic Functionalism is felt in the application of wood throughout.
Further architectural gems can be found in the same western neighborhood — the district was partially realised to the plans of another Finnish architectural stalwart, Eliel Saarinen. It’s also where Alvar chose to expand his office in the 1950s, to accommodate the growing size of his portfolio. The L-shaped Studio Aalto, completed in 1955, is notable for the amphitheatre-shaped garden in its inner courtyard, overlooked by a defining curving studio at the building’s core. Now a protected landmark building, the studio was Alvar’s office up until his death in 1976 and has come to embody his signature free-form spaces and use of light. Today the building is HQ for the Alvar Aalto Foundation and is open for guided tours.
Included as part of the designer’s central area plan for the city in 1959, Finlandia Hall is an event and congress building that was designed with Alvar’s aforementioned proclamation in mind. Built between 1967–71 and 1973–75, the iconic structure cuts a striking figure on the city’s landscape with its Italian Carrara marble and Oulainen granite façade, while inside more Carrara marble, Italian travertine, walls and oak parquet abound. It’s a fitting tribute to the Töölö Bay area — the scenic heart of the city where a park, winter garden and wooden villas combine — though the additional cultural buildings included on Alvar’s plans were never completed.
Artek 2nd Cycle — Selling pre-loved furniture and lighting, this store is a testament to both conscious consumption and the durability of Artek pieces. The shop is also open to those simply wanting to hear about Artek’s history from in-house experts. Pieni Roobertinkatu 4-6, Helsinki
Alvar Aalto Shop — Everything from lamps and furniture models to vintage posters and books about the Aaltos is available at this Jyväskylä store. The shop can source spare parts for older items and advise on how to take care of existing pieces. Kauppakatu 14, Jyväskylä
Kruuna – Finnish Living — Offering vintage furniture, lighting, textiles, ceramics, glass and tableware from Nordic designers including Alvar and Aino Aalto, this boutique in the capital also boasts the ability to track down hard to find items. Maurinkatu 8-12, Helsinki
Heading west, towards Turku, and Paimio is where you’ll find the ground-breaking 1933 Paimio Sanatorium, which came to symbolise Alto’s emergence onto a global stage of recognition. Designed with Aino after their proposal won a 1929 competition, the former hospital embodies a number of the couple’s design hallmarks and was a testing ground for furniture pieces — including the eponymous Paimio Chair — that would eventually be produced by Artek, founded just two years later. In addition to guided tours of the site, the town is blessed with hillside meadows along the River Paimionjoki and various museums.
Northbound and Noormarkku is home to Villa Mairea, a 1939 house designed by Alvar and Aino for their friends Maire and Harry Gullichsen. As well as housing Maire Gullichsen’s extensive art collection — featuring the likes of Léger, Picasso, Braque and Modigliani — the home features multiple references to nature in its use of free, flowing space, the application of natural materials and textures, and the presence of forms evocative of natural processes. Set amidst a pine forest, the surroundings form an appropriately serene backdrop for the property, which is viewable by the public through guided tours, while the wider area — a historically industrial town — is also worth exploring.
Words Ella Marshall Date 25 April, 2021
Images of Jyväskylä by Janne Tuunanen
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