MODERNIST MONDAY: ALVAR AALTO

Welcome back to #ModernistMondays! At TTC, we are constantly inspired by modernist architects and artists from past and present. To showcase some of our favorites, we launched #ModernistMondays, where we highlight one modernist each month to explore with ten quick facts. You can keep up with #ModernistMondays on the TTC Blog, or our Instagram page! For our May feature, we dove into the life of Alvar Aalto, one of the founders of Scandanvian modernism, whose fifty year career resulted in almost 300 works, including the Viipuri Municipal Library and Säynätsalo Town Hall, almost all located in his home country of Finland.

A young Aalto photographed with his artworks

Alvar Aalto was born in 1889 in Finland. He studied under Impressionist painter Jonas Heiska, developing an early love for fine art. As he was attending college at the Helsinki University of Technology, the Finnish Civil War broke out, which required him to pause his studies to fight. 

A portrait of Aalto in 1960

As a student, he built his first project: a home for his parents in Alajärvi, a small Finnish town. After graduating in 1921, he continued military service until 1923, when he opened his first firm with the imposing name “Alvar Aalto, Architect and Monumental Artist”. During this period, he also wrote articles for local newspapers under a pseudonym. He designed multiple single-family homes, and his firm began to see success.

Shortly after the opening of his firm, Aalto married fellow architect Aino Marsio. Their honeymoon to Italy influenced Aalto’s love for the architecture of the Mediterranean, which was evident in later work.

Between 1927 and 1928, Aalto was commissioned to design three significant buildings, which skyrocketed his career. The first, Turun Sanomat Building, was a newspaper office; the second, Paimio Sanatorium, a tuberculosis ward; and the third, a Municipal Library in the city of Viipuri. These works were built with straightforward functionality and did not include embellishments or historical nods. The first two buildings were compared to the Bauhaus style for their white surfaces and flat roofs.

The Turun Sanomat Building, completed in 1930
A balcony at Paimio Sanatorium, completed in 1933

The third building, Viipuri Municipal Library, was more idiosyncratic than the others; Aalto established his personal style by creating a complex, multi-leveled space with wave-like wooden ceilings in the auditorium of the building and circular skylights in the main reading room. The library became a seminal work for both Aalto and Scandinavian modernism, and was lauded by critics who were often hesitant about modern architecture.

The auditorium at the Viipuri Municipal Library
The interior of the Viipuri Municipal Library

Aalto was also selected to represent Finland as the designer of the nation’s tents at the 1937 and 1939 World Fair, which increased his international presence. He was then invited to design a dormitory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Baker House.

The Baker House, built in 1949

Aside from architecture, Aalto created furniture made of laminated wood. Known for their ribbon-like style, the pieces went on sale to the public in 1935, when he and art collector Maire Gullichsen founded the Artek Company. One of the most popular pieces was the stackable Stool E60, which today is used in Apple Stores worldwide.

An early Artek showroom

The Aalto House, which he designed and lived in, also served as the firm’s office, with almost all of the furniture designed by Aalto and his team. It is now the home of the Alvar Aalto Museum. 

The Aalto House, also called Villa Aalto

After his wife passed in the late 1930s, Aalto mourned and did not work much during the 1940s. By 1950, he began accepting commissions again, including a high-rise in Germany and a church in Italy. He also helped with site planning for two Finnish universities (including his alma mater, Helsinki University) and a factory campus. His most recognizable work from this period was Säynätsalo Town Hall, which used traditional Finnish materials such as red brick and copper.

Säynätsalo Town Hall, built in 1949
Riola Parish Church, built in 1978

Aalto was a man of few words, and rarely wrote about or explained his work. Admirers have noted that a reason for his success is his irregular forms and use of traditionally Finnish materials, which express the spirit of the country. In 1952, he married Elissa Makiniemi, one of his employees. After his death in 1976, his firm became the Alvar Aalto Academy, who advises on the restoration and study of his works.

Aalto and Makiniemi in the studio

Aalto’s legacy lives on in the form of almost 300 buildings, the majority of which are in Finland. He is credited with bringing modern style to Scandinavian countries, and his Artek furniture continues to be manufactured today and sold globally. In 2020, a documentary titled “Aalto,” focused on the life of the architect, was released in Finland.

A 2021 editorial from CEREAL Magazine featuring vintage Aalto pieces

SOURCES:

“Alvar Aalto,” Wikipedia; “Alvar Aalto,” Britannica; “Alvar Aalto – Artek,” Artek; “Alvar Aalto,” Cereal Magazine