Alvar Aalto: Masterworks

Alvar Aalto was one of Finland’s most celebrated architects and designers. He is a national hero whose work can be found all over Finland as well as internationally. When I was in Finland in 2004 I picked up Alvar Aalto: Masterworks by Göran Schildt. In the majority of its 240 pages Schildt reviewed Aalto’s major architectural designs, divided into decades. He added colour and black-and-white photos as well as blueprints. The final part of the book dealt with Aalto’s furniture and glassware design. Aalto made his international breakthrough as a furniture designer, not as an architect. He did not regard building construction as the end-all of his design projects, for filling the interiors of his buildings was just as important to him as the exterior. For Aalto designed not only the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium but also its chairs:

“Aalto thought of health care as a joint effort by physicians and architects, both contributing directly to the cure. This attitude was illustrated especially clearly in the Paimio Sanatorium design, in which every architectural detail had a clinical function and formed part of the treatment. Thus his justification for the renowned Paimio chair…was not based on considerations of industrial production or requirements of aesthetic form: in his mind, the angle of its seat was supposed to ease the patients’ breathing.”

Aalto is the Finnish word for wave and curves, giving an undulating sense of motion, is a hallmark of his design. The surface area of some roofs and floors look like outlines of spilled water, while some buildings, like the Riola Church Center, give the impression of crashing waves in the actual roof design. Another Aalto trademark is his insistence on creating sunken book pits in libraries. (Think of John Lennon’s bed in the movie “Help!”.) Believing that books were the foundation of all learning, Aalto created sunken book cellars to mimic a building foundation. Schildt pointed out that while Aalto loved this idea, library staff unfortunately didn’t.

Schildt drew the reader’s attention to Aalto’s predilection for asymmetrical interiors. Concert halls or other kinds of auditoria were never right-angled boxes, but fanlike trapezoids without any matching sides. Perhaps Aalto believed that such boxlike forms were counter to nature. His trademark wave patterns were definitely a natural motif:

“The most prominent aspect of Aalto’s industrial architecture was that he strove to relate it to nature in various ways. This applies to the blending of buildings with the immediate environment as well as to the internal relations between building volumes, which he grouped organically, following nature’s own example.”

Finlandia Hall is one of Aalto’s most famous works. Even its exterior was designed to accommodate nature, and not to supplant it. Instead of chopping down trees to put up the building, Aalto incorporated undulating sections in the exterior that fitted around them.

Masterworks was a heavy book printed on thick paper. I found the tiny Century Gothic font difficult to read since it was so faint. I like to see what the author is referring to in his architectural analysis and while the photographic component was generous, I still would have appreciated more photos to illustrate architectural concepts I did not know. I suppose more thorough Aalto architectural histories, such as the massive coffee-table books I have seen in Finnish bookstores, would show this detail.

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