An Alvar Aalto tour of Finland
Helsinki’s Finlandia Hall reflects Aalto's late career interest in Monumentalism, and has become a symbol of Finland itself. (David Borland/Getty)
Anyone who has visited an Apple store will have sat in the sleek High Stool 64 created by Finnish designer Alvar Aalto. His curvaceous Savoy vase is still an icon of Finnish design 75 years after its creation. But these internationally known pieces are not the basis for Aalto's title as the father of Modernism. His true claim to fame is his architectural prolificacy, and his distinctive Nordic Modernist style is on display throughout Finland, his home country.
During the course of the 20th Century, Aalto's Modernist style -- defined by the concept of functionalism -- changed and matured, resulting in experimentation with particular materials like his “red brick period” and other styles such as Monumentalism, which is defined by massive, monumental buildings. In later years, his inclination for functionalism was often tempered with elements of humanism, in particular a softening of corners and an abundant use of wood and other natural materials.
Where Aalto was consistent -- and original -- was his devotion to the idea of Gensamkunstwerk (“total work of art”), where his buildings incorporated many different art forms, including craftsmanship, interior design and landscape design. He even dabbled in urban planning, lending his artistic vision to designs of university campuses and city centres.
Over the course of his 55-year career, Aalto worked on some 500 building projects, about 400 of which are in Finland. Take a tour around the south of the country to see some of the highlights.
First stop: Helsinki
The natural starting place for an Alvo Aalto tour is the Helsinki house where the architect lived and worked for much of his career. Now a museum, the unassuming Villa Aalto is located in Munkkiniemi, a seaside neighbourhood that was barely developed when Aalto designed and built the home in 1935. Containing distinct studio and living spaces, the home exemplifies the functionalism of Aalto's early career, with such practical features as a walk-in closet in the bedroom (unusual at that time) and a two-sided china cabinet that is accessible from both the kitchen and the dining room. But the plentiful use of natural materials, including a dining room wall covered in brown suede, hints at the humanist bend his designs would take in the coming years.
As Aalto's career progressed, he needed more room to work, and in 1955 he designed a separate atelier nearby, Studio Aalto (also open for tours). The curving walls of this white-washed building arc around a courtyard amphitheatre, a space that was used for client presentations and meetings. Bay windows and skylights allow for plenty of natural light -- ideal for examining documents and drawings. Every last detail was designed to enhance the aesthetic and work environment.
From Munkkiniemi, head south to Töölö, a central district of Helsinki adjacent to Töölönlahti Bay and the railway yards. In the early 1960s, Aalto proposed an extensive city plan for this area, including a series of institutional buildings that would ring the bay. Only a small part of this plan was ever realised, namely Finlandia Hall, a concert hall that was completed in 1971. Featured on postage stamps and the now obsolete 50-Finnmark note, the marble-clad masterpiece reflects Aalto's late-career interest in Monumentalism and has become a symbol of Finland itself. The facade is austere white marble and black granite, with a towering auditorium rising above the main building. While the visual effect is imposing and impressive from the outside, the purpose of the auditorium's high roof was to enhance the acoustics on the inside (with limited success). Take a guided tour to see the asymmetrical lines, curving balconies, teak floors and other distinctive details that personalise his creation.
Second stop: Espoo
Across Laajalahti Bay in the town of Espoo, Aaltar designed the campus of the Helsinki University of Technology in the 1950s. The red brick buildings echo classic Ivy League academic architecture -- inspired by Aalto’s 1941 stint at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But Aalto moulded this traditional construction material into his characteristic curved facades, filling the buildings' interiors with natural light and purpose-designed wood furniture. The centrepiece of the campus is a striking crescent-shaped auditorium, distinguished by terraced windows that descend to an outdoor amphitheatre. In Aalto's hand, the staid red brick becomes a conduit for a progressive, functionalist yet humanist aesthetic. In 2010, the University of Technology merged with two other schools to form a new, interdisciplinary institution, named Aalto University to honour the architect's cultural contributions.