Selected Architecture of Alvar Aalto

Selected Architecture of Alvar Aalto

The Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) is known as the father of modern Scandinavian design, yet in the U.S. he is most famous for his furniture and glassware. A selection of his works explored here are examples of Aalto's 20th century modernism and functionalism. Yet he began his career classically-inspired.

Defence Corps Building, Seinäjoki

Headquarters for the White Guards in Seinajoki, c. 1925. Photo by Kotivalo via Wikimedia commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This neoclassical building, complete with a six-pilaster facade, was headquarters for the White Guards in Seinäjoki, Finland. Because of Finland's geography, the Finnish people have been long-associated with Sweden to the West and Russia to the East. In 1809 it became part of the Russian Empire, ruled by the Russian Emperor as the Grand Duchy of Finland. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Communist Red Guard became the ruling party. The White Guard was a voluntary militia of revolutionaries who opposed the Russian rule.

This building for the Civil White Guards was Aalto's foray into both architecture and patriotic revolution while he was still in his 20s. Completed between 1924 and 1925, the building is now the Defence Corps and Lotta Svärd museum.

The Defence Corps Building was the first of many buildings that Alvar Aalto built for the town of Seinäjoki.

Baker House, Massachusetts

The Baker House at MIT by Alvar Aalto. Photo by Daderot via Wikimedia Commons, released into the public domain (cropped)

The Baker House is a residence hall at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Designed in 1948 by Alvar Aalto, the dormitory overlooks a busy street, but the rooms remain relatively quiet because the windows face the traffic at a diagonal.

Lakeuden Risti Church, Seinäjoki

Lakeuden Risti Church in Seinajoki, Finland, by Architect Alvar Aalto. Photo by Mädsen via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license (CC BY-SA 3.0) (cropped)

Known as Cross of the Plain, the Lakeuden Risti Church is at the heart of Alvar Aalto's famous town center in Seinajoki, Finland.

Lakeuden Risti church is part of an Administrative and Cultural Center that Alvar Aalto designed for Seinajoki, Finland. The Center also includes the Town Hall, the City and Regional Library, the Congregational Center, the State Office Building, and the City Theater.

The cross-shaped bell tower of Lakeuden Risti rises 65 meters above the town. At the base of the tower is Aalto's scultpure, At the Well of Life.

Enso-Gutzeit HQ, Helsinki

Alto Alvar Aalto's Enso-Gutzeit Headquarters in Helsinki, Finland. Photo by Murat Taner/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images (cropped)

Alvar Aalto's Enso-Gutzeit Headquarters is a modernist office building and a stark contrast to the adjacent Uspensky Cathedral. Built in Helsinki, Finland in 1962, the facade has a mesmerizing quality, with its rows of wooden windows set into the Carrara marble. Finland is a land of stone and wood, which makes a perfect combination for the working headquarters of the country's major paper and pulp manufacturer.

Town Hall, Seinäjoki

Grass Steps Lead to the Seinäjoki Town Hall by Alvar Aalto. Photo by Kotivalo via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. (CC BY-SA 3.0) (cropped)

The Seinajoki Town Hall by Alvar Aalto was finished in 1962 as part of the Aalto Center of Seinajoki, Finland. The blue tiles are made of special kind of porcelain. The grass steps within timber frames combine natural elements leading to modern design.

The Seinajoki Town Hall is part of an Administrative and Cultural Center that Alvar Aalto designed for Seinajoki, Finland. The Center also includes the Lakeuden Risti Church, the City and Regional Library, the Congregational Center, the State Office Building, and the City Theater.

Finlandia Hall, Helsinki

Buildings and Projects by Finnish Architect Alvar Alto Finlandia Hall by Alvar Aalto, Helsinki, Finland. Photo by Esa Hiltula/age fotostock Collection/Getty Images

Expanses of white marble from Carrara in Northern Italy contrast with black granite in the elegant Finlandia Hall by Alvar Aalto. The modernist building in the center of Helsinki is both functional and decorative. The building is composed of cubic forms with a tower that the architect hoped would improve the building's acoustics.

The concert hall was completed in 1971 and the congress wing in 1975. Over the years, several design flaws surfaced. Balconies on the upper level muffle the sound. The exterior Carrara marble cladding was thin and began to curve. The Veranda and café by architect Jyrki Iso-aho was completed in 2011.

Aalto University, Otaniemi

Aalto University Undergraduate Centre (Otakaari 1). Press photo courtesy Aalto University (cropped)

Alvar Aalto designed the campus for the Otaniemi Technical University in Espoo, Finland between 1949 and 1966. Aalto's buildings for the university include the main building, the library, the shopping centre, and the water tower, with a crescent-shaped auditorium at the center.

Red brick, black granite, and copper combine to celebrate Finland's industrial heritage in the old campus designed by Aalto. The auditorium, looking Greek-like on the outside but sleek and modern on the inside, remains the center of the Otaniemi campus of the newly named Aalto University. Many architects have been involved with new buildings and renovations, but Aalto established the park-like design. The school calls it The jewel of Finnish architecture.

Church of the Assumption of Mary, Italy

Buildings and Projects by Finnish Architect Alvar Alto, Interior of Church of the Assumption of Mary, Riola di Vergato, Emilia-Romagna, Italy. Photo by De Agostini/De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images (cropped)

Massive prefabricated concrete arches-some have called them frames; some call them ribs-inform the architecture of this Modernist Finnish church in Italy. When Alvar Aalto began its design in the 1960s, he was at the height of his career, at his most experimental, and he must have been well-aware of what Danish architect Jørn Utzon was doing in Sydney, Australia. The Sydney Opera House looks nothing like Aalto's church in Riola di Vergato, Emilia-Romagna, Italy, yet both structures are light, white, and defined by an asymmetrical network of ribs. It's as if the two architects were competing.

Capturing the natural sunlight with a high wall of church-typical clerestory windows, the modern interior space of the Church of the Assumption of Mary is formed by this series of triumphal arches-a modern homage to ancient architecture. The church was finally completed in 1978 after the architect's death, yet the design is Alvar Aalto's.

Furniture Design

Bent Wood Armchair 41 "Paimia" c. 1932. Photo by Daderot via Wikimedia Commons, release into the public domain (cropped)

Like many other architects, Alvar Aalto designed furniture and homeware. Aalto may be best-known as the inventor of bent wood, a practice that influenced the furniture designs of both Eero Saarinen and the molded plastic chairs of Ray and Charles Eames.

Aalto and his first wife, Aino, founded Artek in 1935, and their designs are still reproduced for sale. Original pieces are often exhibited, but you can find the famous three-legged and four-legged stools and tables most everywhere.

  • Linon Home Decor Stacking Stool, Natural
  • Table 90C by Artek
  • Artek and the Aaltos: Creating a Modern World by Nina Stritzler-Levine, 2017
  • Aino Aalto Set of Two Glass Tumblers, Water Green
  • Alvar Aalto: Furniture by Juhani Pallasmaa, MIT Press, 1985

Source: Artek - Art & Technology Since 1935 accessed January 29, 2017

Viipuri Library, Russia

Buildings and Projects by Finnish Architect Alvar Alto Viipuri Library designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto in Vyborg, completed in 1935. Photo by Ninaraas via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. (CC BY 4.0) (cropped)

This Russian library designed by Alvar Aalto was built in 1935 Finland-the town of Viipuri (Vyborg) was not part of Russia until after WWII.

The building has been described by the Alvar Aalto Foundation as "a masterpiece of International Modernism in both European and global terms."

Source: Viipuri Library, Alvar Aalto Foundation accessed January 29, 2017

Tuberculosis Sanatorium, Paimio

Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium, 1933. Photo by Leon Liao from Barcelona, España via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license (CC BY 2.0)

A very young Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) won a competition in 1927 to design a convalescent facility for people recovering from tuberculosis. Built in Paimio, Finland in the early 1930s, the hospital today continues to be an example of well-designed healthcare architecture. Aalto consulted with physicians and nursing staff to incorporate the patients' needs into the design of the building. Attention to details after a needs assessment dialogue has made this patient-centered design a model for evidence-based architecture that is aesthetically expressed.

The Sanatorium building established Aalto's dominance of the Functional Modernist style and, more importantly, emphasized Aalto's attention to the human side of design. The patients' rooms, with their specially designed heating, lighting, and furniture, are models of integrated environmental design. The building's footprint is set within a landscape that captures natural light and encourages a walk in the fresh air.

Alvar Aalto's Paimio chair (1932) was designed to ease the breathing difficulties of patients, yet today it is sold simply as a beautiful, modern chair. Aalto proved early on in his career that architecture can be pragmatic, functional, and beautiful to the eye-all at the same time.