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ALVAR AALTO

Finland’s most famous architect, Alvar Aalto.

“God created paper for the purpose of drawing architecture on it. Everything else is at least for me an abuse of paper.” 

Alvar Aalto

Architect and designer Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) is regarded as one of the 20th century’s most accomplished  figureheads. His work in Finland and abroad is today considered some of the finest examples of the Modernist era.

Alvar qualified as an architect from Helsinki Institute of Technology in 1921, establishing his first architectural practice two years later in Jyväskylä. His early work followed the form of Nordic Classicism, the predominant style at that time. It was in the late 1920s and early 1930s, following a number of trips to Europe that Alvar became inspired by Modernism: an increasingly popular approach trending amongst the continent’s more progressive architects, lead by Le Corbusier. 

Returning to Finland, he adopted the Functionalist philosophy to his commissions, which lasted for several years. This phase culminated in his landmark project: Paimio Sanatorium (1929-1933), an important milestone which highlighted Alvar’s skill for creating highly functional and user-friendly design within his architecture. From the late 1930s onwards, the architectural expression of Aalto’s buildings increasingly showcased organic forms, natural materials and a growing freedom in the handling of internal spaces.

In 1941 Aalto accepted an invitation as a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This period saw Aalto take a greater interest in urban and social planning, a subject that would drive the later stage of his career. Whilst teaching he designed Baker House in 1948, the first of his red-brick buildings. Aalto continued with this material upon returning to Finland using it for a number of key projects such as Helsinki University of Technology (1950), Helsinki House of Culture (1958) and his own summer house (1957).

The remainder of his working years (1960s-76) were defined by key works in Helsinki. His ambitious plan for the town centre proposed a row of marble clad buildings fronting Töölö Bay that would include a concert hall, opera and the Museum of Architecture. Unfortunately after continuous revisions, only two structures were realised: the Finlandia Hall (1976) and the headquarters for the Helsinki Electric company (1975). Since his death in 1976, the office has continued to operate as the Alvar Aalto Academy, giving advice on the restoration of Aalto buildings and organising the vast archive material.

FURNITURE DESIGNER:

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Aalto’s approach to his commissions was all encompassing. He viewed each building as a complete artwork, going as far as designing original furniture designs for many of his projects. In fact, his celebrity in Continental Europe was first achieved through his furniture, and only later on as an architect.

His first modern piece of furniture was created in 1931-32 specifically for the Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Paimio, which proved to be his international breakthrough. Aalto and his wife Aino, established their design company Artek in 1935, marketing furniture, lamps and textiles. The collections combined the architect’s noted preference for practicality and aesthetics, and presented an extension to his concept of a more beautiful everyday life in the home. 

Focussing on “humanising architecture” Aalto eschewed man-made materials in preference for wood, which he considered to be a “form-inspiring, profoundly human material.” This methodology can be seen in his innovative chair designs ‘Paimio’ (1931). The ‘L-leg’ (1933) a stakable chair with L- shaped legs was followed by the Y-Leg (1946) and the ‘Fan-Leg’ (1954).

Aalto was also driven by an interest in glass since it provided an opportunity to experiment in a new kind of way using free forms. In 1936 Aalto was commissioned to design the entire interior of Helsinki’s Savoy restaurant, and with it he produced the glass vase of the same name. From 1938 he produced the “tea trolley” with large wheels. By 1936 Alvar Aalto was showing vases and tableware at the design competitions launched by Littala. A selection of these Finnish designs were chosen to be shown at the 1937 Paris Exposition. 

NOTABLE COMMISIONS & AWARDS:

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Private:

  • Villa Mairea, Noormarkku, Finland (1937–1939)
  • The Experimental House, Muuratsalo, Finland (1953)
  • Home for Louis Carre, Bazoches, France (1956–1958)
  • Nordic House, Reykjavík, Iceland (1965–1968)

Public:

  • Säynätsalo Town Hall (1948-1952)
  • Jyväskylä Institute of Pedagogics, now the University of Jyväskylä (1951-1957)
  • House of Culture in Helsinki (1952-1956)
  • Finlandia Hall, Helsinki, Finland (1962-1971)
  • Alvar Aalto Museum, a.k.a. Taidemuseo, Jyväskylä, Finland (1973)

Urban Design:

  • Seinäjoki city centre (1956-1965/87), 
  • Rovaniemi city centre (1963-1976/88)
  • Jyväskylä administrative and cultural centre (1970-1982).

Awards:

  • Prince Eugen Medal (1954)
  • Royal Medal for Architecture – RIBA  (1957)
  • Honorary Doctorate – Norwegian University of Science and Technology (1960)
  • Gold Medal for architecture – AIA (1963)