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The most important Finnish architect of the 20th century, Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) was a central figure in international modernism. His greatest buildings, like the 1927 Viipuri Library and 1928 Paimio Sanatorium, fused the naturalism of Finnish romanticism with modernist ideals: as did his influential furniture and glassware.
By the 1950s, Alvar Aalto, the great Finnish architect, was one of the handful of people in Finland who were considered so important that, if they were late for a Finnair flight, the airline delayed take-off until they were safely on board. More often than not, Aalto did arrive late and Finnair passengers grew accustomed to waiting for him to board the aircraft. Aalto enjoyed this so much that, if he arrived on time, he instructed his chauffeur to drive around Helsinki Airport until he was late enough to stage a grand entrance.
Such aplomb was typical of Aalto who, even at the start of his career, had the chutzpah to style himself as a world-class architect. Born Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto in 1898 in the Finnish town of Kuortane, he graduated in architecture from the Helsinki University of Technology in 1921 before assisting the Swedish architect Arvid Bjerke. Back in Finland in 1924, he opened the Alvar Aalto Office for Architecture and Monumental Art in Jyväskylä, and emblazoned the name beside the entrance in two-foot-high letters.
Aalto’s timing was flawless. Finland had won its independence in 1917 and, by the mid-1920s there was no shortage of architectural commissions in a newly independent country eager to define a new identity. In Jyväskylä, Aalto was one of a group of young artists and intellectuals longing to play their part in Finland’s cultural renaissance. They included a young architect Aino Marsio whom he married in 1924. Aalto eked out a living as a journalist, while enthusiastically entering – and eventually winning – a series of architectural competitions.
His early buildings were workers’ housing and student clubs in Jyväskylä, but in 1927 Aalto won the commission for the Southwestern Finland Agricultural Cooperative Building in the ancient capital of Turku. More liberal than Helsinki and closer to their growing circle of friends elsewhere in Europe, Turku so appealed to Alvar and Aino that they made it their home. They furnished their house with Marcel Breuer chairs imported from Germany and a gramophone for practising the foxtrot. Already a favourite with the Finnish media, Aalto styled himself as a cosmopolitan intellectual in interviews with proclamations like: “Flying is the only civilised form of travel for the modern man”.
Having flirted with traditional Finnish influences in Jyväskylä, Aalto ensured that his Turku buildings, like the 1927-28 Turun Sanomat newspaper offices, 1927-35 Viipuri Library and 1928-33 Paimio Sanatorium, bore the influence of the International Style he had admired on European trips. Rather than simply replicating that style, like other young architects, he redefined it. In their scale, mastery of light and distinctive palettes, Aalto’s buildings were characterised with a robust humanism. When designing the Paimio Sanatorium, for instance, he approached the project from the perspective of a patient and created a serene, but cheering environment. No detail escaped him: from the canary yellow paint on the stairs, to the heating and a specially modified tap from which water poured noiselessly to avoid disturbing fellow patients.
Aalto also designed all the sanatorium furniture including the 1931-32 Paimio Chair. Inspired by the tubular steel Marcel Breuer chairs in his own home, the Paimio Chair was devised to ease the breathing of tubercolosis patients in a combination of moulded wood and plywood which, Aalto believed, would be warmer and more comfortable than metal. When the Paimio Sanatorium was completed in 1933, the influential critic Siegfried Giedion hailed it as a modernist masterpiece alongside Walter Gropius’ Bauhaus Dessau and Le Corbusier’s League of Nations project. Aalto was still only 35 years old.
Despite his prominence in international circles – where he counted artists like Constantin Brancusi and Fernand Léger among his friends, as well as fellow architects such as Gropius, Breuer, László Moholy-Nagy and Sven Markelius – Aalto felt marginalised in Finland. He and Aino moved to Helsinki in 1935 and built a new home and studio in the suburb of Munkkiniemi. They also founded a furniture company Artek to manufacture the wooden chairs and stools they had designed for the Paimio Sanatorium and Viipuri Library.
Aalto did not win an architectural commission in Helsinki until 1937 when he and Aino were asked to design the Savoy Restaurant in the city centre. The gracefully curvaceous 1937 Savoy Vase – inspired, or so said Aalto by “a young Eskimo girl’s leather breeches” – is still a best-seller today. During this period, Aalto also designed an extraordinary house for the industrialist and art collector Harry Gullichesen and his wife Maire, in whose honour it was named the Villa Mairea. They asked for a house which was both modern and Finnish. Aalto responded with an idiosyncratic, but exquisite composition of stripped logs and steel posts, concrete beams and grass rooves. The sauna was an “homage to Hollywood” kidney-shaped pool and the interior conceived as a replica of a Finnish forest with black steel columns clad in rattan or birch.
In 1939, Aalto was asked to design the Finnish Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. Already acclaimed for his Pavilion in the 1936-37 Paris International Exposition, which had won him a 1938 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Aalto upped the ante for the World’s Fair. Like Villa Mairea, his design was an inspired homage to the forms, light and shadows of Finland’s forests. Walking through the Pavilion was like a magical forest stroll. Even solipsistic Frank Lloyd Wright described it as a work of “genius”.
The World’s Fair launched Aalto in the US, where he was awarded visiting professorships and architectural commissions including the 1946-49 Baker House Senior Dormitory at the Massachusets Institute of Technology. After Aino’s death in 1949, he married another architect, Elissa Mäkiniemi. Firmly established as a world-class architect, Aalto won a string of awards –including Gold Medals from the Royal Institute of British Architects and American Institute of Architecture – as well as commissions in Germany, France, Denmark and Iran. Yet none of Aalto’s post-war projects matched the magical quality of his pre-war work and, since his death in Helsinki in 1976, it has been for his early Finnish masterpieces that he is remembered.