Aalto’s Saynatsalo Town Hall
For most of the twentieth century, except perhaps the last decade or two, the defining architectural styles were modernism (not to be confused with the catchall term modern architecture) and its sub-branch the international style. The main characteristics of these styles were pure forms and materials that facilitated an efficient function and accommodated contemporary technology. Seen as symbolizing innovation, intellectualism, and adaptability, these styles have been widely adopted by corporations, governments, and cities. However, despite having developed for decades, they have not found a foothold in houses or rural areas. For instance, colonial and Levittown houses are the most commonly built in the US, while English developers continue to imitate Victorian terrace houses.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and especially le Corbusier- the two architects at the heart of modernism- would be extremely disappointed to see this rejection of their ideals. Both envisioned utopian communities where people and houses were gears in a precisely calibrated machine of a city. Both valued uniformity and purity and efficiency, but neither seemed to realize that these traits, while endearing for urban planners, appear soulless and inhuman to their users. Despite this shortcoming, countless international style architects followed the modernist philosophy, and terms such as “machine for living” and “less is more” became defining phrases of architecture. At modernism’s peak, only a few architects dared break the mold. One was Frank Lloyd Wright. Another- lesser known by the public but highly regarded by today’s architects- is Alvar Aalto.
Last Tuesday would have marked Aalto’s 118th birthday. He was born and raised in Finland then educated at the Helsinki University of technology. He began designing buildings in the 1920s. Although some of his early buildings, such as his famed Paimio tuberculosis sanitorium, freely use the international style, he quickly began developing a unique interpretation of Modernism. His houses were not “model homes”, houses meant to exhibit planned cities that would never be built; the semi-traditional forms and materials he used were not pure by Van der Rohe’s definition; he never shied away from incorporating decorative or traditional details that made his designs more warm, human, and welcoming.
The Aalto House in Munkkiniemi
It is fitting that the architect who aimed to revise modernism was from Scandinavia. The region had, for at least fifty years, been behind the times architecturally. In 1923, shortly before Gropius designed the Bauhaus, Stockholm built its city hall not in a modernist style but rather as a massive replica of an Italianate Renaissance palace. Aalto had a number of influences- historic Scandinavian architecture, the vernacular style of Italian hilltowns, and even- completely contrary to modernist ideals- classicism. One of his first designs was his own house in Munkkiniemi, Finland. The house has modernist simplicity, but incorporates classical proportions and Nordic touches such as exposed wooden surfaces. In 1939, Aalto built his magnum opus, the Villa Mairea, in Noormarkku, Finland. The exterior is irregular in appearance and form- modernist white concrete and vernacular timber and glass combine to make this an unusually rustic example of modernism. The interior is utterly unique, with furniture and fixtures designed by Aalto and a “forest” of birchwood columns. Vernacular touches are found everywhere, including exposed wood and stone and a traditional fireplace.
Later in his career, Aalto built civic buildings internationally. He designed Baker House in Boston, a dorm with a brick facade that undulates on one side and exposes staircases and elevators on the other. His Essen Opera House was voted the best opera theater in Germany, beating competition like a baroque tour de force in Dresden. He also continued building in Finland. His Finlandia Hall’s monumental exterior contrasts sharply with its warm, human-scale interior. At Jyvaskyla University and Saynatsalo Town Hall, Aalto used traditional brick-and-timber construction and classical proportions. Dozens of other masterful projects are in his portfolio- it would take ages to describe them all individually. Collectively, they are fresh, unique, populist, and make Alvar Aalto without a doubt one of the twentieth century’s best architects.
Baker House and the Essen Opera House
Photo1 by Zache, wikipedia
Photo2 by ecohabitage, Pinterest
Photo3 by J-P Karna, wikipedia
Photo 4 By Kathleen Fritz, Pinterest
Photo5 by daderot, wikipedia
Photo6 by Thomas Robbin, wikipedia
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