Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto (1898-1976)

Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto, better known as Alvar Aalto, was a Finnish architect, designer, and town planner, all throughout the 20th century; thanks to his prolific activity, he’s considered one of the great masters of modern architecture.

Alvar Aalto
Alvar Aalto

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A human touch

Aalto was born in Kourtane, a town near Helsinki, in 1898. His architectural formation began in 1916, when he entered the Helsinki Polytechnic,where he became a protege of Armas Lindgren (a partner of E. Saarinen and H. Gesellius during the formative period of Finnish National Romanticism, and a prominent influence especially in Aalto’s early works); after graduating in 1921, he moved to the city of Jyväskylä, opening his first study. Aalto’s style had already been influenced by his numerous travels all over Europe (including Italy), giving him a new frame of reference to understand a city. Here, after contributing to a number of houses between 1923 and 1924, his first major creations came to light: the Popular House of Jyväskylä (1924-1925), most notable in its spectacular stained glass window, whose drawings were directly inspired by the images in the Rucellai Sepulchre (by Leon Battista Alberti), and the Muurame church (1926-1929), his first approach to bringing together the Finnish and Italian scenery and environment.

Paimio Sanatorium
Paimio Sanatorium, almost hidden by its lush surroundings; by Alvar Aalto, 1934. LeonL

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Muurame Church
Muurame Church; considered by many as his turning point, from Nordic Classicism to his trademark Functionalist style;  by Alvar Aalto, 1929

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During this period, Aalto begins to drift away from his architectural roots and moves toward the style he’s most known for: Functionalism, the pragmatic, machine-like new current. From this new direction stemmed his first reflections on the prefabricated and minimal housing: this shows in his standardized apartment buildings, Tapani, realized in Turku, and his minimalist furniture line exhibited at the “Minimal house” showcase (in Helsinki, 1930).
Villa Mairea in Noormarkku
Villa Mairea in Noormarkku

Image source: by Ninara

Aalto’s claim to fame comes, still a young man, with the planning and construction of the Viipuri library (1927-1935), refurbished – thanks to the work of his wife, Aino Marsio, as well – with his now famous wooden, three legged, stackable stools (the 60 model), and his “Ibrida” seats, a plywood sheet bent over a tubular metal frame; all these were branded (and still to this day produced by) Artek, the furniture company founded by Aalto himself in 1935, together with the Gullishen family; as a gesture of thanks, he’ll create Villa Mairea, another of his internationally acclaimed buildings, for them, in 1938.

The 60, Aalto's renowed stackab
The 60, Aalto’s renowed stackable furniture piece; by Alvar Aalto, 1933

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Aalto’s experiments with comfort, practicality and ergonomy would further continue with the planning of the Paimio sanatorium (19291933); despite his Modernist roots and tendencies, Aalto rejects the standardized man’s model of reference – its best example being Le Corbusier‘s Modulor – instead opting to focus on the final user for whom a product is designed, each with their specific needs and habits; this can be best observed in the (omonimously named) sofas, built not in the typical metal frames of the time, but with a wooden one instead: the warmth of the wood, over the cold impersonality of metal, and the smoothness of the curve, over sharp, artificial angles, brought a new dimension – a new humanity – to the otherwise strict and pragmatic designs.

Other similar features at Paimio included various details oriented towards helping the patients: these included washing basins shaped to avoid the water’s noises while in use, as to not disturb those in the vicinity, and low-hanging windows over the Finnish scenery, as to allow the bedridden patients to still enjoy it without having to get up.

The tubular steel chair is certainly rational from a technical and structural viewpoint: it is light, able to be serialized and so on. But steel and chrome are not satisfying from a human one. Steel is too effective a heat conductor. Chrome surfaces reflect light blindingly, and are even acoustically a poor fit for a room.

– Alvar Aalto, explaining his chairs’ rationale

The Paimio Chair
The Paimio Chair; Rationalism and humanity made one; by Alvar Aalto, 1931

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Now enjoying worldwide fame by the end of the 20s, Aalto became permanent CIAM member (the functionalist promotion committee) and began working all over Europe: he realizes the Finnish Padillion for the World Fair in Paris (1937), with the one destined to the New York’s fair following two years later, where once again the curves of the wood, meant to evoke Finland’s fjords and his homeland’s traditional crafting techniques, in fair wood.


After the war, Aalto’s activity focused on city planning; the Rovaniemi city reconstruction, between 1944 and 1945; the Helsinki’s urban plan (1959), the Saynatsalo center renovation (1947-1952), the Otaniemi’s polytechnic (1955-1964) and the regional Imatra plan (19471953).

From 1943 to 1958 he’s the head of the Finnish Association of architects, and acts as visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at Cambridge, between 1946 and 1948; there, he builds the Baker House (19471948) , where he fully experiments with brick building; a knowledge he’ll later apply to the house at Muuratsalo, built for his second wife, Elissa, after the dramatic death of his first brought his work to a sudden, three years long halt.

Baker house extrapolates Aalto’s philosophies, merging Functionalist serialization with unique blending with the sorroundings; the students’ housings are oriented towards the nearby river, each personalized to have its own features, like a series of shards all over a long, conjoining corridor.

After continuing his activity throughtout Europe, in the 50’s and 60’s, Aalto would die in 1976 in his homeland.

The warmth of design

Alvar Aalto ,1956
Alvar Aalto ,1956

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Aalto’s works are marked by a warm humanity and strong individuality. His buildings derive their special aesthetic character from their dynamic relationship with their natural surroundings, their human scale, superbly executed details, unique treatment of materials and ingenious use of lighting.

Aalto took a different approach to the trends of Functional Modernism, taking its more practical, streamlined approach and adding a new interpretation to its framework, not in its lines but in its interactions with people: Aalto showed great interest in ergonomy, the practice of approaching something’s design with the psychological and physical comfort and wellbeing of its user as the main focus.

Wood, organic shapes, traditional meshed with modern were the hallmarks of Aalto’s new architecture.

House of Culture
House of Culture, Aalto, 1952–1958, Helsinki, Finland.

Image source: by LeonL

Alvar Aalto’s architecture manifests an understanding of the psychological needs of modern society, the particular qualities of the Finnish environment, and the historical, technical, and cultural traditions of Scandinavian architecture.

Villa Kokkonen
Villa Kokkonen, Alvar Aalto, 1967- 1969

Images source: by LeonL

Interior Design

  • 1932: Paimio Chair
  • 1933: Three-legged stacking Stool 60
  • 1933: Four-legged Stool E60
  • 1935-6: Armchair 404 (a/k/a/ Zebra Tank Chair)
  • 1939: Armchair 406
Alvar Aalto, Armchair 406
Alvar Aalto, Armchair 406, 1939.

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  • 1954: Floor lamp A805
  • 1959: Floor lamp A810
Floor lamp A810
Alvar Aalto, Floor lamp A810, 1959.

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The Aalto vase
The Aalto vase ,1936. The Aalto House, Helsinki

Image source: by Ninara

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