Alvar Aalto (1898-1976)
Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) had an exceptionally broad and multi-faceted career as an architect and designer in Finland and internationally. Aalto’s architecture is characteristically Finnish. Its distinguishing features are warm humanity and strong individualism. His buildings’ particular aesthetic character is born of their dynamic relationship to nature, their human scale, carefully-executed details, unique material usage and ingenious lighting.
Aalto had a unique ability to combine rationalist architecture and organic design language.
The ingenious use of various materials and inclusion of the landscape as part of the building entity demonstrates his comprehensive grasp of design. Aalto’s architecture continues to speak to students and aficionados of the field around the world.
After qualifying as an architect from the Helsinki Institute of Technology (now part of Aalto University) in 1921, Aalto established his first architectural office in Jyväskylä, south-central Finland. His early works followed the principles of Nordic Classicism, the predominant style of the day. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, he made trips around Europe with his architect wife Aino Marsio, during which they familiarised themselves with the latest trends in international modernism.
The pure functionalist phase of Aalto’s work lasted for several years. It enabled him to make an international breakthrough, with the Paimio Sanatorium (1929-1933) as his landmark work. Aalto had adopted principals of user-friendly, purposeful design in his architecture.
Beginning in the late 1930s, freer handling of space, the use of organic forms and natural materials enriched the architectural expression of Aalto’s buildings.
It was characteristic of Aalto to treat each building as a complete work of art, including the furniture and light fittings. Artek was established in 1935 to promote the expanding production and sales of Aalto furniture. His furniture design combined practicality, aestheticism and serial production, in line with Artek’s guiding ideal of a more beautiful everyday life in homes.
Aalto was also led into design by an interest in glass, which offered an opportunity for a new, free-form way of handling material. His winning entry in the 1936 Karhula-Iittala glass design competition led to the creation of the world-famous Savoy vase.
Aalto designed his first furniture before completing his architectural degree. Object design played quite a central role in the young architect’s practice, and in the spirit of the time he designed fixtures for various clients in varying historicist styles. In the late 1920s, he became familiar with international modern furniture design. The Paimio Sanatorium was the first building to feature Aalto’s factory-made type furniture. Innovations in bending wood were crucial to his furniture design. Aalto was granted related patents in many countries from the 1930s through 1950s.
Starting in the 1950s, Aalto’s architectural firm was primarily engaged in designing public buildings, such as Säynätsalo Town Hall (1948-1952), the Jyväskylä Institute of Pedagogics, now the University of Jyväskylä (1951-1957), Helsinki’s House of Culture (1952-56) and Finlandia Hall (1962-1975). His urban design master plans represented larger entities. Two of these were realised, the city-centre plans for Seinäjoki (1956-1987) and Rovaniemi (1963-1988).
From the early 1950s on, Aalto’s work was increasing oriented toward other countries, where both private and public buildings were built to his designs. These included the Maison Louis Carré (1956-1962) in France, the Wolfsburg Cultural Centre (1958-1962) and the Essen Opera House, now known as the Aalto Theatre (1959-1988) in Germany, and the Riola Church in Italy (1964-1970).
Aalto led his architectural practice until his death in 1976. After this, the firm carried on under the direction of Aalto’s second wife, architect Elissa Aalto (1922-1994), until her death.
Over the course of his career, Aalto was granted many honours and awards, honorary doctorates and honorary memberships in Finland and elsewhere in Europe as well as in Israel, the USA, Mexico and Brazil.
Aalto’s architecture is part of the history of international modern architecture. As early as 1941 Swiss architectural researcher Sigfried Giedion placed Aalto’s extensive output in a significant position in the history of twentieth-century architecture in his book Space, Time and Architecture.