Alvar Aalto

From New World Encyclopedia

Alvar Aalto in 1960

Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto (February 3, 1898 – May 11, 1976) was a Finnish architect and designer, sometimes called the "Father of Modernism" in the Nordic countries. His work includes architecture, furniture and glassware. While Aalto is known for expressing and integrating functionalism into his buildings, it was his ability to coordinate the organic relationship between man, nature and buildings that is agreed to be the source of the characteristics of his work. Aalto spoke of his art (he called it building art) as a “synthesis of life in materialized form.”

His reputation grew in the United States following the critical reception of his design for the Finnish Pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair, described by Frank Lloyd Wright as a "work of genius." In his analysis of Aalto, art historian Sigfried Giedion gave primacy to qualities that depart from direct functionality, such as mood, atmosphere, intensity of life and even 'national characteristics', declaring that "Finland is with Aalto wherever he goes."


Alvar Aalto was born on February 3, 1898 in Kuortane, Finland, the eldest of three children in a middle-class family. His father was a surveyor. In 1903, the Aalto family moved to Jyväskylä. Today, the town is famous for housing about 70 buildings by Alvar Aalto, despite his having lived there for only 24 years. He studied architecture at the Helsinki University of Technology from 1916 to 1921, then returned to Jyväskylä, where he opened his first architectural office in 1923. The following year he married architect Aino Marsio. Their honeymoon journey to Italy sealed an intellectual bond with the culture of the Mediterranean region that was to remain important to Aalto for the rest of his life.

Aalto moved his office to Turku in 1927, and started collaborating with architect Erik Bryggman. The office moved again in 1933, to Helsinki. The Aaltos designed and built a joint house-office (1935-36) for themselves in Munkkiniemi, Helsinki, but later (1954-55) had a purpose-built office built in the same neighborhood. Aino Aalto died in 1949, and in 1952 Alvar married architect Elissa Mäkiniemi who lived until 1994. In 1957 they designed and had built a summer cottage, the so-called Experimental House, for themselves in Muuratsalo, where they spent their summers. Alvar Aalto died in May 11, 1976, in Helsinki.[1]


Auditorium of the Viipuri Municipal Library in the 1930s.

Although he is sometimes regarded as the first and the most influential architect of Nordic modernism, a closer examination of the historical facts reveals that Aalto (while a pioneer in Finland) closely followed and had personal contacts with other pioneers in Sweden, in particular Gunnar Asplund and Sven Markelius. What they, and many others of that generation in the Nordic countries, had in common was that they started off with a classical education and were first designing in the so-called Nordic Classicism style before moving, in the late 1920s, towards Modernism.

In Aalto's case this is epitomized by the Viipuri Library (1927-35), which went through a transformation from an originally classical competition entry proposal to the completed high-modernist building. His humanistic approach is in full evidence there: the interior displays natural materials, warm colors, and undulating lines. The Viipuri Library project lasted eight years, and during that same time he also designed the Turun Sanomat Building (1929-30) and Paimio Sanatorium (1929-33): thus the Turun Sanomat Building first heralded Aalto's move towards modernism, and this was then carried forward both in the Paimio Sanatorium and in the on-going design for the library. Though the Turun Sanomat Building and Paimio Sanatorium are comparatively pure modernist works, even they carried the seeds of his questioning of such an approach, and a move to a more daring, synthetic attitude.

Aalto was a member of the Congres Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne; attending the second congress in Frankfurt in 1929, and the fourth congress in Athens in 1933. It was not until the completion of the Paimio Sanatorium (1929) and Viipuri Library (1935) that he first achieved world attention in architecture. His reputation grew in the United States following the critical reception of his design for the Finnish Pavilion at the 1939 New York World's Fair, described by Frank Lloyd Wright as a "work of genius."

It could be said that Aalto's reputation was sealed with his inclusion in the second edition of Sigfried Giedion's influential book on Modernist architecture, Space, Time and Architecture. The growth of a new tradition (1949), in which Aalto received more attention than any other Modernist architect, including Le Corbusier. In his analysis of Aalto, Giedion gave primacy to qualities that depart from direct functionality, such as mood, atmosphere, intensity of life and even 'national characteristics', declaring that "Finland is with Aalto wherever he goes."

While Aalto is known for expressing and integrating functionalism into his buildings, it was his ability to coordinate the organic relationship between man, nature and buildings that is agreed to be the source of the characteristics of his work. Aalto spoke of his art (building art he called it) as a “synthesis of life in materialized form.”

Aalto's awards included the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture from the Royal Institute of British Architects (1957) and the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects (1963).


Detail of Baker House dormitory facade onto the Charles River. (MIT)
Helsinki Univ. of Tech. Auditorium.
The Aalto-Theater opera house in Essen, Germany.
Finlandia Hall.

Aalto's wide field of activity ranged from the design of furniture and glassware to architecture and painting. His vase designs are world-famous. In 1932, he invented a new form of laminated bent-plywood furniture. Aalto furniture is manufactured by Artek, a company Aalto co-founded. Aalto glassware (by Aino as well as Alvar) is manufactured by Iittala. Aalto's career spans the changes in style from pre-modernism (Nordic Classicism) to purist International Style Modernism to a more synthetic and idiosyncratic approach.

Significant buildings

  • 1921–1923: Bell tower of Kauhajärvi Church, Lapua, Finland
  • 1924–1928: Municipal hospital, Alajärvi, Finland
  • 1926–1929: Defence Corps Building, Jyväskylä, Finland
  • 1927–1935: Viipuri Library|Municipal library, Viipuri, Finland (Winter War|now Vyborg, Russia), new drawings, 1928, 1929, 1933, built according to last drawings 1934 – 1935.
  • 1928–1929, 1930: Turun Sanomat newspaper offices, Turku, Finland
  • 1928–1929: Paimio Sanatorium, Tuberculosis sanatorium and staff housing, Paimio, Finland
  • 1931: Central University Hospital, Zagreb, Croatia (former Yugoslavia)
  • 1932: Villa Tammekann, Tartu, Estonia
  • 1934: Corso theatre, restaurant interior, Zürich, Switzerland
  • 1937: Finnish Pavilion, 1937 World's Fair
  • 1937–1939: Villa Mairea, Noormarkku, Finland
  • 1939: Finnish Pavilion, 1939 World's Fair
  • 1947–1948: List of MIT undergraduate dormitories#Baker House|Baker House, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • 1949–1966: Helsinki University of Technology, Espoo, Finland
  • 1949–1952: Säynätsalo Town Hall, 1949 competition, built 1952, Säynätsalo (now part of Jyväskylä), Finland,
  • 1950–1957: Kansaneläkelaitos (National Pension Institution) office building, Helsinki, Finland
  • 1952–1958: Kulttuuritalo|House of Culture, Helsinki, Finland
  • 1957: The Experimental House, Muuratsalo, Finland.
  • 1958–1987: Town centre, Seinäjoki, Finland
  • 1958–1972: North Jutland Art Museum, Aalborg, Denmark
  • 1959–1962: Enso-Gutzeit Headquarters, Helsinki, Finland
  • 1965: Regional Library of Lapland, Rovaniemi, Finland
  • 1962–1971: Finlandia Hall, Helsinki, Finland
  • 1963–1965: Building for Västmanland-Dalarna Nation, Uppsala, Sweden
  • 1965–1968: Nordic House, Reykjavík, Iceland
  • 1970: Mount Angel Abbey Library, Mt. Angel, Oregon
  • 1959–1988: Essen opera house, Essen, Germany

Furniture and glassware

  • 1932: Paimio Chair ARMCHAIR 41 "PAIMIO", artek. Retrieved June 18, 2007.
  • 1933: Three-legged stacking Stool 60 STOOL 60, artek. Retrieved June 18, 2007.
  • 1933: Four-legged Stool E60 STOOL E60, artek. Retrieved June 18, 2007.
  • 1935-6: Armchair 404 (a/k/a/ Zebra Tank Chair) ARMCHAIR 400, artek. Retrieved June 18, 2007.
  • 1939: Armchair 406 ARMCHAIR 406, artek. Retrieved June 18, 2007.
  • 1936: Savoy Vase (Aalto Vase)


"God created paper for the purpose of drawing architecture on it. Everything else is at least for me an abuse of paper." - Sketches, 1978

"We should work for simple, good, undecorated things" and he continues, "but things which are in harmony with the human being and organically suited to the little man in the street." - speech in London 1957.


  • Alvar Aalto is the eponym of the Alvar Aalto Medal, now considered one of world architecture’s most prestigious awards.
  • Aalto was featured in the 50 mk bill in the last series of the Finnish mark (before the Euro).
  • 1998 marked the centenary anniversary of Aalto's birth. The occasion was marked in Finland not only by several books and exhibitions but also by the promotion of specially-bottled red and white Aalto Wine, and a specially-designed cupcake.


  1. "Aalto, Alvar. Retrieved June 18, 2007." Encyclopædia Britannica. 17 Dec. 2006.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

Göran Schildt

Göran Schildt has written and edited many books on Aalto, the most well-known being the three-volume biography, usually referred to as the definitive biography on Aalto.

  • Alvar Aalto. The Early Years New York: Rizzoli, 1984. ISBN 084780531X ISBN 9780847805310 (The first and by far the most rewarding of Schildt's 3-volume biography on Aalto. In addition to covering the early years, the book also contains more general theoretical essays by Schildt on Aalto's work)
  • Alvar Aalto. The Decisive Years New York: Rizzoli, 1987. ISBN 0847807118 ISBN 9780847807116 (Volume II in the biography)
  • Alvar Aalto. The Mature Years New York: Rizzoli, 1991. ISBN 0847813290 ISBN 9780847813292 (Volume III in the biography)
  • The Architectural Drawings of Alvar Aalto, 1917-1939, in 11 volumes, Prepared by the Alvar Aalto Archive in collaboration with the Museum of Finnish Architecture, Helsinki, and the Alvar Aalto Museum, Jyväskylä; with introduction and project descriptions by Göran Schildt. New York: Garland Pub., 1994. ISBN 0815305907 ISBN 9780815305903
  • Alvar Aalto in His Own Words, New York: Rizzoli, 1998. ISBN 0847820807 ISBN 9780847820801
  • Alvar Aalto: The Complete Catalogue of Architecture, Design and Art, New York: Rizzoli, 1994. ISBN 0847818187 ISBN 9780847818181
Other authors
  • Fleig, Karl Alvar Aalto, Barcelona: Editorial Gustavo Gili, 1992. (A concise and comprehensive overview of Aalto's buildings in small paperbound format.)
  • Porphyrios, Demetri Sources of Modern Eclecticism, London: Academy Editions, 1982. ISBN 0312746733 ISBN 9780312746735 ISBN 0312746741 ISBN 9780312746742 (This still remains the most astute and erudite study ever made of Aalto's architecture. It goes beyond mere chronology and formal explanation to study the theoretical underpinnings of the work)
  • Pallasmaa, Juhani (Ed.) Alvar Aalto Furniture, Helsinki: Museum of Finnish Architecture. 1984.
  • Reed, Peter (Ed.) Alvar Aalto: between humanism and materialism, New York: Museum of Modern Art/H. N. Abrams, 1998. (The catalogue book that accompanied the huge Aalto exhibition at the MoMA in 1998)
  • Ruusuvuori, Aarno (Ed.) Alvar Aalto 1898-1976, Helsinki: Museum of Finnish Architecture 1998. ISBN 9519493700 9789519493701
  • Jormakka, Kari; Gargus, Jacqueline; Graf, Douglas The Use and Abuse of Paper. Essays on Alvar Aalto. Datutop 20, Tampere 1999.
  • Connah, Roger Aaltomania-Readings against Aalto? Helsinki: Building Information LTD, 2000. ISBN 9521502673 9789521502675. (A brilliant trek through Aalto discourse, in terms of Aalto's position within Finnish and international architecture, as well as the problems of obfuscation in Aalto scholarship)
  • Weston, Richard Alvar Aalto, London: Phaidon, 1995. ISBN 071483159X ISBN 9780714831596 (The largest of the traditional histories of Aalto's life and works. Based essentially on secondary sources)

Other sources

  • The extensive archives of Alvar Aalto, Jyväskylä, Finland. Alvar Aalto Museum Retrieved June 18, 2007.
  • Material is available from the former offices of Aalto, at Tiilimäki 20, Helsinki, headquarters of the Alvar Aalto Foundation. Retrieved June 18, 2007.
  • The Alvar Aalto Museum and Aalto Academy publish a journal (twice a year), ptah which is devoted not only to Aalto scholarship but also to architecture generally as well as theory, design and art. Retrieved June 18, 2007.
  • One of the most extensive collections of references on Alvar Aalto in the U.S. can be found at the University of Oregon.
  • For a brief chronological list of the life and works of Aalto, as well as a bibliography, see the publication Alvar Aalto Arkkitehti / Architect 1898-1976, Helsinki: Rakennustieto / Alvar Aalto Säätiö, 1999.
  • Non-Finnish speakers tend to make a big issue of the fact that Aalto is the Finnish word for 'wave' –as if he was predestined to design the sort of architecture he did. However, Aalto is a rather common surname in Finland.
  • Though Aalto is one of the most written about modern architects, research is made more difficult for non-Finns because nearly all primary material is in Finnish. Thus most non-Finnish research tends to look for points of interest outside Finland or beyond the historical facts. Such writings also tend to rely heavily on secondary sources, on those few works written by Finns translated into English.

External links

All links retrieved July 23, 2023.


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