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Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto (February 3 1898, Kuortanemarker – May 11 1976, Helsinkimarker) was a Finnishmarker architect and designer, sometimes called the "Father of Modernism" in the nordic countries. His work includes architecture, furniture, textiles and glassware. Aalto's early career runs in parallel with the rapid economic growth and industrialization of Finland during the first half of the twentieth century and many of his clients were industrialists; among these were the Ahlström-Gullichsen family.



Alvar Aalto was born in Kuortanemarker, Finlandmarker. His father, Johan Henrik Aalto, was a Finnish-speaking land-surveyor and his mother, Selly (Selma) Matilda (née Hackstedt) was a post-mistress. When Aalto was 5 years old, the family moved to Alajärvimarker, and from there to Jyväskylämarker in Central Finlandmarker. Aalto studied at the Jyväskylä Lyceum school, completing his basic education in 1916. In 1916 he then enrolled to study architecture at the Helsinki University of Technologymarker, graduating in 1921.

In 1923 he returned to Jyväskylämarker, where he opened his first architectural office. The following year he married architect Aino Marsio. Their honeymoon journey to Italymarker 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 Turkumarker in 1927, and started collaborating with architect Erik Bryggman. The office moved again in 1933 to Helsinki.
Alvar Aalto Studio, Helsinki (1954-6)
The Aaltos designed and built a joint house-office (1935-36) for themselves in Munkkiniemimarker, Helsinki, but later (1954-56) had a purpose-built office built in the same neighbourhood. Aino and Alvar Aalto had 2 children, a daughter Johanna "Hanni" Alanen, born Aalto, 1925, and a son Hamilkar Aalto, 1928. In 1926 the young Aaltos designed and had built a summer cottage in Alajärvi, Villa Flora. Aino Aalto died of cancer in 1949. In 1952 Aalto married architect Elissa Mäkiniemi (died 1994), who had been working as an assistant in his office. In 1952 Aalto designed and had built a summer cottage, the so-called Experimental House, for himself and his new wife in Muuratsalo in Central Finland. Alvar Aalto died on May 11, 1976, in Helsinkimarker.


Although he is sometimes regarded as among the first and most influential architects 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 from a classical education and were first designing in the so-called Nordic Classicism style - a style that had been a reaction to the previous dominant style of National Romanticism - before moving, in the late 1920s, towards Modernism.
Auditorium of the Viipuri Municipal Library in the 1930s.
In Aalto's case this shift is epitomised by the Viipuri Librarymarker (1927-35), which went through a transformation from an originally classical competition entry proposal to the completed high-modernist building. Yet his humanistic approach is in full evidence in the library: the interior displays natural materials, warm colours, and undulating lines. Due to problems over financing and a change of site, 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. Although the Turun Sanomat Building and Paimio Sanatorium are comparatively pure modernist works, they too carried the seeds of his questioning of such an orthodox modernist approach and a move to a more daring, synthetic attitude.

Aalto was a member of the Congres Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM), attending the second congress in Frankfurt in 1929 and the fourth congress in Athens in 1933, where he established a close friendship with László Moholy-Nagy and Sigfried Giedion. It was during this time that he followed closely the work of the main driving force behind the new modernism, Le Corbusier.

It was not until the completion of the Paimio Sanatorium (1929) and Viipuri Library (1935) that Aalto first achieved world attention in architecture. His reputation grew in the USA 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 interntional 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".

His increased fame led to offers and commissions outside Finland. In 1941 he accepted an invitation as a visiting professor to MITmarker, in USA. This was during the Second World War, and he involved his students in designing low-cost, small-scale housing for the reconstruction of war-torn Finland. While teaching at MIT, Aalto also designed the student dormitory, Baker House, completed in 1948. This building was the first building of Aalto's redbrick period. Originally used in Baker House to signify the Ivy league university tradition, on his return to Finland Aalto used it in a number of key buildings, in particular several of the buildings in the new Helsinki University of Technologymarker campus, which began from 1950, Säynatsalo Town Hall (1952), Helsinki Pensions Institute (1954), Helsinki House of Culture (1958), as well as his own summer house, the so-called Experimental House in Muuratsalo (1957).

The early 1960s and 1970s (up until his death in 1976) was marked by key works in Helsinki, in particular the huge town plan for the void in centre of Helsinki adjacent to Töölömarker Bay and the vast railway yardsmarker, and marked on the edges by significant buildings such as the National Museum and the main railway station, both by Eliel Saarinen. In his town plan Aalto proposed a line of separate marble-clad buildings fronting the bay which would house various cultural institutes including a concert hall, opera, museum of architecture and headquarters for the Finnish Academy. The scheme also extended into the Kamppimarker district with a series of tall office blocks. Aalto first presented his scheme in 1961, but it went through various modifications during the early 1960s. Only two fragements of the overall plan were ever realised, the Finlandia Hallmarker concert hall (1976) fronting Töölö Bay and an office building in the Kamppi district for the Helsinki Electricity Company (1975). The Miesian form language of geometric grids employed in the buildings was also used by Aalto for other sites in Helsinki, including the Enso-Gutzeit building (1962), the Academic Bookstore (1962) and the SYP Bank building (1969).


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 Architectsmarker (1963).


Aalto's career spans the changes in style from (Nordic Classicism) to purist International Style Modernism to a more personal, synthetic and idiosyncratic Modernism. Aalto's wide field of design activity ranges from the large scale of city planning and architecture to interior design, furniture and glassware design and painting. It has been estimated that during his entire career Aalto designed over 500 individual buildings, approximately 300 of which were built, the vast majority of which are in Finland. He also has a few buildings in the USA, Germany, Italy, and France.

Aalto claimed that his paintings were not made as individual artworks but as part of his process of architectural design, and many of his small-scale "sculptural" experiments with wood led to later larger architectural details and forms. These experiments also led to a number of patents: for example, he invented a new form of laminated bent-plywood furniture in 1932. His experimental method had been influenced by his meetings with various members of the Bauhaus design school, especially László Moholy-Nagy, whom he first met in 1930. Aalto's furniture was exhibited in London in 1935, to great critical acclaim, and to cope with the consumer demand Aalto, together with his wife Aino, Maire Gullichsen and Nils-Gustav Hahl founded the company Artek that same year. Aalto glassware (Aino as well as Alvar) is manufactured by Iittala.

Significant buildings

Furniture and glassware

  • 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
  • 1954: Floor lamp A805
  • 1959: Floor lamp A810


Image:Villa Mairea.jpg|Villa Mairea in Noormarkkumarker.Image:Baker House, MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts.JPG|Detail of Baker House facade on the Charles River.Image:Helsinki University of Technology auditorium.jpg|Helsinkimarker, Finlandmarker - University of Technology - Auditorium.Image:Aalto cultural house.JPG|House of Culture, Helsinki.Image:Enso Gutzeit Helsinki panoramo.jpg|Enso-Gutzeit HQ, Helsinki.Image:Finlandia A-Wiki.jpg|Finlandia Hallmarker.Image:Aalto-Theater 02.jpg|The Aalto-Theater opera house in Essenmarker, Germanymarker.Image:Aalto Teewagen.jpg|Tea cart.


  • "God created paper for the purpose of drawing architecture on it. Everything else is at least for me an abuse of paper." Alvar Aalto, Sketches, 1978, 104.
  • "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." Alvar Aalto, speech in London 1957.


Alvar Aalto portrayed on a stamp published in 1976.
Aalto has been commemorated in a number of ways:
  • 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 note in the last series of the Finnish markka (before its replacement by the Euro in 2002).
  • 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 cup-cake.
  • In the year of his death, 1976, Aalto was commomorated on a Finnish postage stamp.
  • Aalto University, a new Finnish university (an amalgamation of Helsinki University of Technologymarker, Helsinki School of Economicsmarker and TaiKmarker) will be established in 2010, is named after Alvar Aalto.

See also


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 Rizzoli: New York, 1984.
  • Alvar Aalto. The Decisive Years Rizzoli: New York, 1987.
  • Alvar Aalto. The Mature Years Rizzoli: New York, 1991.

  • The Architectural Drawings of Alvar Aalto, 1917-1939, in eleven 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. Garland Publishing: New York, 1994.
  • Alvar Aalto in His Own Words. Rizzoli: New York, 1998.
  • Alvar Aalto: The Complete Catalogue of Architecture, Design and Art. Rizzoli: New York, 1994.

Other books

  • Alvar Aalto Architect, Alvar Aalto Academy: Helsinki. A 28-part series of books chronicling significant Aalto works. Volumes already published:
    • Volume 7: Sunila.
    • Volume 9: Villa Mairea.
    • Volume 13: University of Technology, Otaniemi.
    • Volume 20: Maison Carré.
  • Alvar Aalto Arkkitehti / Architect 1898-1976, Rakennustieto / Alvar Aalto Foundation: Helsinki, 1999.
  • Fleig, Karl Alvar Aalto, Editorial Gustavo Gili: Barcelona, 1992.
  • Porphyrios, Demetri Sources of Modern Eclecticism, Academy Editions: London, 1982.
  • Pallasmaa, Juhani (Ed.) Alvar Aalto Furniture, Museum of Finnish Architecture. Helsinki 1984.
  • Pelkonen, Eeva-Liisa Alvar Aalto: Architecture, Modernity, and Geopolitics. Yale Architecture Press: New York, 2009.
  • Reed, Peter (Ed.) Alvar Aalto: between humanism and materialism. Museum of Modern Art/H.N. Abrams. New York, 1998.
  • Ruusuvuori, Aarno (Ed.) Alvar Aalto 1898-1976. Museum of Finnish Architecture: Helsinki 1998
  • 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? Building Information Ltd: Helsinki, 2000.
  • Weston, Richard Alvar Aalto. Phaidon: London, 1995.

Aalto research

  • The extensive archives of Alvar Aalto are nowadays kept at the Alvar Aalto Museum, Jyväskylä, Finland. Material is also available from the former offices of Aalto, at Tiilimäki 20, Helsinki, nowadays the headquarters of the Alvar Aalto Foundation.
  • From 1995 until 2009 the Alvar Aalto Museum and Aalto Academy published a journal twice a year, Ptah, which was devoted not only to Aalto scholarship but also to architecture generally as well as theory, design and art. However, from 2009 onwards Ptah is to be published as a once-a-year monograph.
  • One of the most extensive collections of references on Alvar Aalto in the U.S. can be found at the University of Oregonmarker.


  1. ""
  2. Chambers Biographical Dictionary, ISBN 0-550-18022-2, page 1
  3. " Aalto, Alvar." Encyclopædia Britannica. 17 December 2006.
  4. Göran Schildt, Alvar Aalto. A life's work: Architecture, Design and Art. Otava, Helsinki, 1994
  5. Artek
  6. Artek
  7. Artek
  8. Artek
  9. Artek
  10. Artek
  11. Artek

External links




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