Alvar Aalto

Alvar Aalto

Aalto, Alvar, 1898-1976, Finnish architect and furniture designer. Aalto is considered one of the foremost architects of the 20th cent. Most of his designs were made in collaboration with his wife, Aino Marsio, the celebrated furniture designer, until her death in 1949. Aalto's work adapted Finnish building traditions to modern European techniques and to the specific function of the structure in boldly expressive style. His designs for the municipal library at Viipuri (1927-35; destroyed when it was made part of Russian territory in 1940) and the tuberculosis sanitarium at Paimio (1929-33) were outstanding functionalist works. He gained international fame by his remarkable designs for laminated-wood furniture and by his plans for the Finnish pavilions at the expositions in Paris (1937) and New York (1939). Appointed professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1940, he designed there the serpentine Baker House (1947-48). After World War II he was active in reconstruction in Finland. His major postwar works included a number of striking civic buildings in Helsinki, the Maison Carré in Paris (designed in collaboration with Elissa Makkinheimo, his second wife), and the Wolfsburg cultural center in Germany.

See his complete works, ed. by K. Fleig (tr. of 3d ed., 2 vol., 1970-71); studies by F. A. Gutheim (1960) and P. D. Pearson (1978).

Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto (February 3, 1898May 11, 1976) was a Finnish architect and designer, sometimes called the "Father of Modernism" in the Scandinavian countries. His work includes architecture, furniture, textiles and glassware.



Alvar Aalto was born in Kuortane, Finland. He studied architecture at the Helsinki University of Technology from 1916 to 1921. He 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 neighbourhood. Aino Aalto died in 1949 and in 1952 he married architect Elissa Mäkiniemi (died 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 on May 11, 1976, in Helsinki.


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 before moving, in the late 1920s, towards Modernism.

In Aalto's case this is epitomised 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 colours, 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. Although 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 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 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".

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).


Aalto's wide field of activity ranged from furniture and glassware designs to architecture and painting. His vase designs are world-famous. He invented a new form of laminated bent-plywood furniture in 1932. Aalto furniture is manufactured by Artek, a company Aalto co-founded with his wife Aino Aalto, Maire Gullichsen (Ahlström — Gullichsen family) and Nils-Gustav Hahl. Aalto glassware (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. He was known for use of bent plywood construction, usually a light birch finish (most of his best pieces are still being made by Artek).

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 Lamps
  • 1954: Floor lamp A805
  • 1959: Floor lamp A810 Vases
  • 1936: Aalto Vase


  • "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.


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.
  • Aalto University, a new Finnish university to be established in 2009, 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 [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 Rizzoli, New York, 1987. Volume two in the biography
  • Alvar Aalto. The Mature Years Rizzoli, New York, 1991. Volume three in the biography.
  • 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. New York, Garland Pub., 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 authors
  • Fleig, Karl Alvar Aalto, Editorial Gustavo Gili, Barcelona, 1992. [A concise and comprehensive overview of Aalto's buildings in small paperbound format.]
  • Porphyrios, Demetri Sources of Modern Eclecticism, Academy Editions, London, 1982. [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, Museum of Finnish Architecture. Helsinki 1984
  • Reed, Peter (Ed.) Alvar Aalto: between humanism and materialism. Museum of Modern Art/H.N. Abrams. New York, 1998. [The catalogue book that accompanied the huge Aalto exhibition at the MoMA in 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. [A brilliant treck 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. Phaidon, London, 1995 [The largest of the traditional histories of Aalto's life and works. Based essentially on secondary sources]Research notes
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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, Rakennustieto / Alvar Aalto Säätiö, Helsinki, 1999. However, the best source for information about the oeuvre is Alvar Aalto: The complete catalogue of architecture, design, and art, edited by Schildt.
  • Non-Finnish speakers tend to make a big issue of the fact that Aalto is the Finnish word for 'wave' - as if he were 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


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