Finland. The route of Alvar Aalto

The driver of my trip was to see and inhabit the work of this paradigmatic 20th century architect. I would limit my journey to approximately ten works among his vast production. Hundreds of works designed and materialized. Two cities to visit: Jyvaskyla, the city where Aalto grew up in and started his first studio, and Helsinki where he lived and worked the rest of his life.

Throughout my training as an architect I’ve studied Aalto extensively; plans, photos, drawings, texts. Modernity and nature. Austerity. Formal freedom. The richness in the use of materials. I arrive to Finland with all this; curious and informed. The experience is moving. There, in direct contact with that Nordic culture, that geography and that climate my perception is suddenly virgin.

Finland has a landscape of dense forests, and a strong tradition of logging and forestry. Extreme latitude with long winters and below freezing temperatures for more than six months of the year. I arrive in Helsinki in the beginning of spring with frozen lakes, cloudy skies and a snowy landscape. I perceive the beautiful Nordic austerity and how that hostile climate and geography influence design and palette of materials. The white landscape, the luminous and minimalist spaces, the use of light colored wood, the punctual use of color.

In Helsinki I settle down in a loft at Kallio, the Bohemian neighborhood. There, the economy of resources is synonymous to beauty. The street lighting, for example, just a simple light suspended in the center of the street from a cable held from the buildings on each side, and small white boxes lit on each door with the street number. The same element is used as signage, street light, and lighting on each building door. Beauty and synthesis in the use of resources.

A few blocks from Kallio on Sturenkatu Avenue, I encounter for the first time one of Aalto’s buildings, the Kulttuuritalo—House of Culture—a huge curved brick mass forms the concert hall, coexisting with a copper sheet office building by its side. The passage of time and rust give a subtle beauty to these copper sheets which are present here and in so many of Aalto’s works. Special attention to these beautiful bricks known as ‘wedge-shaped’ designed for this building which I renamed ‘slices of Brioche’. There, inside the Kulttuuritalo, a fully equipped cafeteria with lighting and furnishings designed by Alvar Aalto delight me with my first salmon with fresh dill during my journey. Delicious and daily salmon in Finland.

Kamppi. The excentric and glamorous neighborhood of Helsinki. Etelaesplanadi Boulevard, where the typical Finnish interior design shops are found: Marimekko, Iittala and Artek. Designer name brands like: Aino Aalto, Ilmari Topiovaara, Jorn Utzon, and Alvar Aalto among other exquisite designers of the 20th century. There, top design means austerity and minimalism, an aesthetic which is consumed by the society as a whole. Aesthetics as akin to this white landscape as this latitude. Marimekko, with its timeless design patterns, textiles with signature name prints, worldwide recognizable motifs, a registered trademark. Iittala, originally dedicated only to the production of glassware, again 20th century design, today classics of modern design, updated and current. Artek, founded in 1935 by four idealists, including Alvar Aalto. Design and production of Nordic furniture, the use of wood, laminated wood, organic shapes, the beauty of unadorned objects reduced to their essence.

And also in Kamppi, two culinary and cultural musts in spaces designed by Alvar Aalto. The Savoy Restaurant on the seventh and eighth floor of Etelaesplanadi 14. A sophisticated stronghold of the city to make reservations and spend a night of glamour enjoying beautiful sights of Helsinki. And across the same boulevard, on Pohjoisesplanadi 39 the Academic Bookstore with its Aalto Café. Before entering, a first contact with that subtle detail of materiality: the sculptural bronze door handles which appear in a vertical line of three repeated in the four access doors. This same handle designed by Aalto and that he used repeatedly in several buildings is one of the iconic characteristics of Aaltian material language. The bookstore and the Aalto Café are a break in the daily rush and a heaven for the traveler each afternoon.

Munkkiniemi: some thirty minutes from the city center, residential neighborhood with a slightly undulating topography where Alvar Aalto resided during his last years. His house on Riihitie Street and his studio a few blocks away on Tiilimaki street. Today, the studio is the Alvar Aalto Foundation and can be visited everyday only at 11:30 a.m. It is well worth the visit and the punctuality.

Arriving to Munkkiniemi by tram with the morning light, walking those blocks among pine and birch trees, and there at 20 Tiilimaki Street immerse in a fascinating and inspiring universe. Designed and built in 1954 by Alvar Aalto in his mature stage, there, perception finds correct handling of natural light inside. Diaphanous spaces, minimalist yet warm, and freedom in formal development. The ground floor of the building entirely conceived around an empty outdoor space: the natural amphitheater of the garden.

Natural amphitheaters, a recurring subject of Aalto, again the geography and climate present from the gestation of the project. Also, in his studio in the enormous space that was his personal atelier, his complete collection of furniture designs can be seen including the Stool 60 and the Paimio chair. And from the inside attic viewpoint, his lamps hanging in bouquets. That playful viewpoint composed by a stairway to heaven with an intermediate landing had as sole objective: to test the lighting designs, to be able to observe them in the space from the ground floor level as well as from the higher ground to see the way these lamps would later function in the many public buildings designed by Aalto. Next to the atelier, in the working room of the architects and draftsmen; where today those who come with a research project work; the complete collection of material pieces that Aalto designed and developed can be seen, touched and enjoyed. The sculptural bronze door handles, the longilinear ceramic piece, the wedge-shaped brick, the curved wood legs of Stool 60 and so many other furniture pieces. A space of complete present, intimate and universal.

I leave Helsinki for two days. I take the first train out in the morning to the city of Jyvaskyla in central Finland. Why go 300km North of Helsinki? To see the rural Finnish landscape with its huge logging industry and forests all around. Beautiful. Just three hours away by train to perceive an entire culture of wood production and construction. From densely forested lands to lands recently forested with young trees. Along the railroad tracks enormous piles of stowed logs can be seen near the town stations and also freight trains passing by with an infinite number of cars with logs and more logs. Rural architecture of small houses made of wood and metal sheets spread out here and there. Once more: austerity and beauty.

I perceive Jyvaskyla as a university and cultural city. There, in addition to the University Campus is the Alvar Aalto Museum, the Museum of Central Finland and a number of public and private buildings all designed by Aalto. It’s a pleasure to walk around the University buildings, the natural outdoor amphitheater, a pause amidst the pine tree forests, a brilliant relationship between building and landscape, the material of the seats: blocks of granite, timeless, like a modern ruin incorporated to the landscape, the wood and iron seats, and the granite slabs that function as an entrance esplanade to the main building as well as stage for outdoor performances.

There in Jyvaskyla, it is a must to spend a night in the small town of Saynatsalo just 15km away. Saynatsalo is situated on a small island on Lake Paijanne, whose Town Hall is one of Aalto’s most paradigmatic works. There, inside this building with views to the inner patio, the “Alvari” and “Elisa” rooms receive the guest warmly. The night I spent in the Alvari room in the Saynatsalo Town Hall was a monastic experience. Shelter, refuge. A pause to continue the hecticness of the following day and trace back the steps to Helsinki.

Finland. Enormous unity between landscape, geography, society, culture and design. Here, so imbued by this experience. I came to Finland drawn by Alvar Aalto’s architecture and I leave with my eyes brimming.

Aalto’s spaces remind us once again that good design has no expiration date. All human needs are covered: beauty, warmth, exquisite materials, functionality, human scale, natural lighting, and poetry in formal freedom. The presence of curved shapes in spaces, playful, organic, committed with landscape and latitude. Everything in his spaces is enjoyment. Timeless beauty.

Arq. Paula Herrero – Published in Revista Barzon #28 – June 2017