Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) is considered a modern architect, yet his work exhibits a carefully crafted balance of intricate and complex forms, spaces, and elements, and reveals a traditionalism rooted in the cultural heritage and physical environment of Finland. Over the course of his 50-year career, Alvar Aalto, unlike a number of his contemporaries, did not rely on modernism's fondness for industrialized processes as a compositional technique, but forged an architecture influenced by a broad spectrum of concerns.
Alvar Aalto 's is an architecture that manifests an understanding of the psychological needs of modern society, the particular qualities of the Finnish environment, and the historical, technical, and cultural traditions of Scandinavian architecture. Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto was born in the Ostro-Bothnian village of Kourtane in 1898. The family soon moved to Alajarvi, where his mother, Selma Hackstedt Aalto, died in 1903. By 1907 Alvar Aalto 's father, J. H. Aalto, a government surveyor, had remarried and moved the family to the central Finnish city of Jyvaskyla. In Jyvaskyla the young Alvar Aalto attended the Normal School and the Classical Lyceum, and in the summer months during his teens often accompanied his father on surveying trips. Alvar Aalto entered the Helsinki Polytechnic in 1916, and became a protege of Armas Lindgren (who was partner of E. Saarinen and H. Gesellius during the formative period of Finnish National Romanticism). While a student, Alvar Aalto worked for Carolus Lindberg on the "Tivoli" area for the 1920 Finnish National Fair, and served in the militia during the civil strife following the Russian Revolution. After graduating from the Polytechnic in 1921, Alvar Aalto sought employment in Sweden; unable to secure a position with Gunnar Asplund, Alvar Aalto worked for A. Bjerke on the Congress Hall for the 1923 Goteborg World's Fair.
After having executed several buildings for the 1922 Industrial Exhibition in Tampere, Alvar Aalto established his practice in Jyvaskyla in 1923. While securing local commissions, Alvar Aalto also followed the normal practice in Finland of participating in architectural competitions. In 1924 Alvar Aalto married the architect Aino Marsio. Exemplary of the classicism found throughout Scandinavia during the 1920s, Alvar Aalto 's early work was influenced by contemporary Nordic practitioners such as Asplund and Ragnar Ostberg, as well as by the simple massing and ornamentation of the architettura mirwre of northern Italy. His work evolved from the austere quality of the Railway Workers Housing (1923), to the more Palladian inspired Workers Club (1924-1925) (both in Jyvaskyla), and from there to the deftly refined and detailed Seinajoki Civil Guards Complex (1925), Jyvaskyla Civil Guards Building (1927), and the Muurame Church (1927-1929). Composed of simple, wellproportioned volumes rendered in stucco or wood, these works are characterized by their sparse decoration and selective use of classical elements.
In 1927 Alvar Aalto won the competition for the Southwestern Agricultural Cooperative Building (1927-1929), and moved his office to Turku. Located on the southwest coast of Finland, Turku, the former Swedish capital, was a major cultural center where Alvar Aalto made numerous contacts that proved important to his development. His friendship with architect Erik Bryggman was coupled with Turku's proximity to Sweden, where associations with Asplund and Sven Markelius provided connections with the continental architectural avantgarde. Alvar Aalto not only attended the 1929 meeting of Les Congres Internationaux d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM), but traveled regularly throughout Europe, making him one of the most knowledgeable architects in Finland of the "new architecture."
During the six years spent in Turku (1927-1933), Alvar Aalto designed the series of buildings that would establish his international reputation. His architecture evolved from the stripped classicism of the Agricultural Cooperative Building toward a full acceptance of the formal and theoretical canons of International Style modernism or "functionalism" as it was termed in Finland. The Turun Sanamat Newspaper Building (1928-1930) was the first work in Finland to incorporate Le Corbusier's les cinq pointes d'une architecture nouvelle. The Standard Apartment Block in Turku (1929), the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium (1929-1933), and the Turku 7th Centenary Exhibition complex (designed in collaboration with Bryggman in 1929) indicate Alvar Aalto 's level of understanding of both International Style modernism and the other avantgarde movements in art and architecture that occurred in the late 1920s and early 1930s. In addition to functionalist principles, Alvar Aalto 's work demonstrated an awareness of Russian Constructivism and the Dutch de Stijl movement, not to mention the work of Johannes Duiker, Andre Lurcat, and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. During this period, Alvar Aalto was an active polemicist who advanced the cause of modernism in Finnish architecture.
Alvar Aalto moved his office to Helsinki in 1933, hoping the capital would provide greater opportunities for commissions, as well as bringing him closer to the city of Viipuri where the Municipal Library (1927-1935) was under construction. Although Alvar Aalto would not receive a major public commission in Helsinki for another two decades. Alvar Aalto 's practice expanded. This was an important period of transition in his work which, with the Viipuri Library, included his house and office in the suburb of Munkkiniemi (1934-1936), the Finnish Pavilions for the 1937 Paris and 1939 New York World's Fairs, the Villa Mairea (1937-1938), and the factory and workers' housing at Sunila (1935-1954). At this time Alvar Aalto received the patronage of Harry and Maire Gullichsen, prominent industrialists, for whom Alvar Aalto had designed the summer house Mairea on the Ahlstrom estate in Noormarkku. The Gullichsens provided Alvar Aalto with entry into Finland's industrial establishment, which resulted in a number of factory and housing commissions throughout Finland, including the complexes at Sunila, Inkeroinen, Kauttua, Vaasa, Karhula, and Varkaus for the Ahlstrom and Stromberg companies. In 1935, with the assistance of Maire Gullichsen and with Nils Gustav Hahl as director, the firm of Artek was formed, which produced and marketed Alvar Aalto 's furniture, fabric, and glassware designs.
During the mid-1930s Alvar Aalto 's work began to embody a more tactile, romantic, and picturesque posture, becoming less machinelike in imagery. The presence of these characterisl ics in his work, coupled with a seemingly rekindled interest in Finnish vernacular building traditions and a concern for the alienated individual within modern mass society, signals a movement away from the functionalist tenets that formed his architecture in the early 1930s. In renouncing industrialized production as a compositional and formal ordering sensibility, Alvar Aalto moved toward a more personal style which solidified over the next decade, a direction achieving maturity in his work executed after World War II.
The characteristics of this direction are manifest in the specific architectonic concerns, issues, and elements that form a continuity of thought and formal expression throughout the remainder of Alvar Aalto 's career. Centrality, as seen in the recurring presence of exterior courtyard spaces and courtlike interior atria, became an important organizational property in Alvar Aalto 's work.
The library at Viipuri and the 1937 Finnish pavilion in Paris incorporate an interior court, whereas the Villa Mairea is composed about an exterior courtyard. The conical skylights that illuminate the Viipuri reading room and the Paris Pavilion exhibition area provide a sense of externality to each space, and are precursors to the numerous forms Alvar Aalto developed to light his interior spaces. Within the Viipuri reading room court, Alvar Aalto includes staircases, landings, and handrails as dynamic elements celebrating human action and movement. The sinuous, undulating line and surface appear as important compositional elements in Alvar Aalto 's work at this time, as witnessed in the undulating ceiling of the Viipuri Library meeting room, the three-story flowing display wall in the 1939 Finnish Pavilion in New York, and the figural geometries in the Villa Mairea's plan order. Continually exploring the tectonic possibilities of the undulating surface, Alvar Aalto demonstrates a unique sensitivity to the dynamics of the sinuous element in architecture. Alvar Aalto 's material vocabulary changed at this time also, moving away from the machine aesthetics of the International Style toward a more expressive use of materials and textural effects. Wood, brick, and numerous other materials create a tactility and richness of expression that complements the formal changes in his work.
These changes exemplify the qualities and images that have become inextricably associated with perceptions of Alvar Aalto 's architecture. Furthermore, they exist at a multiplicity of scales of realization in his buildings. The undulating surface is not merely a form, spatial construct or building element, but is replicated at the detail level in his architecture and applied designs, seen in his glass vases furniture designs, door handles, and light fixtures, not to mention ,n his paintings and experimental sculptures. This recurrence of form at varying scales throughout Alvar Aalto 's work is representative of both the totality of the design conception found in his work and the importance of detail development in his buildings.
The problems of postwar reconstruction and rehousing following the 1939-1940 Russo-Finnish War consumed Alvar Aalto 's efforts in the early 1940s. An avid supporter of planned and systematic postwar rebuilding and redevelopment, Alvar Aalto felt Finland could provide a paradigm for the entire reconstruction of Europe. Both his work and writings of this period focused on the research and procedures necessary to develop appropriate housing types and planning systems for reconstruction properly. After the war, as a result of his friendship with William Wurster, Alvar Aalto was named an adjunct professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1946-1948; Alvar Aalto had held a similar post there in 1940). Alvar Aalto received the commission for the Baker House Dormitory at MIT (1946-1949), a work considered to be a preview of his postwar developments. Aino, his first wife and collaborator of 25 years, died of cancer in 1949. In 1953 Alvar Aalto remarried, to the architect Elissa Makiniemi.
The time between 1945 and the early 1960s was incredibly productive for Alvar Aalto; he not only secured more commissions than any time in his career, but also produced his most important work. Often lauded as being uniquely Finnish in feeling, a quality characterized by the use of red brick, copper, and wood, the Saynatsalo Town Hall (1950-1952), the Jyvaskyla Teachers College (1953-1956), the Public Pensions Institute in Helsinki (1952-1956), the Rautatalo Office Building in Helsinki (1953-1955), the House of Culture in Helsinki (1955-1958), and the Technical Institute in Otaniemi (1956-1964) are exemplary of this period. The picturesque volumetric massing of these buildings, their responsiveness to landscape and site (be the context urban or rural), the juxtaposition of materials and textural effects, the rich vocabulary of forms developed to manipulate natural light, and the concern for the smallest detail (such as lighting fixtures, handrails, and door handles) demonstrate Alvar Aalto 's maturity. In these works the themes that emerged in the late 1930s matured and solidified, achieving a calm, self-assured realization.
Centralization continues as a dominant theme in Alvar Aalto 's buildings. From the small courts in Alvar Aalto 's summer house at Muuratsalo (1953) and studio in Munkkiniemi (1955), to the plaza spaces in the Saynatsalo Town Hall and House of Culture, to the large agoralike void in the Teachers College, the exterior court orders and regulates these complexes. Similarly, the multileveled skylighted atria found in the Rautatalo Building, the Public Pensions Institute, and the main classroom building and library in the Teachers College create the feeling of being in a protected external space. The undulating surface appears with an infused vitality as large serpentine walls in the Baker House Dormitory and the House of Culture, whereas the competition entries for the Kongens Lyngby Cemetery (1951) and the Malm Funeral Chapel (1950) transform its usage into the fan-shaped plan that became the basis for a number of Alvar Aalto 's library, housing, and auditorium plans over the next two decades.
The last 20 years of Alvar Aalto 's practice, beginning with the Vuoksenniska Church (1956-1958), produced a more complex, expressive architecture. In contrast to the "bronze" imagery of the 1950s, Alvar Aalto returned to a material vocabulary, which created an architecture of bright, reflective, and smooth surfaces. Although (here is thematic continuity with his earlier work (light, sinuosity, centralization, and tactility still figure importantly in the designs), more explicit reference to classical and romantic ordering sensibilities emerge at this time. Going beyond the simple duality of pairing organic and geometrie elements, Alvar Aalto 's later works seem to fuse both classical restraint and romantic exuberance. The civic complex in Sein�joki (1958-1965), the cultural center in Wolfsburg (1958-1963), Finlandia Hall (1962-1965), the Rovaniemi Library (1968), and the Riola Church in Italy (1966-1978), along with Vouksenniska, represent the best work of this period. The projects produced in the last decade of his practice indicate a slackening of creative power. The Alaj�rvi Town Hall (1969), the Lappia House in Rovaniemi (1975), the Alvar Aalto Museum in Jyvaskyl� (1973), and the Lahti Church (1978), for example, suffer from reduced design participation and a general indifference toward detailed development by the aging Alvar Aalto.