This year marks the 125th anniversary of Alvar Aalto’s birth. A series of events will take place to celebrate his legacy. To know the intimate side of Aalto, explore his home in Helsinki on this virtual tour.
Functional, simple, and comfortable – it’s one of the iconic homes of 20th century. Designed by Alvar and Aino Aalto and completed in 1936, this house in the Munkkiniemi district in Helsinki, Finland, exemplifies the changing standards of 20th century modern living.
As an example of early 20th century Scandinavian design and architecture, it’s difficult to find a more complete and well preserved site. The house remained a family residence until 1998 and most of the original features and objects there are intact. Now it’s maintained by the Alvar Aalto Foundation, and open to the public as a museum.
Within the development of modernist architecture and design, Alvar Aalto’s approach is known for an intuitive ability to play with spatial dynamics, light and materiality. The house also contains a studio space, where the architectural office was based until the mid-fifties. It represents the modernist ideal, where functionality has been achieved without the loss for comfort. The free design of the plan and the facade, as well as the unhidden structural elements around the house, exemplify key modernist principles, interpreted for this Nordic context.
Through experiments with bent wood Alvar Aalto created different models of chairs and tables. The home is furnished with designs, which represent a modernist sensibility influenced by natural forms and phenomena. Many of these pieces are still in production by Artek, the company founded in 1935, where Aino Aalto was an influential director.
A timeless appeal lies in the simplicity of the Aalto home. The enduring modernist aesthetic and the materials that reference nature are part of a strong cultural heritage, which still informs Finnish contemporary architecture. Elements and formal solutions of this building are reinterpreted in today’s architecture and many of Aalto’s design objects can be found in homes and public buildings all over the world.
Awarded the Pritzker Prize 2021 French architects Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal revive modernist principles with a unique approach –
The choice of Lacaton & Vassal as winners of the Pritzker Prize 2021 is a sign of changing values in architecture and city planning. The French duo has become famous for their unique approach in which nothing gets demolished. Their renovation project of the Grand Parc housing estate in Bordeaux exemplifies this method on a grand scale, in which 530 apartments were extended with big glassed-in balconies and new facades. It gained lots of interest and the architects received the EU Mies Award in 2019 for that project.
Lacaton & Vassal’s work is underpinned by the values of the modern movement: open-plan, lack of ornament, industrial materials and lots of daylight. With the Grand Parc renovation, they literally subvert Charles Jencks’ provocative slogan of the death of modern architecture (dated July 15, 1972, with the demolition of the Pruit-Igoe housing scheme in the US): instead of blowing up a housing block, they carefully reorganise it. After two other projects in France, where social housing has been reimagined with inventive ideas, Lacaton & Vassal show that it’s possible to find creative and sustainable solutions. Their approach has inspired architects everywhere to implement similar restorative strategies. Hopefully city planners and contractors will also realise that its possible to create something better with simple improvements.
Since their very first project, the Latapie House in France completed in 1993, Lacaton & Vassal have been experimenting with ideas and materials adopted from industrial construction. That private residence was built with a small budget, but succeeded in providing more space and daylight for less money by using cheaper materials and inventive solutions. The house is like a greenhouse transformed for dwelling, deconstructing conceptions about how houses can and should be conceived. The polycarbonate panels are inexpensive while conjuring alternative models for spatial flexibility. This aesthetic strategy, where low-cost materials can be used in poetic ways, is something the architects saw in Africa. Vassal worked in urban planning in Niger, where Lacaton went to see him before setting up their own practice in 1987 in Paris.
Their work with cultural institutions follows the same ethos. Completed in 2002, the restoration of Palais Tokyo in Paris stripped the gallery spaces inside the 1930s Palais Chaillot building of all surplus layers accumulated over the years into its bare structural bones. Rough concrete surfaces and vast open galleries provide a backdrop for contemporary arts, similar to those spaces where artists work, although on a much grander scale. The architecture school in Nantes was also imagined as an experimental building, where students would be able to work in massive unheated studios and create real scale models. In that project Lacaton & Vassal provided twice as much space for the initial budget, which first worried the school. However, it has become a new paradigm for educational spaces, in which students are active participants in its operations and social activities.
The industrial feel that underpins the architecture of Lacaton & Vassal derives from both the materials and the minimalistic structural systems. They aim for simplicity, which was one of the principles of modernist architecture: simple forms to balance complexity in contemporary life, as Vassal summarizes in the Pritzker Prize press release. In a recent d’a interview Vassal explains that they have always been fascinated by the rigorous structural systems and the minimal amount of materials that define Mies van der Rohe’ architecture. Indeed you can see this ideological link, although for a very different outcome – how Miesien office blocks can inspire social housing and how the free-flowing space of a marble pavilion can also be adopted in a low-cost approach. What is so inspirational about their work, is the reinvention and refinement of previous strategies.
Located in the heart of Helsinki with views over the rooftops, Savoy Restaurant belongs to the city’s 20th century design heritage. The interior was created by Finnish architects Alvar Aalto and Aino Marsio-Aalto as an antidote to the avantgarde machine-aesthetic of the 1930s. The restaurant is one of the city’s iconic interiors, embodying a great sense of comfort and intimacy.
After restoration by London-based designer Ilse Crawford and her firm Studio Ilse, the original ambience, which had been altered by refurbishments over past decades, has been brought back and polished. Studio Ilse is known for many hotel and restaurant interiors, including the much-copied Soho House in New York. At Savoy, together with her team, she conceived one of the most subtle restoration works, which would be hard to imitate or replicate anywhere else.
The idea of contemporary comfort underpins the interiors designed by Studio Ilse, which is a natural connection to the Aalto design philosophy. Working against the rigid aesthetic of the early Modern Movement, the Aaltos were looking for alternative ideas to enhance modern living environments. Instead of metal, they preferred the warmer qualities and better acoustics found in wood. At Savoy the panelling, and also smaller details, such as ceiling lights behind wooden screens, all add up to the great acoustics, further enhanced by the full carpet in 100% wool replaced during the renovation.
Aalto’s early projects, including their Munkkiniemi home and the Savoy, exemplify the Scandinavian turn of the Modern Movement. As an academic and magazine editor, before setting up her design studio, Crawford has a deep understanding of Aalto’s guiding principles. Her team worked closely with Finnish architect Tapani Mustonen and the Alvar Aalto Foundation, studying all the design documentation, the layouts and the materials. Photographs of the very first design were mainly black-and-white, but from archival descriptions and Aino Marsio-Aalto’s notes, a tonal range of soft browns was detected as the original colour palette for the interior.
The influence of Aino Marsio-Aalto, and how the couple worked together, was a great revelation for Crawford and her team. The textiles and material surfaces are all part of Marsio-Aalto’s design vocabulary, where an emblematic aesthetic sensibility lives on. Until her untimely death in 1949, she was also director of Artek, the furniture company co-founded by the couple.
“We looked at both of them, also their personalities, how they approached the interiors, their use of natural materials, the timber – that was very interesting.” explains Joanna Rowlandson, one of the designers working on the project, “We saw a difference in their working processes: one is very functional and the other is much looser. And that’s so nice about their interiors, you can see a bit of both of their ways of working.”
Mustonen, the chief architect of the restoration, has worked on many Aalto buildings, including the Viipuri Library. Mustonen says there is always something new to learn about Aalto’s way of thinking and why certain architectural solutions were used. The Aaltos were very dynamic and forward-looking already in the 1920s with many international connections with other architects and artists of the Modern Movement. ”The way they thought is evident in the joy and passion in their buildings and interiors. These are easy places to be in,” Mustonen says about the special atmosphere, which is refined and at the same time relaxed.
During the latest restoration, all wooden surfaces were stripped and brought back to show the natural character of wood. ”Aalto spoke how colours should express authentic characteristics of materials. During the 1960s and 1970s renovations all the oak and birch surfaces, all the windows and door frames, had been stained to evoke mahogany”, Mustonen explained. Each era has its own formal and aesthetic logic, which can be detected behind each renovation: “It has been a constant movement”. But now it seems the original design has been firmly recovered.