Alvar Aalto's Pacific Northwest Gem

Alvar Aalto's Pacific Northwest Gem

By Jonathan Simcoe
Nestled quietly on a bluff amidst flat farmlands and late-1800s German heritage is the Mount Angel Abbey. A place where Swiss-American Benedictine monks with understated passion carry out their work, life, teaching, and worship.

This is probably the most unexpected place to find an iconic building designed by the renowned Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. But so it is. The Mount Angel Library is a stunning representation of his work and ethos. An example of how iconic modern design can exist quietly and powerfully within a complex of buildings used for classic education, dormitories, a mess hall, and classic church architecture.

About Aalto

A portrait of Alvar Aalto.

Alvar Aalto is widely-regarded as the most famous and prolific Finnish and architect and designer. He was born in 1898 and in 1921 received his Diploma of Architecture from the Helsinki Institute of Technology. The Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Paimio, Finland was one of his most important works and also launched him into furniture design, something he is equally known for. You can find some iconic examples of his furniture work at the Finnish Design Shop.

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A table honoring Aalto's work greets library visitors toward the entrance.

To quote from a brochure available from the Abbey Library, the story of how Aalto got involved in the library project goes as follows:

In the early 1960s, library director Fr. Barnabas Reasoner, O.S.B., approached the Finnish architect... to design a new library building for the abbey. Because of the his love for libraries and the special qualities of the Mount Angel Abbey site, Aalto agreed... to design the library for a nominal fee. The library was opened in May 1970 with a performance by Duke Ellington.

The Entrance

If you park in the visitor parking lot, a steep split-level staircase helps you ascend to the wooded main grounds of the Abbey.

A cement staircase leads to the main Abbey grounds, where the iconic library sits.

Reaching the top of the stairs, the grounds stretch in every direction with the library situated dead ahead. As you approach the building the outside is relatively simple and unadorned. The wood-paneled lattice work and brick (a pattern that Aalto repeats in this project time again) is relatively straightforward. This is classic Mid-Century Modern design but executed in a way that seems natural with the surrounding monastery, church, dormitories, and seminary classrooms. Inside, is where the true treasure and genius of Aalto's master work reveals itself.

Sun, trees, bushes, and shadow frame the entrance to Aalto's iconic library.

The Main Floor

The entrance to the Abbey library is classic modern design with a straightforward steel-encased glass windows at the end of the atrium.

Even through the reflections, glass, and steel, Aalto's ceiling lattice pattern begins to emerge.

Once inside, the circular front desk frames the scene with ceiling lattice work as a way to use simple, natural materials to create an interesting pattern, using clean lines to draw the visitor into the building. The punctuation of the lattice pattern with a large round hole filled with light is the first of many "transcendent moments", where Aalto's sublime eye for details draw his patrons unexpectedly upward in consideration.

Windows and a large hole in the ceiling paneling bring floods of natural light to the main floor.

The minimalist steel bookshelves fan out and form an arc along the perimeter of the library and each one is framed with the same lattice pattern, helping complete a visual system and provide a minimal layer of visual interest to adorn the sparse shelving, while still allowing the natural light to flood inward. Also, in the above picture you can see the first examples of Aalto's furniture design in the black-topped Stacking stool 60 that form a line underneath the hanging desk system leading into the main room bookshelves.

Aalto's furniture steals the show in this periodical "sitting room" designed for relaxing and reading.

The Sitting Room

What I love in Aalto's architecture is his consideration for the human in his design. Some people may criticize modern design as being too devoid of life or cold, but Aalto shatters that notion by creating warm, inviting spaces that entice visitors to relax and enjoy the natural surroundings and the curated content on the periodical wall (not shown).

Several of Aalto's iconic furniture pieces line the wall and provide plenty of natural reading light.

By setting the room in a minimal color palette, with gentle warm tones and contrasting blacks, the room begins to disappear into the stunning view of evergreen trees and the surrounding landscape of the Abbey, leaving the reader with plenty of space to think, feel, ponder, and absorb it all.

The inner cavern of the library simultaneously creates stunning views up and down.

The Cavern

The main atrium of the library opens up into a cavern of arches, columns, and curves bringing light down from the ceiling, as well as revealing a network of stairs and walkways lined with seating. As you get deeper down into the library the views seem to get more stunning and dramatic. And deceivingly, the bottom floor has less windows but is still drenched in plenty of warm natural light.

As you move down into the lower floors of the library, ample light still reaches the floor.

The labyrinthian passages of books and shelves create wonderful patterns and literally allow you to get lost in a sea of books, something comforting if you are a bookworm like myself.

Aisles weave throw a sea of latticed bookshelves and columns.

From the bottom floor of the library, looking up leads to more "transcendent moments" where you get lost looking toward the heavens.

Looking up yields views of circular lines enthroned in light.

The way Aalto merged clean geometric lines with sublime lighting is breathtaking.

Surreal light from above mixed with warm wood tones and task lighting to create a warm, futuristic scene.

The circular ceiling and dramatic use of support structures creates breathtaking views.

Material Design

There is much that can be said about Aalto's work. Part of me wants to let you experience it for yourselves and not ruin or reveal every surprise.

I will leave you with some final looks at something revealing about Aalto's approach. Much in the movement in modern design is centered around using cheaper materials and process but doing so in a way that is fresh and captivating. The bent plywood movement in furniture design comes to mind.

In many cases Aalto uses cement and fluorescent lighting, things that might seem to come off as cheap and cold.

The wood left imprints in the cement walls creating both texture and a pattern for the otherwise stark outer walls. 

As you can see, Aalto employs his method in a way that is both visually interesting and purposeful, allowing the natural imprint and texture of the wood to create a subtle pattern that mimics the vertical lattice work used throughout the project. This is anything but cold.

Another sublime moment where textured stone and artificial lighting meet steel and sky.

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I intend to follow up this piece with some prolonged exploration of some ideas I've had around design systems that emerged from my visit to the library and the exercise of exploring Aalto's work.

As a digital product designer much of my work is mired in screens and pixels. It is refreshing to see the world from a different vantage point and to see through an architect's eyes how design systems don't just pertain to brands and apps but to buildings as well.

If you get a chance I encourage you to visit the Abbey, take some time to pause and be still.

Drink in the quiet wonder.


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