Design Icon: 10 Buildings by Alvar Aalto

Alvar Aalto, one of Finland’s greatest architects, made modernist masterpieces with a human touch.

A towering figure of Modernist architecture, Alvar Aalto began his career in the ‘20s in what was then the newly-independent nation of Finland, helping define the style and aesthetic reputation of the rising Scandinavian nation. Aalto’s architectural creations, as well as his lighting, furniture and glassware, were total works of art, often Expressionist in style, imbued with a keen awareness for those who would live and work inside. "God created paper for the purpose of drawing architecture on it," he said. "Everything else is at least for me an abuse of paper." His confidence wasn’t misplaced, at least as far as his fellow countrymen were concerned. In the mid-50s, Finnair would supposedly delay departing flights until the great Aalto was on board, who himself would delay arriving at the airport to bask in the attention.

Finlandia Hall (1971)

Helsinki, Finland

This seaside concert hall is a centerpiece of the Finnish capital, boasting a towering auditorium and high roof (meant to improve acoustics), curving balconies and an exterior of white marble and black granite.

The career of "Alvar Aalto, Architect and Monumental Artist," as he billed himself at one of his early offices, began in earnest in the ‘20s, when he began writing about architecture (often under the nom de plume Remus), constructed classical homes and married Aino Marsio, whom would become a valued and frequent collaborator until her death in 1949. A series of commissions in the later half of the decade (Viipuri Library, the Turun Sanomat Building and the Paimio Sanatorium) were both a creative catalysts and the beginnings of his turn towards a more personal take on Modernism. But Aalto work didn’t end with buildings. He also applied his creative drive to furniture, co-founding Artek in 1935 and creating the iconic Savoy Vase in 1937 for the Helsinki cafe of the same name in 1937.

Finnish Pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair (1939)

New York, New York

It’s fitting that a man often called one of Finland’s greatest architects would cap his most successful decade of work with a structure that celebrated his country’s contributions to the world. Within the compact, four-story structure, photos of landscapes, people and products looked out over curvaceous, wood-slatted walls, a flowchart of Finnish industry capped off by airplane propellers spinning like fans from the ceiling.

His Finnish pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York (which came in the wake of a Parisian pavilion in 1937 and an exhibit at MOMA) was considered "genius" by the none-too-modest Frank Lloyd Wright. It cemented his status among the architectural firmament, earning him commissions and awards across the world, where he would focus during his later years, designing an array of acclaimed public buildings.

Wolfsburg Cultural Center (1962)

Wolfsburg, Germany

Wrapped in white and blue Carrarra marble, this public center has been called one of Aalto’s most important works in Germany, boasting a roof terrace that plays off the idea of a public square.

Muuratsalo Experimental House (1953)

Säynätsalo, Finland

An island home that served as Aalto’s workspace and proving ground for decades, the L-shaped structure is in a clearing surrounded by boulders and stones are covered with moss, bilberry and lingonberry bushes. Aalto played with and experimented with ceramics, solar heating and bricks (note the patchwork facade of different brick on the main structure).

Villa Mairea (1939)

Noormarkku, Finland

Created for industrialist Harry Gullichsen and his wife Marie, this private residence fused organic and modern styles and stands as a masterpiece. Curved shapes mixed with a literal forest of wooden columns inside the rural home, creating a flowing environment and harmony between the interior and exterior.

Maison Louis Carre (1959)

Bazoches-sur-Guyonnes, France

Created for an acclaimed art dealer, this sloped home rises out of the hills, itself clad in the same sandstone used for a nearby cathedral. Curved wooden walls and a large window make for a light-filled interior, and the grand entrance boasts a large display wall for artwork.

Baker House (1946)

Cambridge, Massachusetts

As anyone who’s lived inside Aalto’s most famous structure in the U.S. can attest to, few architect’s have given so much thought to the aesthetic enjoyment of college students. This serpentine structure on the Charles River offers an elegant solution to the problem of maximizing the view for each resident, resulting in an array of room types.

Restaurant Savoy (1937)

Helsinki, Finland

Talk about high-profile openings: Aalto’s discerning eye was responsible for the iconic look of this Finnish legend, from the birch veneers and club chairs to the Savoy Vases. Fitting for the times, it boasted a state-of-the-art filtration system to pump out cigar smoke.

Paimio Sanatorium (1933)

Paimio, Finland

Aalto designed this sanatorium for tuberculosis patients to be a "medical instrument," a structure actively engaged in the healing process. Small touches, such as personal wash basins, glare-resistant interior paints and large balconies to soak up sunshine, came from his shrewd and empathetic observations (supposedly sick at the time himself, he realized that hospital rooms should have a "horizontal" arrangement, since patients would spend most of their time in bed). The furniture Alvar and his wife Aino created for the building can still be purchased through Artek.

Stephanuskirche (1968)

Wolfsburg, Germany

Aalto’s Functionalist church exudes a very polished feel, with a block of white columns and gorgeous wooden sound reflectors, which hang from the ceiling, providing a quiet grace to the religious site.

Alvar Aalto at work.

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