Alvar Aalto: The Functional Aesthete

Aalto:Finlandia Hall, Helsinki, 1967. Ratonal and aesthetic collision.

“The only possible factors and motives with which one can replace the old criteria are scientific studies of what people and society unconditionally need in order to remain, or better yet, to develop into a healthy organism.” Alvar Aalto

“In order to achieve practical goals and valid aesthetic forms in connection with architecture, one cannot always start from a rational and technical standpoint- perhaps even never.” Alvar Aalto

Alvar Aalto embraced many nuanced dualities throughout his career. He did not try to suppress the dual nature of the architect (the disparity between rationalism and the spiritual will). Instead he found a way to create spaces that served people on a very sensual scale, all the while being purely aesthetic about it.




Paimo Sanatorium 1929. Rational and playful elements on the facade of the patients wing. Plan showing separation of program.

An early example of this embraced duality can be found at the Paimo Sanatorium of 1929. The functionalist aspects manifest themselves in the shape of the building, which is splayed by function into very distinct entities where the main connecting element between the wings is the entrance lobby and the main vertical circulation. (This dissected building was no doubt influenced by Duiker’s Sanatorium) The locations of these separated functions of the building are arranged according to solar considerations as well as creating adjacencies meant to be programmatically logical as well as noise reductive. Exterior aesthetic functionalism is expressed in the banishment of ornament and the use of clean white walls. On a more human scale, the patient’s rooms are rigorously designed with an obsession for comfort and well-being. The windows and the placement of the patient’s bed were designed with strict solar consideration. The ceilings are painted in tranquil colors, and the light fixtures are designed for no glare. The list continues with; noiseless sinks, easy to open door handles and unfortunately, wardrobe cabinets that looked like coffins! Conversely, all of these designed elements, while achieving comfort, were ultimately dictated by aesthetics (I’m sure the coffin thing was a case of hindsight saying “what the hell was I thinking with that one?”). Aalto did what many master architects do, and that is design with the total union of aesthetics and function in mind. The more aesthetically functional elements of the Sanatorium include, multi-colored canopies, a sinuous front desk, a trademark kidney shaped entrance canopy etc. These elements weave through the building and prevent it from being a cold and truly functionalist space.

Villa Mairea. 1938.
As Aalto’s works progressed, the duality between aesthetic and function began to become clearer. In the Villa Mairea we see a logical orthogonal plan treated with elements of pure aesthetic delight. The plan is completely liberated at the swimming pond, which has the kidney shape again. This playful element, contrasted with more linear form, also carried a symbolic reference about the nature of the architect. The pond is meant to be the primordial element; early mankind dominated by nature. As the house leans to more functional/orthogonal realms the progression of man’s history in regard to his ability to control nature is manifested aesthetically. Aalto also used the idea of the egg and the full-grown being when talking about this metaphor. The interesting and consistent thing about Aalto’s buildings in his later work, is this clear contrast of an element that seems to be free and naturalistic (the head) set against and element of rigid rationality (the tail). My personal favorite example of this is the Seinajoki Library where the reading room is an undulating wave that plays fantastic games with light. This collides with the rational and more practical other functions of the library, which are housed in a rectilinear portion. Here, it also seems that a less practically demanding space, such as a reading room, is allowed more freedom and irreverence as compared to the more rigid demands of administrative offices and bathrooms.

Seinajoki Library Plan. 1963.

Aalto is a complicated architect and a difficult one to read. He seemed to belong to neither the camp of the modernists or to the camp of the spiritualists. He was not a Modernist because it seems the demands of abstraction did not interest him. He was not a Spiritualist or a “Biological” architect because his forms were not mastered by that metaphor either. He was a little bit of both, but his tendencies in the end always were dictated by aesthetics, which is only as arbitrary as particular individual taste. This is something that I don’t like about Aalto, this arbitrary element, although to his favor it seems that he acknowledged this, framed as a general problem of the architect, by inducing violent contrasts between freedom and restraint in his work and separating these differing elements like oil and water. Perhaps this is a more appropriate approach to the duality of the architect than the exaggerations of both the Rationalists and the Spiritualists. The dual demands expected of a master architect are clearly and symbolically seen in his work.


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