Alvar Aalto was a great Finnish architect, city planner and furniture designer, who is considered as one of the foremost architects of the 20th century. His work adapted Finnish building traditions to modern European techniques and indigenous materials and to the specific function of the structure in boldly expressive style, which has come to be known as an “organic style” architecture.
Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto was born in Kuortane, Finland. His father, Johan Henrik Aalto, was a Finnish-speaking land-surveyor and his mother, Selma Matilda was a Swedish-speaking postmistress. Alvar was the eldest of their four children. When Aalto was 5 years old, the family moved to Alajärvi, and from there to Jyväskylä in Central Finland. His desire to become an architect was influenced by his father and his grandfather, who were a forest officer and technical inventor.
When Alvar was five the family moved from Kuortane to Jyväskylä where there was a Finnish grammar school.
Aalto studied at the Jyväskylä Lyceum School, completing his basic education in 1916.
In 1916 Alvar Aalto enrolled to study architecture at the Helsinki University of Technology. During his years in the university he took private lessons in painting. He frequented artistic circles, where he got acquainted with other painters and sculptors. His teachers at the Helsinki University of Technology were Armas Lindgren, Usko Nyström and Carolus Lindberg. The national romantic ideals dating from the turn of the century were passed on by Lindgren, for whom an important aspect of architecture was the designer's artistic expression. For Aalto's teachers, architectural history and tradition constituted an integral part of the methodology of design.
Alvar Aalto built his first piece of architecture while still a student, a house for his parents. His studies were interrupted by the Finnish War of Liberation, in which he participated. Afterwards, he continued his education, graduating in 1921.
After his graduation from the Technical Institute of Helsinki Alvar Aalto toured Europe and upon his return began practice in Jyväskylä, in central Finland as an art critic for the newspaper Italehti. Then he worked as an exhibition designer in Goeteborg, Sweden, in Tampere and in Turku, Finland.
From 1927 Aalto started to establish himself as the most advanced architect in Finland. He received commissions for three important buildings: the Turun Sanomat Building (newspaper office) in Turku, the tuberculosis sanatorium at Paimio, where he had also designed furniture, and the Municipal Library at Viipuri (now Vyborg, Russia).
The decade of the 1930 brought him worldwide recognition. Exhibition of his furniture at the London department store, Fortnum & Mason, was organized by the architectural critic Philip Morton Shand. As a result of the exhibition Ph.M. Shand and G. M. Boumphrey established FINMAR, a company dedicated to importing and selling Aalto-designed furniture in England. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City held an exhibition of his work, showing furniture that he had designed and photographs of his buildings.
The New York Museum of Modern Art had held an exhibition of the Aaltos' work in 1938, and in the same year he made the first trip to America. There he was appointed a research professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge. He returned to Finland due to the Winter War (November 1939-March 1940), between Finland and the Soviet Union. After the World War II Aalto headed the planning office set up to rebuild that country following the devastation of war.
In the 50's he immersed himself in his sculpting, be it with bronze, marble, or mixed media. This paid off as he produced an outstanding piece for the memorial of the Battle of Suomussalmi (1960), located on the battlefield.
The early 1960s and 1970s (up until his death in 1976) were marked by key works in Helsinki, in particular the huge town plan for the void in centre of Helsinki adjacent to Töölö Bay and the vast railway yards, and marked on the edges by significant buildings such as the National Museum and the main railway station, both by Eliel Saarinen.
Outside Finland, most of Aalto's works are in Germany, a country from which he was already receiving commissions in the 1950s. There are also buildings designed by his office in Estonia, France, Switzerland, Denmark, Bangladesh, Italy and Sweden.
Alvar Aalto had little interest in politics throughout his life. That however did not prevent him from siding with the White Army during the Russian and Finnish civil war, which he saw as defending of his homeland.
At the later stage of his life, Aalto’s works were often criticized by left-wing activists, who saw them as an opposition to their views about the arts. Although Aalto himself has never shown any signs of concern on that matter.
For Aalto history was an important source of ideas and inspiration but no longer a methodological guideline. He was always prepared to replace buildings erected by previous generations with structures of his own. Aalto strongly represented the Western ideal of the architect – that of the enlightened autocrat whose task as a designer and the client's trusted partner is to direct the production of a built environment in its broadest sense and in all its aspects, from general plans to the details of interior design. In his case this task involved a firm belief that his own creations were functionally and aesthetically superior to those of his predecessors.
In his London speech in 1957 Alvar expressed his views on architecture. He said: “We should work for simple, good, undecorated things – things which are in harmony with the human being and organically suited to the little man in the street”.
"God created paper for the purpose of drawing architecture on it. Everything else is at least for me an abuse of paper." Alvar Aalto, Sketches, 1978, 104.
"We should work for simple, good, undecorated things" and he continues, "but things which are in harmony with the human being and organically suited to the little man in the street." Alvar Aalto, speech in London 1957.
Despite being a combat veteran, Aalto was known for his anarchical, even anti-militaristic personality. He is often described as a bohemian, wit man with exuberant grim humor.
Aalto was sometimes determined to a degree where it could be called stubbornness, but his vivid mind and unique sense of humor usually helped him to leave a good impression on the others.
Quotes from others about the person
“Aalto's international reputation was sealed with his inclusion in the Sigfried Giedion's influential book on Modernist architecture “Space, Time and Architecture: The growth of a new tradition” (1949), where Aalto received more attention than any other Modernist architect, including Le Corbusier. In his analysis of Aalto, Giedion gave primacy to qualities that depart from direct functionality, such as mood, atmosphere, intensity of life and even national characteristics, declaring that “Finland is with Aalto wherever he goes”.
Italian Marxist architecture historians Manfredo Tafuri and Francesco Dal Co were less enthusiastic however. They said: “historical significance has perhaps been rather exaggerated; with Aalto we are outside of the great themes that have made the course of contemporary architecture so dramatic. The qualities of his works have a meaning only as masterful distractions, not subject to reproduction outside the remote reality in which they have their roots”.”