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I’ve admired the work of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto since I was at University and I finally got around to visiting some of his buildings last February – I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them since. Although I was already familiar with his work, I found it completely refreshing – something that I didn’t (and we shouldn’t) necessarily expect from buildings that date from the 1950’s.

There seems to be something profoundly human about his architecture that others rarely achieve. Soft, Scandinavian light spills into warm wooden interiors trough tall windows that somehow make you feel like you are still walking through the native silver birch. A palpable sense of nature is an inherent quality in any Aalto building.

Säynätsalo Town Hall Library, Säynätsalo + Aalto Studio, Helsinki

There’s also something intrinsically tactile about Aalto’s work that you discover in every handrail or door handle. It’s not just a door handle; it’s an introduction to the building that begins to define your experience – like shaking hands with the building as Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa poetically puts it in his book The Eyes of the Skin. It’s qualities like these that remind me of the work of Heidegger who wrote extensively about the sensory aspects of architecture and how the physicality of materials can engage an individual with the world around them – something that I believe Aalto continually shows affinity with in his detailing.

Säynätsalo Town Hall door handle – Bronze wrapped in leather

Aalto was prolific and considered each of his buildings to be a work of art in its entirety – crafting every door handle, handrail, chair, table, lampshade and even his own glassware. I found his attention to detail and understanding of materials completely overwhelming and each building I visited exceeded my expectations.

The highlight of my trip was undoubtedly Säynätsalo Town Hall which was inspired by both Finnish vernacular architecture and Aalto’s experience of ancient ruins in Italy and Greece. On a small island just south of Jyväskylä, the Town Hall is arranged around a raised courtyard and built from a heavy brick envelope that confidently establishes a sense of weight and permanence amidst a forest of tall Finnish pine. Similar to an arcade surrounding a piazza, people move around the courtyard from within the building and are never removed from views of nature. The Town Hall chamber itself is punctuated by a tower which announces itself as the dominant feature from a distance away and the brick walls seem to be intentionally laid uneven to enliven the building’s skin.

Säynätsalo Town Hall – 1951

I walked around and through the building in awe for about 2 hours. The bronze door handle wrapped in leather, the effortless negotiation of the sloping topography – this is a true work of art, not just in how it looks and works but in how it feels.

For me, the architecture of Alvar Aalto has a timeless quality to it – Such that one day, I imagine, the likes of Säynätsalo Town Hall will itself make a beautiful ruin.

Mark

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