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Alvar Aalto Biography: Finnish Architect and Designer

Alvar Aalto Biography: Finnish Architect and Designer

Who is Alvar Aalto?

Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) was a renowned Finnish architect and designer. He is known internationally for his distinct craftsmanship in architecture, textiles, furniture, and glassware. Besides that, he also created sculptures and painted. In this Alvar Aalto biography, we look at some of his significant works, awards, and memorials.

Alvar Aalto Biography

Born in Kuortane, Finland, Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto studied at the Jyvaskyla Lyceum School for his primary education. He completed his studies in 1916 before taking drawing lessons from Jonas Heiska, a local artist. In the same year, he enrolled at the Helsinki University of Technology, where he studied architecture.

However, his studies were interrupted by the Finish Civil War, which he took part in. He finished his studies and graduated in 1921 before joining the military service in 1922. Aalto later married his architect wife, Aino Marsio, in 1924.

While a student and even after graduating, Aalto had already commissioned his first designs. He even started to involve himself in several local projects. Over the years, his popularity grew until he became a household name.


Alvar Aalto’s career was majorly in the architectural field. It’s divided into various categories through different stages of his life. He also incorporated his artistic skills in other fields, such as making furniture and glassware designs.

Early Career: Classism

We consider Alvar Aalto as one of the most influential architects of Nordic modernism. His work is still distinguishable. A comprehensive analysis of various historical data indicates that Aalto wasn’t just an architectural pioneer in Finland but also the world. Some of the people that can come closer to his influence include his personal contacts, such as Sven Markelius and Gunnar Asplund.

From his generation, Aalto was able to start off his architecture career from the classical education system. This means that his initial projects involved the design of the Nordic Classism style. Well, this style was considered a reaction to the previously popular and dominant style, National Romanticism.

In the 1920s, he decided to move towards modernism. After that, Aalto decided to return to Jyvaskyla in 1923 and established his own office here. While here, he decided to busy himself with the designing of single-family homes using classical style. Well, this can be seen in his mother’s cousin’s manor-like house in Toys in 1923. He also designed the summer villa for Jyvaskyla’s chief constable in the same year and the Alatolo farmhouse in 1924 in Tarvaala.

The classicism period saw Aalto complete his first public buildings. They include the likes of:

  • The Seinajoki Defense Corp building
  • Jyvaskyla Defense Corps
  • Jyvaskyla Workers’ Club

Besides that, he increased his knowledge base by entering various competitions, especially those designed for prestigious architectural state-public buildings in Finland and abroad. Some of the competitions he took part in include:

  • The Finnish Parliamentary building -1923/24
  • The extension to the University of Helsinki – 1931
  • The building of the house of League of Nations in Geneva – 1926/27

From this Alvar Aalto biography, it’s clear that the classicism period saw him grow significantly. He also had some of his prolific writings in various renowned newspapers and professional journals. Some of his well-known essays include:

  • The Urban Culture -1924
  • Temple baths on Jyvaskyla
  • Urban culture
  • From doorstep to the living room
  • Abbe Coignard’s sermon

Early Career: Functionalism

Aalto’s earlier career involved a significant shift in his workings. He switched his architectural approach to modernism from classicism. This was heavily influenced by the Viipuri Library, which had undergone a significant transformation at that time (1927-1935). It was ended up becoming a high-modernist library. Previously, it was a classical building.

However, in this Alvar Aalto biography, we can’t ignore that his approach still had a humanistic touch. This is evident in this library’s interior design that features warm colors, natural materials, and undulating lines. Perhaps you are wondering why the library had a short lifespan, right? Well, Viipuri Library was closed down after 8 years due to changes on the site and financial issues.

During the operation period, Aalto was also designing the Turun Sanomat Building in addition to Paimio Sanatorium. These two designs were the first to be herald as Aalto’s move to modernism.

His earlier years also saw him become a Congress International architecture Moderne (CIAM) member through Sven Markelius. As a result, he attended the 2nd congress meeting in 1929 in Frankfurt. In 1933, Aalto attended the 4th congress meeting in Athens. Here, he developed close contact with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Philip Morton Shand, and Sigfried Giedion.

This period also saw him monitoring Le Corbusier’s work, the primary driving force behind the development of new modernism. Aalto decided to visit him in Paris several times in the subsequent years. Even though he had already done several significant works, Aalto only started getting recognized after completing Paimio Sanatorium and Viipuri Library in 1929 and 1935, respectively.

The new global attention meant that his reputation grew in bounds, especially in the US, where he received the Finnish Pavilion’s critical reception at the New York’s World Fair. His work was described as “genius,” leading to a joyous international acclamation. By 1949, he had received more attention than any other modernist architect at that time. He was ahead of even the likes of Le Corbusier.Alvar-Aalto

Mid-Career: Experimentation

The “mid-age” of his career involved lots of experiments. He tried to use wood because we wanted to move from purist modernism. As a result, he developed and commissioned the Villa Mairea in Noormarkku in 1939. Well, this was a luxury home for Harry and Maire Gullichsen, an industrialist couple.

Maire worked closely with Alvar Aalto and Aino Aalto for the design of this luxury home. It was simply a daring work, and it even included components such as a private art gallery. However, the design was never implemented in the end. However, we can’t ignore its stylish approach that features numerous influences that are borrowed from the traditional Finish vernacular, Japanese and English architecture in addition to purist modernism.

The owners were wealthy people, and they had influence. But Aalto also wanted to use it as an experiment to create a practical mass housing design. With his career growth across the borders, his newfound fame meant that he received commissions outside Finland.

For instance, in 1941, Aalto received an invitation as a visiting professor to MIT, USA. But the 2nd world war was also happening at this time. Therefore, he decided to involve the students in designing cheaper and small-scale housing to cater to the needs of the people in war-torn Finland.

Aalto’s time in the US was quite interesting. While he was teaching at MIT, he decided to design a baker house and a student dormitory. The baker house was completed in 1948, and it is considered his first building in the redbrick period. The originality of the Baker House was used in several of his designs in Finland. This mainly includes buildings in:

  • Saynatsalo Town Hall
  • The new Helsinki University of Technology campus
  • The Helsinki House of Culture
  • Helsinki Pensions Institute

Mature Career: Monumentalism

The period between the 1960s till his death in 1976 was majorly marked with significant works in Helsinki. Alvar Aalto mainly worked in the center of Helsinki due to its vast void. While here, he worked on the edges of some of the most outstanding buildings, including:

  • The main railway station
  • The National Museum

It should be noted that Aalto had proposed for the creation of a line to separate the marble-clad buildings that were fronting the bay and which would be used to house several cultural institutions, including:

  • Museum of architecture
  • Opera
  • Concert hall
  • The Finnish academy headquarters

He first presented his scheme of work in 1961. However, the scheme was improvised after undergoing several modifications. In the end, only 2 plans were eventually realized, and these were:

  • The Finlandia concert hall in 1976
  • An office building for the Helsinki Electricity Company in Kamppi district (1975)

Aalto used the Miesian formal language to outline the geometric grids of these buildings. Besides that, the same language was also used in other sites, including buildings such as:

  • SYP Bank building in 1969
  • Academic Bookstore in 1962 and
  • Enso-Gutzeit Building in 1962

His monumentalism career ended when he died in 1976. However, his widow continued to direct his official works. Elissa was responsible for overseeing that some of Aalto’s pending works are finished. They included the:

  • Essen opera house
  • Jyvaskyla City Theater


Alvar Aalto is definitely one of the greatest architects from Finland. His career started in his 20s and grew over the years. Some of greatest architectural works include:

  • Muuratsalo Experimental House – 1953

It’s an island home that Aalto had also used as his workspace. This experimental house has been around for decades, and he designed it with an L-shape. Its surroundings feature stones and boulders that are now covered with moss. During his earlier days, Aalto had experimented with bricks, ceramics, and solar heating to develop this house’s design.

  • Maison Louis Carre -1959

It’s located in France, and he had designed it for an acclaimed art dealer. This building is located on the sloped parts of the hill and developed using sandstone. It should be noted that it features curved wooden walls in addition to a large window that’s used to provide lighting to the interior.

  • The Finish Pavilion – 1939

Frank Lloyd Wright considered this work a “genius.” That’s how Aalto sealed his status globally among the finest architectural firmament. This Finnish Pavilion was displayed at the World’s Fair in New York. It earned him several awards and commissions on the global stage.

  • Finlandia Hall – 1971

It’s a seaside concert hall that’s located considered the Finnish’s capital centerpiece. The Finlandia Hall is a towering auditorium with a high roof and curved balconies. Its exterior is distinctly made of black granite and white Mable.

  • Wolfsburg Cultural Center- 1962

Uniquely wrapped in blue and white Carrara marble, this cultural center based in Germany has been rated as one of his essential works outside Finland. Wolfsburg Cultural Centre boasts of a roof terrace designed to play off the usual idea of a public square.

Furniture and Glassware

Alvar Aalto’s skill didn’t limit him in designing architectural structures, but he always designed classic and modern furniture and glassware. When it comes to furniture, his most famous design is the Paimio Chair.

  • The Paimio Chair

It’s also known as scroll chair. This furniture consists of a seat made with single undulating bet plywood that appears to be floating in the frame. He designed this chair for a tuberculosis sanatorium in Finland. Patients were to use it while on the lounge to relax and breathe more easily.

  • Model 60 Stacking Stool

It’s another outstanding piece of furniture that’s was designed in the early 1930s. Aalto decided to experiment in this creation by bending wood without the need for joinery. He reinvented it several times, and this involved the use of the L-leg, a type of chair leg used in 1933 to design this stool. This furniture was intended to be used in the Vyborg Library.

To ensure that he developed a high-quality design, Aalto repeatedly tested this design’s durability by throwing the stool prototype against the ground. It was officially presented to the public in 1933, and it has undergone continuous production since its release.

  • The Four-Legged Stool E60

This is another masterpiece that was also released to the public in 1933. The four-legged stool e60 is considered to be one of the most essential pieces of furniture. It was designed to offer versatility. It can be used as a seat, storage unit, table, and even a display surface.

According to research studies, this stool is undoubtedly one of the most copied classic designs globally. Ever since it was introduced to the world in 1933, several million pieces have been created and sold.

Other stool designs include:

  • The Armchair 404 -1935
  • Armchair 406 – 1939

Besides that, Aalto also made designs for lamps and vases such as:

  • Floor Lamp A805

This Aalto floor lamp was designed for the National Pensions Institute of Helsinki. It’s truly a timeless design piece that still complements the design of modern homes.

  • Aalto Vase – 1936

It’s also known as the Savoy Vase. This piece of glassware was designed by Aalto together with his wife, Aino. It quickly grew in popularity and became one of the most iconic Finnish glassware designs.

Alvar Aalto Biography: Alvar Aalto Awards

Some of the prominent awards that this Finnish architect and designer won include:

  • The Prince Eugen Medal in 1954
  • RIBA Gold Medal in 1957
  • AIA Gold Medal in 1963

Besides those awards, he was also elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1957). Between 1963 and 1968, he was served as the president of the Academy of Finland. His other notable positions include being a member of the Congres International d’Architecture Moderne between 1925 and 1956. In 1960, he was awarded the honorary doctorate by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Alvar Aalto Biography: Critique of Aalto’s Architecture

Aalto’s design earned him global attention. However, his inclusion in the 2nd edition of the Space, Time, and Architecture by Sigfried Giedion sealed his international reputation. Even though he got more attention for his modernist architectural works, people questioned if his position was influential in canonic history. For instance, Francesco Dal Co and Manfredo Tafuri, two Italian Marxist architecture historians, stated that his position was exaggerated. Other architects in Finland who critiqued his works include Juhani Pallasmaa and Kirmo Mikkola.

Alvar Aalto Biography: Memorials

There are different ways that this renowned architect and designer have been commemorated, and they include:

  • Being featured in the last series of the Finnish markka by being included in the 50 MK note.
  • He is the Alvar Aalto Medal’s eponym, one of the most prestigious architectural awards in the world.
  • The Piazza Alvor Aalto square was named after him in Milan, Italy.
  • Being commemorated on the Finnish postage stamp after his death in 1976

Alvar Aalto Biography: The Secret Life of Architect Alvar AaltoAlvar Aalto

While he was revered as one of the renowned architects of his time, Aalto was also a domineering philanderer. For starters, his first wife, Aino, played a vital role in his career. She was also a qualified architect who designed many building interiors. She was also involved in creating the pioneering bentwood furniture that made the Aalto name famous globally.

But their work schedules which involved traveling abroad shed a hint to Aalto’s philandering ways. In one of his letters to his wife, he states, “I have sometimes picked people up on the streets.” It’s claimed that he hand an erotic approach to his life and work.

After the death of Aino, he married Elissa, whom he domineered with his attitude, and tried to mold her into the image of his first wife. Towards the end of his life, he became introverted, and he eventually turned his frustrations to alcohol.

Final Thought

There is no doubt that Alvar Aalto was one of the most influential architects of his time. He was versatile in his crafts. He designed buildings and included other art forms in his profile, including making furniture, painting, and sculpting. He was renowned in both his home country of Finland and internationally. His architectural styles include Nordic Classicism, functionalism, as well as monumentalism. Until his death in 1976, he had significantly contributed to the architectural industry.

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