Excerpt from ‘Alvar Aalto, and the identity of his Organic Architecture’

‘Säynätsalo Town Hall, the red period and the public domain’

Alvar Aalto has been evolving his ideology in architecture quite radically from the ‘early years’ until his ‘mature years’ with several steps backwards and brave leaps forward, and in a way both these ‘movements’ characterize the Säynätsalo Town hall. This project accumulates the big idea behind the Aalto Philosophy and according to Malcolm Quantrill the Town Hall was a challenge for the architect and a project-protagonist for the office. It is interesting to notice…the Säynätsalo Town Hall was for Alvar Aalto a remodelling period or even an opportunity to restructure his identity. Explicitly enough, Malcolm Quantrill distilled the idea behind the project and explained the reason why Aalto showed special interest[1].

A poetic comparison of the project is the responsibility of the design in accordance to the size of the structure, a miniature municipal building that is supposed to have an administrative status, a social character and a culture center[2]. Aalto’s approach was an accumulation of ideas and principals and as previously stated it is the epitome of the architect’s whole career[3]… In Karl Fleig’s – The Complete Work – there are drawings of Alvar Aalto’s intentions for the urban organization of the residential and municipal areas and it can be noted that he already had envisioned the perfect site for the Town Hall[5].

The Säynätsalo Town Hall signifies the ‘red period’ for Aalto[6]… Aalto seemed to be fully accustomed to the idea of using the bricklaying technique in Finland – “The walls built with these bricks resemble society in that they are made up of a wide range of different individuals”[7]. We can see that for Aalto the brick was a very important element of construction, since his interpretation was a method of maintaining detail and quality in design. A brick wall, for him, was a statement where every brick was starting a conversation, or else, each brick is a unique architectural instrument and each wall is the result of a successful composition[8]. The bricks laid on the external faces of the oblique walls were of irregular sizes and carefully offset from one another with Flemish bond so that each one would have different shading while exposed to the sparse sunlight of Finland…

… At a first glance it might be apparent that Aalto used the typology of a Greek-Polis or the organization of a Medieval Italian town and it is very well documented in several sources, however we witness elements of the traditional Karelian Architecture. Isolating some of the basic ideas from Aalto’s article in Uusi Suomi – “Karelian Architecture” – we can visualize the resemblance in what he writes and his design for the Säynätsalo Town Hall. This article, however, is an attempt from the architect, during the Second World War, to nationalize this particular type of architecture, something that Göran Schildt characterizes as an ‘obvious nationalistic myth’[12]. It is interesting, though, to note Alvar Aalto’s first attempt to fully express ‘his strong feeling for spontaneous, organic architecture and his vision of a purely functional architecture freed from the shackles of style’… Aalto is implying that the Scandinavian pine timber used is associated with the marbles of the Greek ruins, a reminder of the fact that the Town hall is an assemblage of a single material both externally and internally… Aalto insists that in this way the spaces do not depend on the formation of the roof pitch structure such as the imperialist construction style, an element that Richard Weston claims that it has been emulated in the composition of Säynätsalo[13]

The Town Hall is a complex structure that requires a concrete architectural concept in order to be successful and the Säynätsalo Town Hall is a very rich entity. Moving from the symbolic realm to the architectural statement, the programme for the building is a rather simple division of public and private domains. Aalto took advantage of the sloping ground and built the Town Hall in a circular formation in order to avoid using internal corridors and losing usable space[15][16]… According to Kenneth Frampton the library is the freestanding unit of the complex and it is ‘organically’ associated with the public by using a simile devised by Aalto in his “the Trout and the Stream” text[17]The brick bench is distanced from the wall exposed to the elements by five to six centimetres providing a warm and comfortable sitting space. Moreover, there is no intention of blocking either the daylight to flood the corridor or the view to the courtyard outside, while by night-time the spotlights targeting outwards on the glazing reshape the whole experience by relating the exterior condition to the interior with the effect of reflection[18]. It seems that the corridor is not only a mere access passage but Aalto has designed it to serve as a place of meeting, congregation and intermission or loitering. The main character of the space is particularly welcoming, modest and homelike thanks to the combination of warm, earthy materials and even at the point of intimate contact between the visitor and the building, leather door handles and wooden hand-rails are the dominant features[19]…Undoubtedly, the lofty council chamber is the center of attention and in analysis there are plenty of interpretations, which justify its success, however the main focus of this research is the natural and ‘organic’ character it radiates. In a video-recording/documentary for Alvar Aalto and the municipal center in Säynätsalo, the narrator refers to an early set of initial preparatory sketches for the council chamber where Aalto seems to throw a hint for the selection of the butterfly trusses; the lines of force and the light rays from the hanging lights form an hourglass that in a way seems like the transmission of force that enlighten the decisions[21]. Göran Schildt, on the other hand, justifies the aesthetic purpose – associations with medieval roof beams that promote traditional techniques of construction instead of the new technological applications – and includes Aalto’s comment on the purely practical purpose – “my ‘butterflies’ support both the ceiling and the roof, permitting the free circulation of air between them…”[22].

The building has been justified in design and it has been looked it great detail by many researchers and architects. It is a revolutionary synthesis that reflects the course of Aalto’s ideology. In contrast to other of his projects, the Säynätsalo Town Hall is a collective implementation of what Aalto had to offer, however in the context of a public building. The Town Hall has a flow of circulation, a concise division of function, a feel of its purpose, a proof of the labour it required and finally a ‘sense of place’. Aalto has attributed all these because of his ideology, which in a way can be interpreted as his ‘organic identity’.

[1] Malcolm Quantrill, Alvar Aalto: A Critical Study, New Amsterdam – New York 1983, pp. 122-129

[2] Ibid, p. 128

[3] Richard Weston, Alvar Aalto (London: Phaidon Press, 1995), p.132

[5] Karl Fleig, Alvar Aalto – The Complete Work, Volume 1, Birkhäuser, 1990 pp.108

[6] Juhani Pallasmaa, The Thinking Hand – Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture, John Wiley & Sons 2009, p. 60

[7] Göran Schildt, Alvar Aalto: The Mature Years, New York: Rizzoli, 1991, p.159

[8] Juhani Pallasmaa, The Thinking Hand – Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture, pp. 60-61

[12] Göran Schildt, Alvar Aalto: In His Own Words, Rizzoli New York 1998, p. 116

[13] Göran Schildt, Alvar Aalto: In His Own Words, op.cit, pp. 117 – 118 & Richard Weston, op. cit, p.138

[14] Jari Heikkilä, Architect, Dr & Risto Suikkari, Architect, Researcher, Log Structures in Finnish Architecture – Continuing the Tradition, University of Oulu, Department of Architecture, Finland

[15] Richard Weston, op. cit, p.142

[16] Comparisons made from the Göran Schildt’s book the Mature Years and my visit to the building in the summer of 2009.

[17] Kenneth Frampton, Modern Architecture: a critical history, third edition, pp. 200-201

[18] This is part of my personal experience, empowered by Richard Weston’s theory of the ‘sense of place’, during my stay in the town hall guest room. I had been informed that the effect is even more powerful during the winter seasons when the sun is slightly rising from the horizon and the daylight is sparse.

[19] Malcolm Quantrill, op. cit, pp. 131 & 134

[21] Architecture 17 of 23, Alvar Aalto, the Community Centre of Säynätsalo, Finland, 1995

[22] Göran Schildt, Alvar Aalto: The Mature Years, op. cit, p. 161

the text has been summarised to give a concentrated sense of what was written in the original read… written by Mario Soustiel