Along with Frank Lloyd Wright, Finnish architect Alvar Aalto stands out for being a contemporary architect with an extremely personal style that blends the historical and the contemporary. But unlike Wright, who had been born under a decade after the end of the Civil War and did his early work in the same century, Aalto (1898–1976) began his career because modernism spread across Europe. The architect’s earliest buildings followed Nordic classicism, but he quickly moved on to functionalism, Scandinavia’s variant of European modernism. As fast as that change happened, Aalto ditched the rigor of functionalism and developed his own idiosyncratic version of contemporary architecture that discovered inspiration in the Finnish landscape.
While Villa Mairea is not the first job Aalto made in this vein, it is the very first such home for a customer (his own home arrived in 1936), and it has become one of those masterpieces of 20th-century residential buildings. Its qualities aren’t immediately apparent, since the design doesn’t have a very clear order, like other modern houses, nor the stylistic cues of standard buildings. However, Aalto’s emphasis on experience, mood and metaphor causes a home whose rich rewards should become apparent upon closer review.
Both the architect and the customer saw the home within an experiment in realizing ideas that may be applied to mass home, and a preoccupation with several architects in the years between the World Wars. Aalto felt that mass housing lacked the individual touches that make a house accentuating rather than sterile and neutral. In this vein that the home is even more contemporary than other houses with that label, he strove for purpose (the foundation for early modernist buildings) over ideology and style.
Villa Mairea in a Glance
Year constructed: 1939
Architect: Alvar Aalto
Location: Noormarkku, Finland
Seeing info: Must inquire about tours beforehand
More: 10 Must-Know Modern Homes
Aalto fulfilled Maire Gullichsen, wife of industrialist Harry Gullichsen, through his associate, Nils-Gustav Hahl, in 1935. Maire and Harry would become Aalto’s clients for the villa in Noormarkku, but maybe not before Aalto and his wife, Aino, began the furniture company Artek with Hahl and Maire; to the day the company produces the seats and glassware made by Aalto. Their friendship, which also comprised a shared view of art and society, resulted in some fairly stern advice to Aalto in the clients:”We told him that he must regard it as a experimental home; if it didn’t work out we would not blame him.”
One of Aalto’s early responses was a scheme with cantilevers echoing Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater–Aalto found it in job form in journals in 1937, when he began work on Villa Mairea.
Before Aalto’s Fallingwater-esque design, he had proposed a variation on a vernacular farmhouse. Instead of ignoring this initial impulse, Aalto enlarged his historical reach to integrate L-shaped Nordic strategies typically employed for aristocrats (proper, given the Gullichsens’ wealth). The L-shaped plans loosely specify the private outdoor space, also in the event of Villa Mairea that area is filled by means of a pool and a sauna building connected to the home by a sod-covered walkway.
This plan shape was developed and agreed upon by the customer, but even as building on the home started in its forest clearing, Aalto created changes. This is testament to the way his blending of the new and old — into what has been known as a painterly collage — can accept fluctuations, given the organic character of the modernism.
The first glimpses of the home are of a white box in the forest, however, the layering of different pieces seen by a closer look simplifies some easy reading. First is the wood box projecting in the white walls (home Harry’s library along with the living room); then you will find the canted windows on the second floor; finally there’s the asymmetrical and elongated entrance canopy sticking out from the white wall behind it.
Compare front of Villa Mairea together with front of the Gropius House; both have canopies and spiral staircase, but Aalto’s strategy is relaxed where Gropius is rigorous. I am constantly stunned at how successful Aalto’s exteriors are given the great number of things going on.
Turning one corner ever so slightly reveals even more things going on, yet all them working together. The wood quantity of the living room actually has a dark stone foundation, while in the very top is a trellis for your terrace serving the master bedroom. A dark, curving wood wall on the top floor houses Maire’s studio, a quantity that’s also expressed especially on the back facade.
A couple of outdoor details about front before moving into the rear: The living room quantity (left photograph ) has large windows with wood frames and cladding above the stone foundation; steel rods accept dividers that protect the glass. The white corner (right photo) that turns toward the kitchen-service leg of this L-plan has wood sticks layered over the walls; the angled bay windows function the children’s bedrooms. The latter’s wood decoration is part of Aalto’s forest metaphor, for which the verticals of trees are also echoed in columns along with other surfaces, indoors and out.
The design of the back side of the home is even more relaxed than the front, with a whole lot less going on. The mostly white and solid surfaces have been offset by large glass expanses serving the living and dining rooms along with the dark wood studio for Maire that we saw in the front.
Underneath Maire’s studio is a winter garden that’s accessed from outside. The piano curve of this studio is expressed from the wood guardrail and bottom of this outdoor space above. Though the structural supports are rendered in white weathered pilotis, they allude to trees and are consequently more metaphorical than logical.
From the photo on the left, the sauna can be viewed in the distance.
Inside, the forest metaphor is more pronounced, especially with the columns and nonstructural posts that not only resemble trees but cluster to help define spaces and affect one’s perception when going throughout the otherwise open spaces. Hence space is a weaving of lines and surfaces rather than a construction of columns and planes, as in other contemporary designs. This results in Aalto’s metaphorical weaving of new and old, and his casual manipulation of columns and other architectural components.
Here we’re awaiting the entrance (right), the staircase and the opening into the dining room between. Like the exterior, there’s a lot going on (wood posts, curved white wall in entry, changes in level), but what works together to create an atmosphere that is larger than the individual parts.
Turning 180 degrees from the last photo, we see the living room with its own corner hearth. The white brick wall would be the interior face of the winter , though it is treated as if it had been an outside wall. In the foreground is one of the home’s most famed details: two rattan-wrapped columns, providing the centrally situated members a tripartite division; everywhere round columns are actually bundled together with rattan.
A fantastic way of describing the home is as a collection of”episodes” Though many of the spaces (notably the ground floor) are continuous, one experiences particular materials, textures, structures, openings and other details that aren’t repeated but that match together at a profound level. Embedding the vernacular (something that can be attributed to Aalto’s working on just two Finnish pavilions for world’s fairs around the time of the home ) in the contemporary home is 1 way of strengthening the cohesion of a great number of references and details.
A couple more obscure details are the glass and handle portholes from the front door (left) and exactly what his draftsmen known as”Aalto’s ears,” a carved opening in the living room’s fireplace. Both of these details exemplify the impact of artwork but also Aalto’s ability to build an assortment of details and surfaces (many as standalone occurrences) into a cohesive design that still points the way for architecture to be contemporary without being ideologically prescribed.
Villa Mairea is maintained by the Alvar Aalto Museum and can be toured with advance booking. Those considering the home’s architecture are invited to go to the museum’s exhibition site, which features detailed information on the home and lots of drawings and photographs of it.
Curtis, William J.R. Modern Architecture Since 1900. Prentice-Hall, third edition, 1996 (first published in 1982).Giedion, Sigfried. Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition. Harvard University Press, fourth edition, 1963 (first published in 1941).Pallasmaa, Juhani. Encounters 1: Architectural Essays. Rakennustieto, 2012 (second variant ).St. John Wilson, Colin. The Other Tradition of Modern Architecture: The Uncompleted Project. Black Dog Publishing, 2007 (first published in 1995).
Villa Mairea (Alvar Aalto Museum exhibition, 2008–2009).
Weston, Richard. Alvar Aalto. Phaidon, 1995. Weston, Richard. Villa Mairea: Alvar Aalto. Phaidon, 1992. More: 10 Must-Know Modern Homes