Alvar Aalto – Nature as a Scale

Alvar Aalto, one of the most important architects of modernism, was born 125 years ago. He grew up in Jyväskylä in central Finland. The opening of the Aalto2 museum hub occurred on 27 May as the highlight of the anniversary year. It combines two Alvar Aalto-designed edifices, the Museum of Central Finland (1956-61, 1991) and the Alvar Aalto Museum (1971-73). The new section built between the two museums forms a connection between the two buildings, where one can experience a fascinating piece of the history of Central Finland and explore Alvar Aalto’s outstanding architecture and design.

It is well known that his relationship with nature played a central role in his work. The historian Rainer Knapas and landscape architect Tom Simons now shed light on this interplay of nature, garden and landscape as well as architecture in a book that has unfortunately only been published in a Finnish and a Swedish edition for the time being: “Alvar Aalto. Naturen som måtstock” (parvs.fi).

For the first time, this book examines the important role that garden art and landscape architecture played in Aalto’s work. Nature’s infinite wealth of forms inspired him throughout his life, be it in the design of architectural details or furniture or in his choice of materials – stone, brick and, above all, wood. It is exciting to read that the young Alvar Aalto went hunting, went on long hikes with his father, was quite talented as a painter and devoted himself to nature and landscape motifs. At the beginning of the 20th century, Finnish culture was still characterised by national romanticism, even though industrial forestry was taking hold and gradually taking away from the romanticism of the forest.

Aalto studied architecture at the Helsinki Technical College, where he came into contact with the medieval roots of Finnish architecture through his teacher Armas Lindgren, as well as with the English Arts and Crafts movement, where the garden was seen as an extension of the house. This was to become significant in the houses and villas that Aalto created in the 1930s. But first came Le Corbusier with his polemical writings. Landscape and garden were important to him, not only as extras in the aesthetic play with architectural forms – something neglected in research, as Tom Simons notes.

Aalto adapted the tendencies of modernism quite quickly and won the competition for the Paimio Lung Sanatorium with a design that is still impressive today. The free grouping of the building wings found a counterpart in the geometric terrace composition in the middle of the forest landscape. This is one of the first modern landscape architectures in Europe.

Aalto created another icon in 1938 with the Villa Mairea and the pool in organic form. It is little known that Thomas Church was inspired by it for his world-famous pool in the Donnell Garden in California (1948) during a visit to Finland.

Villa Mairea, Aalto’s home in Helsinki and the Muratsalo summer house exemplify the architect’s understanding of the surrounding landscape and the connection between house and garden. In this context, the garden should, above all, be a place for the unfolding of nature, whose vital force is even allowed to overpower the architecture, as the ageing Aalto saw nature with a wink. Tom Simons notes that there were gaps to be filled in the understanding of Aalto’s work with this book. It would be all the more important to present this book in English soon.


Published on May 30, 2023

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