Alvar Aalto

Helsinki, Finland

Architect-designer Alvar Aalto was born in Kuortane, Finland in 1898. He enrolled at the Helsinki Institute of Technology in 1916 and, although his studies were disrupted by the Finnish Civil War, he graduated with a degree in architecture in 1921. In 1923, he established an architectural studio in Jyväskylä, Finland, marrying fellow architect Aino Mandelin the following year. In 1927, the office moved to Turku. Aalto’s aesthetic evolved from a neo-classical style to a functionalist one during the late 1920s and, in the 1930s, moved towards a less rigid Rationalism with an eye for nature’s organic models, ultimately embracing modernism in the 1950s.

Aalto was committed to the concept of a Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art), emphasizing fluidity between his projects’ surrounding environments and their interiors. He experimented with plywood in designs such as the Paimio Chair (1931–32), while the Paimio Sanatorium (1932) was driven by the idea that the building itself could contribute to the healing process. In 1935, Aalto met factory owners Maire and Harry Gullischsen, with whom he launched Artek. The furniture company manufactured and sold Aalto’s designs in Finland and abroad, and thanks in part to his relationship with the Gullischsens, Aalto received important large-scale Finnish industry planning and building commissions.

In 1937, Aalto designed the Finnish Pavilion at the International Expo of Arts and Technology in Modern Life in Paris. Its success led to a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York the following year. In 1939, he designed the Finnish Pavilion at the World’s Fair in New York. During the 1940s, he taught architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge; his time there culminated in his design of the Baker House Dormitory (1947–49). Working on the postwar reconstruction of Finland’s towns and cities, he advocated flexible standardization of large-scale industrialized building, wherein the building elements could be combined in multiple ways to satisfy various environments and users’ needs.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Aalto was highly productive; notable projects include the Kansaneläkelatos (National Pensions Insurance Institute) in Helsinki as well as commissions outside Finland, ranging from a lavish residence near Paris for art dealer Louis Carré (1956) to a church in the mountain town of Riola, Italy (built 1975–80). Following Aino’s passing in 1949, Aalto married architect Elissa Mäkiniemi in 1952.

Aalto passed away in 1976 in Helsinki.