Aalto Designs Villa Mairea Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Alvar Aalto’s design of Finland’s Villa Mairea, an architectural masterpiece, confirmed him as one of the world’s leading architects and helped to revolutionize residential architecture.

Summary of Event

Alvar Aalto’s design and construction of Villa Mairea in Noormarkku, Finland, in 1937 and 1938 produced one of the masterpieces of modern domestic architecture. Among architects and architecture critics, the structure has been accorded rank with Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Tugendhat House (1930), Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye (1931), and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater (1936) as a twentieth century landmark. Like many other impressive artworks, Villa Mairea also represented a fruitful symbiosis between wealthy, intellectually progressive clients and an inspired architect whose own evolution required opportunity, empathy, and experimental freedom. [kw]Aalto Designs Villa Mairea (1937-1938) [kw]Villa Mairea, Aalto Designs (1937-1938) [kw]Mairea, Aalto Designs Villa (1937-1938) Villa Mairea Architecture;Finland [g]Finland;1937-1938: Aalto Designs Villa Mairea[09350] [c]Architecture;1937-1938: Aalto Designs Villa Mairea[09350] Aalto, Alvar Aalto, Aino Marsio Asplund, Erik Gunnar Le Corbusier Gropius, Walter Wright, Frank Lloyd

Aalto’s patrons and clients were millionaires Henry Gullichsen Gullichsen, Henry and his wife, Maire Ahlström Gullichsen. Gullichsen, Maire Ahlström Mrs. Gullichsen was heiress to Finland’s Ahlström fortune, wealth that had been earned over three generations in lumber, pulp mills, paper products, and furniture. Upon his marriage to Maire, Henry Gullichsen became chairman of the board of the Ahlström business. Maire, a painter by profession as well as a successful executive, collaborated with Alvar Aalto and his designer-architect wife, Aino Marsio Aalto, in manufacturing and marketing the Aaltos’ unique wood and plywood furniture. Both Gullichsens were patrons of the arts and, like the Aaltos, they were social and political liberals who looked forward to contributing to fuller lives for workers and employers alike.

By 1937, Aalto had been a practicing architect for fifteen years. Until then, both his writings about his architectural philosophy and his works clearly indicated the influence of the earlier works of Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, and several of their disciples, including Aalto’s Swedish friend and colleague Sven Markelius (Jonsson). Aalto’s early works and writings thus showed his adherence to a strict rationalist or functionalist style known as modern architecture or the International Style. Aalto, like all functionalists, rejected the older architectural criteria of aestheticism and decorativeness. Instead, he believed that a building should reflect only its specific needs. Just as an engineer would design a machine for a definite purpose rather than with an artistic end in mind, the rationalist architect, too, treated each structure as a discrete product of social, technical, psychological, and economic organization, with the architect as a presumptive social administrator. The creation of beauty, of course, was not ignored, but it was asecondary consideration in the design of functionalist architecture.

Aalto’s earlier designs and structures, therefore, display the characteristically spartan, boxlike, and elementary geometric forms that Le Corbusier, himself a painter as well as author and architect, derived from purist and cubist painting. There was ample evidence of this bent in four of Aalto’s most important commissions before 1937: the Turun-Sanomat newspaper building (1928-1929), the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium (1930-1933), the Viipuri Municipal Library (1933-1935), and the Helsinki Savoy restaurant (1937). The modernist style is also reflected in his (and Aino’s) splendidly distinctive functional furniture, which by the mid-1930’s had gained international acclaim.

By the late 1930’s, however, Aalto’s perspectives were changing. There were several explanations for this. To begin with, after Eliel Saarinen’s departure for the United States, Aalto aspired to replace him as Finland’s dominant national architect. Then, too, during the 1930’s, with the broadening of his influential professional contacts in Europe and the United States, Aalto shed much of his remaining provincialism. Morever, the freedom vouchsafed him by the Gullichsens to design their vacation home in Noormarkku allowed him to synthesize the best aspects of his previous designs. Aalto sited Villa Mairea in the hills of western Finland’s pine forests on an Ahlström family estate that contained domestic architecture representative of three generations of one of Finland’s leading families. The villa was intended to serve as a vacation home for the Gullichsens and their children, as an art studio for Maire, and as a business and entertainment center—or, as need be, a retreat—for both husband and wife. Aalto was to design everything: building, interior decor and furnishings, swimming pool, and sauna.

Completed, the villa established a great sense of privacy yet satisfied all of the Gullichsens’ practical and aesthetic requirements. The building was a U-shaped, open structure that nevertheless was subtly divided into living and service areas. Thus, although the ground-floor living spaces were flowing and continuous, they could be broken up for the display or enjoyment of the family’s collected art by means of easily movable partitions (in which artworks were also stored), and dining facilities were separate. The ample living room was divided between a private Finnish hearth and, by way of contrast, a substantial, well-planted solarium with large picture windows. Far to the left of the main entrance was a superstructure that served as Maire Gullichsen’s studio, which on the second floor gave way to another living room and bedrooms with boldly projecting windows. To the rear, visible directly through back windows of the main living room, ran a covered portico that ended in a right angle containing a sauna—almost Japanese in its motifs—and a kidney-shaped swimming pool. The home’s rough “U” was closed by forest.

Aalto’s inimitable detailing marked both exterior and interior. Outside, there were venetian blinds, exposed vertical board and batten, columns bound by willow withes, and a natural turf-and-grass roof for the sauna. The inside featured pole space dividers, living room pillars protected by leather wrappings, slatted wood ceilings of Finnish birch, distinctive ventilation through tens of thousands of hand-bored holes in the living room ceiling, daringly ingenious staircases, and, throughout, specially designed Aalto furniture. Villa Mairea, as critic Göran Schildt summarized, embodied “the vernacular tradition, the organic overall conception of Art Nouveau, Neo-Classical humanism, rational Functionalism, Japanese feeling for texture and Aalto’s personal susceptibility to the complex interaction of natural forces.”

By the late 1930’s, Aalto was taking full advantage of his clients’ natural environments and designing structures that afforded them the most humane living and working conditions. The Sunila Sulphate Mill, completed in 1939, rises out of its granitic terrain faced by a warm, rough Finnish brick, its horizontal lines softened by a slight arch over the central structure and accented by a tall smokestack. Nearby is the employee and executive housing, initially a small, cellular community that Aalto planned around a communal laundry and steam bath—later expanded to include larger civic and community centers—has been kept to human proportions by using the broken granite moraine to divide dwellings into modest clusters. Furthermore, at Aalto’s insistence, few of the houses are identical; in line with the evolution of Finland’s ancient village housing, provisions were made for each home to expand as family needs changed. Aalto carefully discriminated between the need for standardized production of construction materials and standardized housing.

Aalto’s concern with placing humans more properly in their natural surroundings by the use of rugged, natural materials became even more apparent in his design of the Finnish Pavilion for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. New York World’s Fair (1939)[New York Worlds Fair] World’s Fair, New York (1939)[Worlds Fair] A proud nationalist aware of his country’s need for good relations with the United States, he built the pavilion of Finnish woods and highlighted the interior with an undulating wooden display wall reminiscent of the northern lights. The pavilion was a warm, inviting structure adjacent to the American exhibition and provided a romantic alternative to the International Style. Aalto’s new rationalism had accomplished much the same effect in his stepped multiple housing project at Kauttua, where varied residential structures marched up a hillside as in an Italian hill town and where Aalto’s use of vertical poles and metal railings, covered with vines, repeated themes from the surrounding trees and forests.

With the reconstruction required in 1940 after the end of the Russo-Finnish War—one immense consequence of which was the loss of Karelia, Finland’s most populous province, and the forced resettlement of a huge population—Aalto even more imaginatively spoke to his desire to clarify relations between humans and nature in his design of the cellular housing project of Rovaniemi. More impressive still was his plan for the Finnish Technical Institute at Otaniemi, on the outskirts of Helsinki, where terrain almost entirely dictated the structure’s character. Thereafter, just as Aalto had drawn some inspiration from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater house in Pennsylvania, so too his own future work was characterized increasingly by his departures from literal rationalism toward a more personal, more humane, architectural expression. The evolution of his style is visible in his later works, such as his design of the Baker House (1946-1949) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Aalto taught part-time from 1945 to 1951.


The completed Villa Mairea marked Aalto’s maturation. His background and character, blended through experience with his work, modified, romanticized, and humanized his earlier rationalist ideology and functionalist architecture. Born in 1898, Aalto spent formative years in a rural, heavily forested Finland that, until 1917, was a western province of Imperial Russia untouched by extensive industrialization and urbanization. Even its major resources and their related industries—timber, wood and paper products, mining, and waterpower—required only small, isolated rural communities. The forces and mythologies of nature were part of his environment, as they were for his father, a surveyor, and his grandfather, a forester. Respect for nature, terrain, and environment, qualities that began manifesting themselves in Aalto’s designs of the Paimio Sanatorium, the Viipuri Library, and the Finnish Pavilion at the 1937 Paris Exposition, became even more striking after completion of Villa Mairea.

Aalto definitively signaled his presence at Villa Mairea. He was soon viewed as Finland’s national architect and as an international figure of the front rank, and some thought him the greatest architect alive. He had reversed the formulas of Gropius and Le Corbusier; his mature view was that nature, not the machine, should be the architect’s most important model. In the United States alone, his humane perspective won him the allegiance of young architects such as Hugh Stebbins, Charles Warren Callister, and Ralph Rapson. Aalto mastered the use of his origins and its vernacular, building within the whole fabric of his environment yet bending modern materials to achieve his purposes. A warm, modest man, he lacked Le Corbusier’s capacity for stridency and self-advertisement and did not have others’ urge toward monumentality and self-aggrandizement. He was a brilliant innovator, exquisitely sensitive to his local traditions and conditions and yet able to draw on all of architecture’s major styles for the benefit of humankind. Villa Mairea Architecture;Finland

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aalto, Alvar. Alvar Aalto. Edited by Karl Fleig. Zurich: Les Éditions d’Architecture Artemis, 1970. Splendid text and photographs of Aalto’s major works. Parallel texts in German, French, and English recite detailed descriptions of Aalto structures, designs, and furnishings. Hundreds of photos and plans, but no other reader aids. Worth careful perusal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Diaconis, Pamela. Scandinavian Country. New York: Friedman/Fairfax, 1999. Provides a basic introduction to modern Scandinavian design. The book’s full-color photos make it worth examining.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Donnelly, Marion C. Architecture in the Scandinavian Countries. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992. Important in placing Aalto in the specific vernaculars of Scandinavia. An authoritative, easily read survey. Many excellent photographs and annotated texts. Appendixes, chapter notes, fine bibliography, and an excellent index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Giedion, Siegfried. Space, Time, and Architecture. 5th rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967. A recognized classic and a handmaiden to most architects’ recapitulation of their own professional history. Should be read in its entirety, but Giedion clearly understood the importance of Aalto’s outlook and work and thus included a full chapter on him before he was widely known. Some illustrative matter, notes, and bibliography, as well as an index. Outstanding, regardless of whether one agrees with the author’s critical pronouncements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gutheim, Frederick. Alvar Aalto. New York: George Braziller, 1960. Five brief, sketchy, and superficial chapters that suffice only for an introduction to Aalto. Should be supplemented with the work of Fleig, Pearson, or Schildt for any real understanding of the man or his works. Many good photographs, plans, a chronology of works, brief select bibliography, and an adequate index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lane, Barbara Miller. National Romanticism and Modern Architecture in Germany and the Scandinavian Countries. Edited by Richard A. Etlin. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Aalto certainly exhibited Romantic tendencies, and this is arguably the most thorough work ever produced on the relationships among the artistic, literary, and architectural arms of national Romanticism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pearson, Paul David. Alvar Aalto and the International Style. New York: Whitney Library of Design, 1978. Authoritative and appreciative. Organization is chronological, and the text is detailed and easily read. A fine one-volume review of Aalto’s origins, career, achievements, and philosophies. Prominence is accorded to Villa Mairea. Scores of excellent photographs and plans, good chapter notes, useful bibliography—particularly for article materials—and a solid triple-columned index. A crucial volume for laypersons and experts alike.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schildt, Göran. Alvar Aalto: The Decisive Years. New York: Rizzoli, 1986. Enjoyable and indispensable; matchless for intimate, personal perspectives on Aalto’s mature years. Schildt was Aalto’s favorite critic, and he does a brilliant job of summarizing Aalto’s and other functionalists’ ideas about a technological utopia. Also discusses changes in Aalto’s rationalist beliefs. Contains much material on Villa Mairea. Scores of excellent photographs and plans. Includes a detailed list of Aalto’s works from 1928 to 1939 along with drawings and thumbnail descriptions.

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Categories: History