Rana Culture Walks – Alvar Aalto

Alvar Aalto

03.02.1898-11.05.1976 – A Modern Visionary

Alvar Aalto’s style represents modern architecture. He can be considered a trendsetter in Finland, as well as internationally. Aalto’s contribution to the modernization of Finnish society, functionalism, the development of social architecture and standardized construction has been considerable.


Childhood and Youth

Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto was born in February 1898 in Kuortane. In 1903, Aalto’s family moved to Jyväskylä. Harjukatu 10 became a significant environment for young Alvar. In addition to the single-story main building, the yard of the house included several other buildings, such as a stable, a baker’s shop, a caretaker’s apartment, and a barn. The tenants brought their addition to the yard, as the Aaltos were renting a small apartment in the main building and a separate house. The large plot was also an imaginative place for children to play.

The community of Harjukatu 10 was inhabited by people from different social classes, such as the family of baker Malmström, rental chauffeur Hänninen with his horses and Hjalmar von Alfthan, who worked as an official for the crown. The rich environment and layout of the yard are likely to have had a significant impact on the young Alvar Aalto, which was later reflected in his architecture. This can be seen, for example, in the placement of Aalto’s buildings to free organic form and returning to slope construction.

In addition to the rich variety of neighbors, Aalto’s house was visited by several celebrities of the era. Alvar himself has said that he ran to the bank to exchange poet Eino Leino’s bank bills while his father Johan and Leino enjoyed hot toddies. Novelist Juhani Aho and artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela are also known to have been in contact with the Aaltos.

At the age of eight, Alvar experienced great grief when his mother Selma died suddenly of meningitis. The situation was alleviated by Selma’s sister Flora, who lived in the same house. Flora had previously left her teaching position and joined Johan Henrik’s surveying office as a drafter. She was the beloved Aunt Flora in the lives of the children, and became their new stepmother. It has been speculated that the marriage of Flora and Johan Henrik was a marriage of convenience. However, over time, they became attached, and the children called Flora “mammu”.



In the spring of 1908, Alvar sought to enter the Jyväskylä Lyceum. However, he had difficulties with the entrance examination. There were a hundred errors in the text he wrote, but they were thought to be due to the boy’s nerves. His aunts helped all summer Alvar with writing so he could enter the first grade in the autumn. Alvar is thought to have suffered from a writing disorder. However, his difficulties with writing were compensated by excellent oral language skills. In addition, Alvar was particularly gifted in mathematics and natural sciences. His favourite subject at school was drawing, in which he was talented.

In May of 1916, when Alvar was to complete his matriculation examination, his parents stood nervous in the port of Jyväskylä. At the time, it was customary for students to take the exam twice. The first exam was taken in the port before a boat trip to Helsinki, where the final approval to become a student was undertaken. Alvar’s examination took so long that the boat had already been detached from the dock before he completed his examination and he jumped on board to join his classmates. Alvar was also a hard-working writer, and the stories and reports he wrote were published, for example, in the Keski-Suomi newspaper when he was 15 years old.

Alvar Aalto was a charismatic and skillful performer. He perfected his skills of expression already at an early age. He readily spoke at public events; especially his speech in 1916 at the funeral of the gymnastics teacher Stoore confirmed his reputation as a skilled speaker throughout the city.

In 1916, Alvar started his studies of architecture at the Helsinki Polytechnic, from which Wivi Lönn also graduated. His teachers included Armas Lindgren, Usko Nyström and Carolus Lindberg. Alvar was popular in his student community due to his ability to perform and liveliness.

After studying in Helsinki, Alvar returned to Jyväskylä in the autumn of 1923. Aalto established his own architectural studio impressively in the basement of the City Hotel (Nikolainkulma). The name of the office was “Alvar Aalto Office of Architecture and Monumental Art”. The office was acquired due to its representative location, but also as a residential apartment for Aalto and his assistant Teuvo Takala.


Aino and Elissa

Aino Marsio began her studies at the Helsinki University of Technology on September 4th, 1913 and graduated as an architect on January 20th, 1920. After graduating, Marsio found employment in the office of architect Oiva Kallio. In 1923, she moved to Jyväskylä and started working as a drafter in the office of the architect Gunnar A. Wahlroos. After Aalto founded his architectural firm, Aino Marsio began working there. The couple married soon after their first meeting in 1924. This marks the beginning of a collaboration, that also had a significant impact on Alvar Aalto’s design work.

It has been said that the couple complemented each other well. Aino Aalto is thought to be the more realistic person, curbing her husband’s impulsivity. Aino was also a more skilled drafter of the pair. Alvar is said to have been spontaneous and imaginative in his plans, while Aino was loyal to functionalist ideals. She designed practical and premeditated works throughout her career. The Aaltos founded Artek in 1935 with Maire Gullichsen and Nils-Gustav Hahl. The purpose of Artek was originally to sell and market furniture designed by Aalto.

Aino and Alvar Aalto honeymooned in Italy, which inspired Alvar in his design work. Alvar dreamed that Jyväskylä would be like the “Florence of the North”. He dreamed that the urban structure would be based on courtyard layouts that created a harmonious whole. In one article, Aalto compared the slopes of the Harju ridge to the Fiesole vineyard: “Jyväskylä must play Central Finland. The capital should be like a theatre that constantly plays songs in the spirit of its province. The city – it’s completely a matter of construction. Each facade should tell of ten acres of good fields, four lakes and five enlightened provincial persons”.

Marriage with Alvar was not always easy, as shown in a letter written by Aino in September 1933. At the time, Alvar’s congressional trip to Athens had become prolonged, and Aino was on a business trip to Oslo.

“I’m still completely shattered,

When I arrive in Oslo, I will let you know right away which hotel I am in, so you can inform me whether you will come or not. I hope you come. I have thought things through, and the result is that we have each other, our work and healthy children. It is so much that there can be no more, but to understand it you must have to have all kinds of unpleasantries, insomnia and even more sadness.”

The couple were both linguistically gifted, and they mixed languages in their letters. Aino’s letter was mostly in Finnish, but it included also Swedish, as well as German phrases that Aino used to express her feelings.

Reference: YleAreena Audio, P.S Kirjoita pian. Available from: https://areena.yle.fi/audio/1-50835370. Published on 7.7.2021.

Aino became seriously ill in 1946 and underwent surgery the same year. After the surgery, however, she continued her work in the management for Artek, where she had worked since 1941, and travelled to Switzerland to mend relations that had been broken due to the Second World War. Aino Aalto’s state of health deteriorated rapidly in 1948 and she had to leave her work at Artek. News of Aino’s poor condition caused Alvar to travel back to Finland from the United States. Aino Marsio Aalto died of breast cancer only at the age of 53 in her home on January 13th, 1949. After Aino’s passing, chaos ensued in the architectural firm. Alvar was broken by grief after the death of his wife.

Elsa Kaisa Mäkiniemi graduated as an architect in 1949 from the Helsinki University of Technology and began working in Alvar Aalto’s office the same year. Elsa Mäkiniemi’s career in the architect’s office began as an entry-level job, and Aalto did not pay attention to Elsa at first. However, she was soon given responsibility in the office. The first significant task was the Säynätsalo municipal building project. In addition, she worked as head architect in the University of Jyväskylä project.

Several stories exist of how the young architect came to be in Aalto’s architectural firm. It is said that Elsa had arrived at Aalto’s office with a folding table after the work had ended at her previous post. Upon arrival at the office, an employee noticed Elsa’s shoes and stated: “Your shoes are so rough, poor child, that you ought to borrow mine”. Elsa Mäkiniemi went to the meeting in loaned shoes, and so her long career in the Aalto architectural firm began.

Elsa Mäkiniemi was the cause of Alvar’s recovery after the loss of Aino. Their relationship was a secret at first. They made a secret trip to Italy in 1951. A year later, the couple was already married, and Elsa Kaisa Mäkiniemi took on the name Elissa Aalto at the wedding because Alvar did not think the common name of Elsa was suitable for his wife. Thus, the Kemi-born northern girl soon became a world-travelled cosmopolite.

Alvar Aalto died in 1976 at the age of 78, after which Elissa took over the management of the architectural firm to complete the works in progress. The operations of the Aalto architectural firm were closed down in 1994 after the death of Elissa.

Laaksonen Petri, Alvar Aallon jalanjäljillä 2020. Publisher Rakennustaito Oy
Aino Aalto. Publisher Alvar Aalto foundation, Alvar Aalto Museum 2004.
Göran Schildt, Valkoinen pöytä, Alvar Aallon nuoruus ja taiteelliset perusideat 1982.


The Main Building of the University of Jyväskylä, 1955

Aalto Campus

Alvar Aalto won the architectural competition in June 1951 with his URBS plan. Jyväskylä’s developing pedagogical university needed new buildings. The construction of the university campus was started based on Aalto’s plans in Seminaarinmäki and the adjacent field area in 1954–1959. The campus has taken on Anglo-American influences as a result of Aalto’s business trips. It has been said that the term campus was first introduced to Finland in Jyväskylä. References to ancient, medieval, and renaissance architecture can be seen in the campus complex designed by Aalto. The facades of the buildings have used red brick and large strip-like windows to accentuate the surrounding nature. The buildings follow the landscape. (University of Jyväskylä Campus Guide)


Main Building

The most spectacular building on the campus, designed by Alvar Aalto, is the main building. It is also the first Aalto building planned for the area. The building is divided into an administrative wing and a public section with a café, a foyer for the assembly hall and stairs leading to the assembly hall on the upper level. The large assembly hall became a popular celebration venue as it was the only large concert hall in the city, and it was often rented for anyone interested. The hall can be divided into two parts for different purposes. The assembly hall is designed in a fan-like shape. The café is placed lower than the rest of the building, and thanks to the large windows, a beautiful ridge landscape can be viewed from the café. The name of the café, Belvedere, stands for a beautiful view. The passageway in the main building, which is as high as the main building, was originally supposed to be the only passage through. From the hall, stairs lead to the administration wing and lecture halls. The fourth floor has studio-like facilities for teaching fine arts. The buildings designed by Aalto are examples of Gesamtkunstwerk, in which both indoor and outdoor spaces are carefully designed to form a certain whole. Aalto himself was meticulous in that the whole matched his vision.


Lozzi (Alvar Aalto 1954)

Lozzi has received its name from the old canteen building of the women’s seminar, named after the pedagogue Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. The original Lozzi was founded in 1937. Lozzi was also the first state-sponsored student restaurant. The restaurant served as a gathering place on Saturdays to dine and listen together to the popular Lauantain toivotut radio show. Student union ceremonies and other events were held several times in Lozzi before the construction of the student house. The biggest festivities were Christmas parties, May Day parties, various balls, and the most spectacular anniversary dances. The dining room was criticized for being too large, but soon the space became cramped. In addition to the restaurant hall, Lozzi has two club rooms. The bright dining room is reached by brick stairs. The most significant architectural element in the dining room are the massive pine rafters. Red brick has been used as the wall material.


Student House (Ilokivi) 1965

In the late 1950s, the Student Union of the University of Education wanted facilities of their own. To realise the student house, various fundraising events, i.e., tärsky, were organized, with which the student union raised the sum of FIM 10 million. President Urho Kekkonen was the patron of the fundraiser. The Student House project was completed after several phases in 1965. The name Ilokivi relates to a large boulder located in a nearby forest. Students had a tradition of singing on the rock in the springtime. The tradition lives on, as one may still find themselves singing away next to the rock after springtime festivities. The interior of Ilokivi has changed over time. During the construction phase of the student house, it was decided to establish the city’s first bowling alley in the basement of Ilokivi. The bowling alley was demolished in 1990 as part of a renovation, and the cultural space “black box” was built in its place. The basement floor was put to versatile use after the cultural space became operational. There is a student theatre, a campus cinema and an on-site restaurant. In 2015–2016, Ilokivi underwent a renovation and a partial restoration. The student house is still actively used by the student union and as a restaurant space.


Faculty of Physical Education 1971

In 1963, the teaching of physical education began at the University of Jyväskylä. The Faculty of Sports Science was formed in 1968 and is the only one of its kind in Finland. The building was the last building designed by Aalto’s office on Seminaarinmäki when Alvar Aalto lived. The sports building stands out from other campus buildings with white plaster. The building is connected to the surrounding campus by, for example, its strip-like windows.

The column theme of the main entrance continues in the interior of the building, partly upholstered in stick bricks. The use of pole bricks can also be seen in other buildings on the Aalto campus, such as the columns in the lobby of the main building. From the spacious lobby of the Faculty of Physical Education building, the main stairs lead to the café and the lecture halls on the second and third floors. Aalto is especially known for spacious lobby spaces. The administrative premises are on the third floor. On the first floor, you will find gyms, changing rooms and laboratory facilities. In the past, the building also had its own library, but today it is replaced by the Sports Learning Centre.


Heiska House

Artist Jonas Heiska bought a plot of land in 1909 after winning a state landscape painting competition. He started designing the house in 1912 together with his friend Antti Halonen. Heiska represented late 19th-century national romanticists and acted unlike his colleagues who built their artist studios in the countryside; he had already seen that life as a farmer. The facade of the building is no different from the neighbours, but inside there is a bright studio. Significantly, the Central Finland Artists ‘Association was established in the Heiska home, which preceded the Jyväskylä Artists’ Association. Jonas’ daughter Vappu Heiska, who bequeathed the house to the city of Jyväskylä, also lived in the house. The house has a museum during the summer.

Jonas taught the craft of painting to Alvar Aalto in this house. Young Alvar wanted to learn oil painting, which is why he contacted Jonas during his student days. After a short time, Heiska already considered his student a colleague. He praised Alvar’s work, and they exchanged paintings with each other. Aalto is known to have taken painting lessons from Eero Järnefelt during his studies in Helsinki. Aalto remained an avid painter until his death.


Villa Karpio

Aalto was commissioned by police chief Karpio for a modest summer cottage in 1923. He designed the alterations for the existing hillside building. Aalto designed a two-storey extension and a garage for the house, but the plan was not fully realised. The porch was also smaller than planned. The extension constituted of one extra floor with two rooms and a kitchen. The house with its large porch located on the hillside is an interesting example of Aalto’s style at the time.


Karpio House

Surveyor Janne Karpio moved into the house with his family in May 1905. The blueprint of the house was a wedding gift for a young couple from Lars Sonck, a friend and fellow student of Janne Karpio. The first alterations to the villa were made in the 1910s when Wivi Lönn made alterations to the house. Her influence is, for example, the beautiful corner tower with a magnificent view of Lake Jyväsjärvi. The extension of the house was designed by Alvar Aalto in the 1920s. The kitchen was moved, and a kitchen staircase and a garage were built on the street side of the villa.


Alvar Aalto Museum

The Alvar Aalto Museum Society was founded in Jyväskylä in 1966. The main goal of the society was to found and maintain the art museum. The blueprint for the museum was completed in 1971 and the building itself came to be two years later. However, Aalto did not want to draw the museum only to show his work but designed the building so that all forms of visual art would be well-represented in the building. The vertical glazed rod clinker stripes accentuate the walled façade, creating a relief effect and depth to the building’s exterior lining. The facade is made of bricks by Arabia. The entrance is windowless except for the small windows near the doors. The surfaces of the doors are copper. On the first floor, you will find a lobby area, a cloakroom, a café, a museum shop and office and storage spaces. The exhibition space on the second floor is about 700 square meters large.


The Museum of Central Finland

The Museum of Central Finland contacted Aalto as early as 1953 regarding a new museum building. However, for financial reasons, the museum project was postponed. The final plans were completed in 1959. Aalto gave the blueprint as a gift “as a sign of his affection for his home district”.

This whitewashed building is on the slopes of Ruusupuisto. Ruusupuisto was thought to be a good location for museums due to its proximity to universities. The exhibition spaces on the second floor of the building are illuminated by high windows and skylights. In the lecture hall, Aalto used a wavy wooden panel ceiling. This is a reference to the ceiling of the lecture hall of the Vyborg Library.

Aalto drew up preliminary expansion plans as early as 1976 when museum facilities became cramped. The extension was postponed for almost a decade due to town plan changes and economic reasons. These old plans, however, no longer suited the needs of the museum.


Campus guide of the University of Jyväskylä
Website of the University of Jyväskylä Science Museum
Teeleidi website
Alvar Aalto museum website
The website of the Museum of Central Finland
The book Alvar Aalto ja Keski-Suomi. Kapanen ja Mattila 1985. Published by Alvar Aalto society.
Finnish Literature Society’s biography website