Alvar Aalto and the Bio-Architecture

Flavia Fascia Dipartimento di Ingegneria Edile Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II Piazzale Tecchio, 50 - 80125 Napoli, Italy Phone +39 081 7682130 fax +39 081 7682146 E-mail:
ABSTRACT: A careful reading of the wide and qualified architectonic production of Alvar Aalto allows us to single out bio-climatic solutions in several works of the Finnish Master. Alvar Aalto, whose architectonic production gave a considerable contribution to the development of the rational and organic architecture, has always kept in mind human demands. In this sense, it is useful to remember the S.Giedon’s way of thinking: “We can’t speak about Aalto as an architect without speaking about Aalto as a man: men have as much importance as architecture. Aalto’s interest is to everybody, to each desire and experience, without exclusion of origins or social classes ... He approached beings directly and without inhibitions; in the same way he approached wood as an organic material”. This paper aims to mark the bio-climatic aspects of some significant works: the Sanatory of Paimio, the Library of Viipuri and the Building whole of Kauttua.


In the works of the Modern Movement architects, above all in Alvar Aalto’s ones, even if the Authors doesn’t face directly the questions about bio-architecture, there is a particular care in the use of natural materials, in the insertion of the building in the natural environment, in the best sunshine conditions and natural lighting . All these elements support the quality of life and are the rudiments of the bio-architecture. The bases of Aalto’s planning are “nature and biology”; they are also the title of the introduction by Marcello Fagiolo to the essay “Idee di architettura - scritti scelti 1921-1968” published by Zanichelli and dedicated to him. Marcello Fagiolo declares that “the Aalto’s naturalism is a pattern of biological formation and growing”. This reference to the nature can be easly found in the standardized planning too. According to him, in fact, standardization must be natural; in other words it has to be considered as a “system based on infinitesimal elements, that allows a continuous variability of shapes which grow organically”. Standardization in architecture must scour the same course of the biological pattern which affects the “life of shapes”. Architecture needs scientific researches in order to understand new demands and to take society into an efficient system, where everybody can live in suitable biological conditions and where sun, air and light represent their essence. According to Aalto, architecture must involve all the aspects of human life; so the designer’s task is to put technology into men’s service. Architecture, in particular, must always serve life and so must defence men, giving humanity to the our life of machines”. Planning means to hold in due consideration materials and building methods. During the International Congress of North Land Builders at Oslo, in 1938, Alvar Aalto said: “In ancient times – Micene – or in more remote ages, when the possibilities of using materials didn’t exist or were very few, nature – the sole supplier of raw materials – fixed a limit to the building possibility. The architecture of those ancient times could be called ‘the architecture of the inventiveness’: in fact, being lacking every possibility to fit materials, they had to be used life-size. Above all block of stones, trunks of tree and skins of animals were used. Architecture was the right combination of such materials. This primitive art awakes among us queer feelings of admiration because in this period there were the first modest victories of the human mind against the raw and untouched nature. On this subject we can speak about the direct influence of materials and methods on architecture – nay – of the quite condition of dependence. Owing to the improvement of building science, the conditions of cause and effect aren’t so clearly differentiated any more. First of all materials coming directly from nature are replaced by building materials; they don’t belong to the original untreated materials any more, but they are liable to a constant manufacture that rose and rises again in the architectonic process”. From the Finnish Master’s words we can deduce that architecture mustn’t be a hole of buildings but a continuous evolving process, more and more complex, always addressed to new solutions, new shapes and new materials. “Architecture is and remains a wonderful process of sinthesis in which thousands of human compenents are involved: it is always architecture. Further, its mission is to harmonize world with life”. The reading of the architectonic production of Alvar Aalto, always marked by formal, functional and technological values, shows the interest which the Finnish Master had in problems of bio-architecture. In fact, in his works it’s often possible to read some rudiments of the bio-architecture:

• • •

the use of natural materials; the armonization of the building with the environment; the study of the work, into details too, according to natural, psicological and spiritual human demans.

Even if Alvar Aalto often uses reinforced concrete to produce his works, there are remarkable examples of using wood and bricks. Among natural materials, wood is not only a living material but also a speaking one. It is thanks to the inventive richness of shape offered by this material that Aalto find a great comfort in “the fight against metal”. In several cases in the Aalto’s production we note a return to origins. Aalto, in fact, considers: “wood is a material more biological than traditional (…) it is a living material that grows from living fibres, such as human muscles”. Wood, solemn and wild, is tamed and, as Marcello Fagiolo says, “canalized in bunches of shapes-strenghts, and then stired up and climbed to limelight into an ironic ballett of tensions and virtuosisms”. Beside the Finnish Pavillion in the Universal Exhibition of New York – in 1939 – called “a wooden poem”, there are a lot of other works were Finnish wood mark to architectonic space: The Hall for Conferences in the Viipuri Library, the Hotel de Ville in Saynatsalo, the Louis Carrè House in Bazoches-sur Guyonne, the Cultural Centre of Wolfsburg. In the Exhibition Pavillion in New York (Figure 1) there is the true

Figure 1

The Pavillion of New York

Figure 3

The Hall of Council in the Hotel de Ville of Saynatsalo

Figure 2

The Hall for Conference of Viipuri’s Library

realization of the Master’s tought: “… I believe that architecture and arts have an abstract common origin, which founds on knowledges and experiences stored up in the subconscious …”. This work seems – indeed – the synthesis of painting (owing to colour and heat of wood that covers the internal wall of the pavillion), carving (owing to the fall movement of the wooden listels that cover the wall divided into four bands) and architecture (owing to the harmony of the space that entices visitors who wish to inquire about innovations). In this work Alvar Aalto opposes the internal wavy wall – that extends along the diagonal plain of the parallelepidic space – to the geometrical severity of the outside. All the strenght of the buildings is exactly in this wall, entirely wood covered, that extends along a surface free from any geometrical severity. The wall is divided into four bands of reading, where each of them is by fit and starts with the other ones. The structure is inclined forward and the wooden listels, vertically assembled, make an alternation of lights and shades. Is just the wood that Aalto considers “a preeminently natural material “which gives a great emotive and evocative atmosphere to visitors”. In the Hall for Conferences of the Library of Viipuri (Figure 2) the wood used for the covering of the ceiling and head walls plays not only an emotive role but also the optimization of the acoustic conditions. Using the wooden covering, Alvar Aalto makes a true acoustic surface which is able to optimize the time of reflection of the hall and to address the reflected acoustic waves so that the listening conditions are excellent everywhere and whatever is the visitor’s position. In the Hotel de Ville in Saynatsalo wood still marks the Hall of Council (Figure 3). The covering of the hall, quite lined with a wooden table, is supported by a series of wooden trusses where struts are substituted by radial bands of wooden joists. Several open hands, formed by a lot of fingers, support the roof. The wood of pine, coming from the forests of Finland, is left in its natural condition. Also in this case, the architectonic space is marked by the natural colours of the organic essences of Finland. The Louis Carrè House, built in Bazoches sur Guyonne between 1956 and 1959, becomes perfectly a part of the landscape dominated by a wild hill that seems to penetrate in the same architectonic basin. A wooden false ceiling - indeed - (Figure 4) brings visitors from outside into inside, across the hall. The wavy surface of the false ceiling is so an element of continuity between surrounding wilds and the artificial space of the house. Once again it seems impressive the Aalto’s ability to express himself in a simple and natural language by means of wood. In the Cultural Centre of Wolfsburg, in Germany, we notice several marks which are dear to our Author: the fan-shaped body addressed to the west and the skylights. Also in this product, wood marks the architectonic basin. In fact, in the great Hall for Conference (Figure 5) a wide wavy surface, covered with wood, connects the surface of the covering with the bottom wall of the room. Sun-light, spread by skylights opened in the covering, floods the wooden surface and exalts its presence. It is a piece of natural environment, inclosed in the articificial space created by the man. As the tuff stone marks several spontaneous architectures in the Mediterranean basin, in the same way brick marks and qualifies several Alvar Aalto’s architectures. The Finnish Master uses brick - potentially alive like men because created with mud - to produce remarkable buildings such as the House of Culture in Helsinki. Wright called brick “a little and modest object, that costs perhaps Figure 4 11 cents but has The Louis Carré House in Bazoches-sur-Guyonne transform its value into a same weight golden a particular characteristic: give me a brick and I’ll ingot one”. Aalto forces its parallelepidic form so much to create wide wavy surfaces that specify the great Auditorium (Figure 6). The special bricks studied by Aalto allow to produce this great wall marked by variable bending radious: big radious in the light bending surfaces and very little radious in the connection surfaces.

Figure 5

The Cultural Centre of Wolfsburg

Figure 6

The House of Culture in Helsinki

Brick, altough artificial material, assumes an organic essence with Aalto: the variability of the bending radious - together with the design of the wall - gives life to the brick, which puts on various colours by varying the angle of incidence of the sunbeams.

Among the styles which mark the whole production of our Author, it is certainly essential the care that he use to insert the artificial space, created by men for men, into the natural environment. In this sense the example of the Houses for paper-mill workers in Kauttua (Figure 7). In the wild landscape of Kauttua, Alvar Aalto build a whole of terraced houses - placed on the natural slope - which become closely a part of the natural environment. Each dwelling has an entry directly in the forest and is finished with local natural materials. Terraces have railings and pergolas maked with the local natural essences and walls are simply covered with white plaster, reminding the purity and the untouched nature of the wild.

In all the Alvar Aalto’s works - the Library of Viipuri, the Building for Pensioners in Helsinki, the Church of Imatra and the Library of Seinajoki - it is alwalys perfectly readable the care for men. He shows9999, differently from other architects, to make not “Architecture for architecture” but “Architecture for men”. In this sense the reading of the Sanatory of Paimio (Figures 8, 9) is very remarkable.

Figure 7

Houses for paper-mill workers in Kauttua

When he was very young - 20 years old - he won the concourse for planning this particular hospital that had to be built in South-west Finland. All the design solutions - the plant organization of the various parts of the building, the study of details of the rooms - mark the great care used by our Author for the physical and psychological requirements of the unhappy and tuberculoutic man. In this work Aalto realizes the idea of a human razionalism. Owing to the importance of sun for these sick men, Alvar Aalto conceives a true sun-trap: rooms are oriented so as to catch sunbeams during the morning, when sick men are in bed; collective spaces, such as dining and living rooms, are oriented to catch sunbeams during the afternoon; the solarium is quite open and formed by a superimposition of sunny floors. Light, air and sun are the essential elements in this building. All the whole is planned so as to perfectly adapt itself to the natural slope and to the surrounding environment and is studied in the smallest details. In this sense the reading of a hospital room is very important. The fixture is designed so as to assure a frequent replacement of air, without create troubles to patients. They are - indeed - two fixtures divided by an air space - directly connected with the outside - that prevents the passage of air; when the entrance door is opened, there is a depression that draws fresh air from outside. Both the fixture and the door are located so as to avoid currents of air that might directly hit the sick men.

The ceiling is darkly painted in order to tire not the patients’ sight during their stay in bed; an exception is the area over the head of the bed, white painted, that must diffuse the artificial light produced by a screened lamp. The wall bording with the passage is equipped and tich so as to optimize the sound-proofing. The wash-basin has a special outline in order to attenuate the noise of water falling on porcelain. All the examined characteristics, togheter with insulations, aired walls - which optimize the conditions of thermo-hygrometric comfort in many architectonic spaces planned by our Author - skylights studied so as to optimize the natural lighting in the rooms and the great glass surfaces -which connect several works of the Finnish Master to the natural environment - make Alvar Aalto the forerunner of the bio-architecture that just now we discover again.

Figures Alvar Aalto, Les Editions d’Architecture Artemis Zurich

Figures 8, 9

The Sanatory of Paimio

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