May 4, 2011
by Lisa Delgado

Event: Alvar Aalto Houses: From Doorstep to Living Room, a Lecture by Professor Sirkkaliisa Jetsonen
Location: Center for Architecture, 04.15.11
Speaker: Sirkkaliisa Jetsonen — Architect & Author
Organizer: Center for Architecture; Finnish Cultural Institute in New York
Sponsors: Consulate General of Finland in New York; Princeton Architectural Press; Finnish Cultural Institute in New York

From Alvar Aalto Houses, by Jari Jetsonen & Sirkkaliisa Jetsonen (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011).

For Alvar Aalto, the entrance to a house lies far before the front door. The Modernist master once wrote that “our doorstep is where we step out of the street or road into the garden.” This belief in the fundamental connection between a house and landscape resulted in some extraordinary residential designs, as architect and author Sirkkaliisa Jetsonen discussed in a talk commemorating the release of her new book, Alvar Aalto Houses (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011).

Aalto’s love of nature had its roots in his childhood spent in the small Finnish town Jyväskylä and in the countryside, she explained. Along with his affinity for the landscape, an interest in vernacular architecture, Classicism, and Modernism all infused his design thinking, and he came up with his own brand of Modernism. Rather than prizing a pristine white aesthetic, he often imbued his designs with a sense of warmth using wood and other natural materials, and the forms of his volumes frequently echoed the topography of the site.

In the Villa Mairea, built in the late 1930s in Noormarkku, Finland, “The image of the forest is everywhere,” Jetsonen said. Wooden poles in a canopy echo the vertical rhythm of the nearby trees, as do a proliferation of poles surrounding a staircase. Two decades later came the Maison Carré near Paris, a house with a long, sloping roof that gestures toward the gentle incline of the hill beneath the house: “We have this kind of imaginative continuation of the line of the roof descending down the slope,” Jetsonen said. Created around the same time, the site manager’s house for the Enso-Gutzeit Company in Summa, Finland, has a stepped ceiling in the living room that playfully celebrates the curve of the landscape.

Beginning in the late 1930s, Aalto also designed a series of standardized houses. These more modest residences are often overlooked, yet they are interesting as well, as efforts to make Modernist houses affordable for ordinary people. His standardized houses for ex-servicemen in Tampere are small, but he created a rich range of possible varieties in the design, through features such as terraces, nooks, raking columns, and carved wooden details. He once remarked that “the purpose of architectural standardization is… not to produce types but instead to create variety and richness which could, in the ideal case, be compared with nature’s unlimited capacity to produce variation.”

Lisa Delgado is a freelance journalist who has written for OCULUS, The Architect’s Newspaper, Blueprint, and Wired, among other publications.