Aalto´s Finnish followers and the natural form

Kristo Vesikansa

Working paper
Alvar Aalto Researchers Network 2012


Despite Alvar Aalto ́s unrivaled position in the 1960s, the majority of Finnish architects were firmly committed to rationalist ideology, minimalist aesthetics and the promotion of prefabrication. Those young architects, who strived to develop Aalto ́s organic ideas further, i.e. Reima (b. 1923) and Raili (b. 1926) Pietilä, Timo (b. 1928) and Tuomo (b. 1931) Suomalainen and Timo Penttilä (b. 1931), were criticized for turning their backs on the reality of rapidly modernizing and urbanizing Finland. The architects themselves emphasized individuality as a cornerstone of a democratic society and presented their work as a counterforce for the dominant technoculture. The Dipoli Student Centre, the Helsinki City Theatre and the Temppeliaukio Church have since become classics of Finnish Modernism, but the phenomenon has never been profoundly studied. Several ambitious buildings, i.e. Hanasaari Cultural Centre and TF Building have been completely ignored in history books. Also the parallels to international architecture and Finnish visual art and design should be properly investigated.

As direct imitation of Aalto ́s style was considered taboo, young architects had to find their own way of interpreting their ideas. Thus, their design methods differed significantly from each other and they never formed a solid group. Nor did anyone have a close personal relationship with Aalto. Most obviously Aalto ́s influence is visible in the topological siting of the buildings. In the T.F. Building and in the Helsinki City Theatre even the floors were terraced to follow the contour lines. Aalto ́s oeuvre also inspired more ambitious attempts to convert the spatial geometric structural form of the Nordic forest into an architectural language. The difference between the building and the surrounding nature was often suppressed by imitating the rhythm and the colours of the surrounding forest. Pietiläs ́ design for the Finnish Embassy in New Delhi was an abstraction of the geomorphology of the Finnish lake landscape as shaped during the Ice Age, following the example of Aalto ́s World's Fair Pavilion in New York. In the 1960s several Finnish designers, i.e. Tapio Wirkkala and Timo Sarpaneva, used similar natural metaphors as their styles evolved from sophisticated asceticism towards luscious naturalism.

The young architects usually preferred more robust materials than Aalto: rough-hewn boulders, wood-imprinted concrete and exposed aggregate concrete panels. Because of the rugged natural materials and fragmented forms, organic architecture was often compared with the National Romanticism of the turn of the century. But was there really a meaningful connection between the phenomena? Organic architecture was frequently criticized for its technical backwardness but in reality, the complex geometry often demanded innovative structures. For example, in the Temppeliaukio Church, Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen used both pre-stressed and prefabricated concrete beams and bold in-situ cantilevers with mechanical ventilation integrated into the structures. Pietiläs, in turn, tried to combine industrial construction with topographical thinking in their competition entries for the Zurich University and Monte Carlo Multi-purpose Centre. 


Raili Paatelainen and Reima Pietilä: Suvikumpu residential block, Espoo, 1962–69. Photo: Kristo Vesikansa.

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Kristo Vesikansa
PhD student / part time teacher

Aalto University, School of Arts, Design and Architecture, Department of Architecture

Aalto´s Finnish followers and the natural form