Aalto's inclusive Formal Structures: The Villa Mairea

John Gamble

Working paper
Alvar Aalto Researchers Network 2012


In his 1941 article 'Karelian Architecture' Alvar Aalto identified the traditional Karelian house as an important and instructive precedent for contemporary architecture and town planning. An especially relevant attribute, he argued, is that the formal structure of the house 'is the outcome of a methodical development of flexibility'. With the Villa Mairea (1938- 39) as a case study this presentation will show that the formal structures of Aalto's architecture can be similarly characterised.

For Aalto the quality of an architectural project is measured by the extent to which it successfully accommodates the full scope of its human and ecological circumstances. The formal foundation for an inclusive architecture, he insisted, is flexibility or 'flexible' order, that is, the generation and coordination of many formal differences. Analytical drawings of the Villa Mairea will be presented to demonstrate that the project's inclusiveness is founded upon its many diverse structural relations and that these relations are methodically developed through three major formal strategies: multiple, co-spatial structures of the architectural whole; high levels of formal articulation; and the predominance of non-repetitive relations in dynamic equilibrium. The strategies underlie the many different - and efficacious - architectural ensembles incorporated within the project. Thus, Aalto's formal structures are both coordinators of diversity and generators of diversity. The architectural order so delineated precisely accords with the philosopher Susanne K. Langer's characterisation of a highly developed work of art as an inclusive, ever-changing matrix of emerging and receding structures.

Eight co-spatial structures of the project whole will be summarised. Each, in its own distinct way, integrates the site, architecture and life of the project. One formal structure, based upon the diverse relationships across and along the main ridge of the site, will be presented in detail. Associated with this ridge structure are: the integration of the project with the topography and the earlier family house, Havulinna; the distribution of, and relationships between, interior and exterior spaces; the location of the fireplaces and their associated gathering spaces; the topographical and human situations of excavation, level land and elevation; assemblies of diverse earth and sky symbols; the distribution of spaces in relation to the morning and afternoon sun; the sheltering of the external spaces from the prevailing cold winds; and the distinction and relationship between the project's load-bearing masonry and frame construction.


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John Gamble

The University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

Aalto's inclusive Formal Structures: The Villa Mairea