Ambiguity and Tensions in the Architecture of the Main Building of the College of Education at Jyväskylä

Tuomo Hirvonen

Working paper
Alvar Aalto Researchers Network 2012


To interpret the architectural expression of Alvar Aalto’s mature era has always been a challenge. Although it is possible to characterize his architecture in many ways, it still contains attributes that are hard to define. His architecture can be rightly described as complex. This paper argues that Aalto’s main building for the Collage of Education includes contradictory elements that can partly explain the complexity of his architectural expression.

Complexity became known as an architectural concept when Robert Venturi’s book Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture was released in 1966. In that polemical manifesto, Venturi also recognized complexity and contradictory elements in Aalto’s architecture.1 He demonstrated it by using seven Aalto -buildings as examples to support some of his ‘phenomena’ of complexity and contradiction in architectural form2. According to him, complexity and contradictions in the architecture of a certain building lead to ambiguity. Furthermore, Venturi “prefers to think of Aalto’s art as contradictory rather than irrational."3       

In my opinion Venturi’s interpretation of the complexity in Aalto’s architecture is valid. So I consider that the approach, which he demonstrates in his book, is usable for interpreting Aalto’s architecture more closely. The main building was chosen as the case study, because the previous readings of it have been variable and uncertain. Päivi Lukkarinen argues that the building includes “architectural-historical references” and so she challenges its status as modern architecture.4 Richard Weston refers to “urban fragments” and “Aalto’s metaphoric approach to design”, when he writes about the main building.5 The understanding about the building needs to be clarified. My aim is to examine the main building from the viewpoint that Venturi represents. What new aspects from the architecture of the building will show up? Accordingly I apply Venturi’s seven of the ‘cases of complexity and contradiction’ in analyzing the building in its milieu.


The main entrance facade of the University of Jyväskylä. The brick wall is ’hanging in the air’. Photo: Tuomo Hirvonen.

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Tuomo Hirvonen
M. Arch.