Themes of Light: Aalto’s Libraries from Viipuri to Mt. Angel

Virginia Cartwright

Working paper
Alvar Aalto Researchers Network 2012


It is my thesis that Aalto used a proscribed set of lighting strategies in his library designs that can be 'read', conveying an understanding of the purpose and role of each space. Though the libraries are varied in size, and are stand-alone or embedded, the lighting strategies follow a consistent set of themes. These lighting strategies include both daylight and electric light, and follow sound principles of lighting design. My paper traces the development of these strategies from Viipuri Municipal Library to Mount Angel Abbey Library. There are 8 intervening libraries whose lighting devices became increasingly more sophisticated, spatially and technically. While the focus of my work is the libraries, I will also touch on other significant buildings in his oeuvre, which influenced the library designs.

A preface to reading Aalto's libraries is found in the design of Turun Sanomat, and Paimio Sanatorium. These buildings represent Aalto's first exclusive use of functionalist language. In these, he expressed each programmatic element by building form and lighting device.

Following these initial functionalist designs, Aalto's design for Viipuri Library differentiated its various activities, incorporating four distinct apertures. Each was used exclusively for one activity, having a profound effect on form and space. The aperture most often linked to Aalto, the circular skylight, was used in the reading rooms. The skylights were deployed in a regular grid over the ceilings of the two connected spaces undifferentiated by activity below.

In subsequent libraries, as varied as Scandinavian House and Seinäjoki, Aalto refined the language that he began to articulate in Viipuri. The main spaces were subdivided into circulation, book storage, and reading. Both the spatial development and the lighting were also differentiated. Accordingly, the circulation desk was given its own aperture and ceiling. The reading area was given light without the distraction of views, and the bookshelves are illuminated with light from 2 sides, to eliminate shadows cast by the person looking for a book. Periodical rooms and children's area often did have view windows as these areas accommodate less intense reading.

By the time that Aalto designed Mount Angel Abbey Library, he had developed this language of light into a sophisticated lexicon. The relationships between the activity areas, the lighting devices and the spatial composition, all worked together to differentiate each area of the library, and to optimize the design for its intended activity. A north-facing, curved monitor lights the main reading area in Mount Angel. This area is shaped by raising the ceiling and lowering the floor, and radial walls that open out beyond the circulation desk. After moving through an increasingly darker and more compressed space, the sense of light in this space reaches a great crescendo.

My research has included visiting all of these libraries and photo-documenting them. I have recorded illumination levels at 3 times of year for 3 libraries. I have also visited the Aalto Archives on several occasions to find unpublished drawings illustrating his lighting ideas. Last year, I presented these ideas in lectures delivered at Aalto University, Tampere Technical University and Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences.

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Virginia Cartwright
Associate Professor of Architecture