I visited Aalto’s Saynatsalo Town Hall on the summer solstice. It was cool, overcast, and raining. The night before, the sky never got dark. At midnight it was as bright as 8:30 PM in Maine. I drove to the village of Saynatsalo after breakfast, a short distance south of Jyvaskyla. The road goes through the village directly to Aalto’s town hall, which is sited on top of the hill in a pine forest. On approach the building has a very strong presence and personality as if it is reaching out to greet you. It is very assertive, confident, warm, and friendly. I stood outside taking in the scene, getting to know the building first hand. After circling the site for a few minutes, seeing the overall form of the building and the cascading stairway on the southwest corner, which hints of the courtyard above, I returned to the entrance and started up the staircase.
I could feel the presence of the tall brick wall of the council chamber as I climbed the stairs (its probably 35-40’ tall), but at the top of the stairs, I experienced the surprise and intimacy of the interior courtyard. Of course I knew it was there, but it was still a delight to encounter first hand. In contrast to the tall, vertical wall of the chamber the courtyard is low and horizontal; in contrast to the heavy, stone base and brick walls of the chamber, the courtyard is light, surrounded by wood windows and landscaping that climb the walls, softening and dematerializing the enclosure.
After taking in the courtyard for a few minutes, I turned and entered the building under a modest canopy. Inside there is a small café, shop, and gallery displaying Aalto’s original competition entry and the final, as-built scheme. The competition entry is very simple, almost boring: two gable-roofed wings in an “L” shape, both two stories high. There are no drawings in the gallery showing the evolution to the final design, but it was amazing to see the change. It was almost as if Aalto was a new architect with a different approach in the final scheme. His approach to the design was entirely new and fresh. Whereas the earlier scheme addressed the programmatic elements in a straightforward, traditional way, the final scheme took the program and created a unique partie and building form that challenged the community to engage in a new way.*
What I like most about the final building design is its organizational concept: shops on the ground floor to make it an active part of the community, offices on the upper courtyard level, bright and sunny, easily accessible to the community, and the council chamber on the top floor, the higher ground. It is a nice sequence, climbing the stairs to the entry, discovering the courtyard first, then the entry, then the staircase leading very gradually to the chamber, with shallow steps, all brick, turning three times until you discover the tall, dark chamber at the end, very solemn and quiet. The chamber is dark with all brick walls and floors. There are very few lights and only the one large, high window on the north wall. The space presents a strong contrast with the rooms on the courtyard level, which are all pleasantly bright and cheerful, and the hall surrounding the courtyard which is very bright, almost outdoors in feeling.
Aalto’s composition is one of contrasts. My eyes were constantly adjusting to the changes, experiencing the different values and characteristics of the light and form. There is the contrast of materials from black granite and tile at the base to red brick above, to wood window frames and ceilings, to the white walls of the interior hallway and offices. There is the contrast of light from the full sunlight of the courtyard, to the brightness of the hallway on the courtyard level, to the warm light of the offices, the progressive dimming of warm southern light along the stepping hallway leading to the chamber, and finally the darkness and diffuse north light of the council chamber. There is the contrast of mood as well, from the sense of community and activity at the entrance, to the sense of delight and surprise upon discovery of the courtyard, to the sense of compression at the entry, the warmth of the surrounding hallway space, the compelling curiousity of the hallway leading to the chamber, and the quiet seriousness and stillness of the chamber itself. Juhani Pallasmaa says “the dark womb of the council chamber of Alvar Aalto’s Saynatsalo Town Hall re-creates a mystical and mythological sense of community; darkness creates a sense of solidarity and strengthens the power of the spoken word.”
The Saynatsalo Town Hall is an experience for the eyes, one of discovery, variety, and contrasts. It was a breakthrough project for Aalto, transforming his original “L” concept into a rich, courtyard design that created a shared garden space for the community. Many more town halls would be designed using these same themes in the years to come (Seinajoki and Rovaneimi, for example), but this was the first. With it he pushed the limits of materials and light to create a rich palette of contrasts and spatial experiences.
It was not obvious to me at first, but I have concluded that the five-element season for this building is spring, and the corresponding material is wood, not because there is a lot of wood used in the building, but because the spirit of the building, the essence of its creation, is that of hope and optimism, looking for new ideas, and reaching for the light. It is the energy of adolescence and individuation, a time of experimentation and re-defining of ourselves. The sense organ for spring is the eyes, seeking the possibilities, keeping your eye on the goal. Aalto pushed into new territory with this building perhaps from loss of his wife, perhaps because he wanted to break out again as he did with Villa Mairea and make a statement about how communities should come together in their public buildings. His original competition entry was transformed into a new paradigm for town halls that would find worldwide acclaim and recognition for Aalto. The Saynatsalo Town Hall is a building where the eyes are engaged in a new way through the use of contrast, from the bright sunlight of the courtyard to the quiet darkness of the council chamber. These spaces were purposefully designed for the people of this community, and both aspects of light, the joy of sunlight and the mystery of darkness, are engaged for the benefit of community.
* His wife Aino died in 1949, the year the competition was held, and this must have had a big impact. His future wife Elissa worked on the competition entry, the final design, and oversaw the project during construction with Aalto, so she must have had a big impact too. They were married in 1952, the year the building was finished.
I arrived in Seinajoki on Sunday at 10:45, a few minutes before the service in the Aalto church was about to begin. It was raining steadily, and I noticed there were hundreds of people about, all wearing clear plastic rain parkas over traditional Finnish outfits. I didn’t pay much attention to it, and started approaching the church up the central staircase across from Aalto’s iconic Town Hall. Arriving at the top of the stairs, I was surprised to find a broad lawn in front of the church, but no walkway to the entrance. What a wonderful way to present the church in relationship to its site, creating the outdoor room first, enclosed by buildings on three sides and a row of trees on the fourth. The lawn was soaked from the rain so I descended back down the stairs and walked around to the side where there was a stone walkway leading to the corner entrance. I was walking alongside dozens of mostly older Fins in traditional outfits, all going to the church as well. When I arrived inside the narthex space, I was astonished to find the church was filled with people, over 1,200 in total. It was the biennial celebration and gathering of families that had been displaced when Russia annexed the Karelia region of eastern Finland during WWII. When the Russians annexed the area, the Finnish people migrated west to what is now central Finland. Every other year since the annexation they have gathered to celebrate a service in memory of their ancestors who were forced from their homeland.
Seeing 1,200 people in traditional dress taking communion was a very moving experience. There was a buzz in the air, old friends reconnecting and excited to be together. The church was alive with community and fellowship. Despite the rain outside, the atmosphere inside the church was bright and cheerful. The interior is almost all white, with eight pairs of columns on either side and tall, thin windows reaching to the ceiling bathing the interior in a soft, quiet light.
Looking inside, there were six lines for communion and the ministers were very busy dipping bread in the wine, administering the sacrament. The choir was singing in the background to the rich sound of the organ. The acoustics were bright and clear. I could hear every note. There was no reverberation from the organ or choir in the rear of the church, but the voices from the congregation could be heard across the space, creating a soft undercurrent of sound, the joy of the community coming together again.
The organ’s volume increased and the congregation began singing a traditional hymn in Finnish. Everyone’s energies began to align. Then the minister raised the cup and everyone was silent. He took the Eucharist and said a prayer, and the choir and congregation began singing the Kyrie eleison. The sound of the organ and voices filled the space, it was rich and full and the church came alive like a pulsing chamber, fulfilling the space as if it was meant for that sound.
Before the Kyrie the space was magnificent in everyway, but with the sound of the organ and singing it became complete. The music filled the sanctuary with spiritual joy and energy. I was very touched and felt a deep sense of peace and connectedness.
My experience that day was one of sound, the full sound of the organ and choir filling the beautiful, light-filled space of the church to make it come fully alive. A five-element analysis would normally lead me to think of the space as a place of stillness, contemplation, which it certainly is. It is also simple and white, reflecting the stillness of the winter element, when we turn inward to reflect and listen.
However after reflecting on my experience in this church, I have come to realize there was a sweetness to the experience, a spiritual fullness that in a five-element way could be described as sweet and fragrant, full of flavor like the harvest. It would be the late summer earth element, and the haptic sensation would be taste.
The five-element sound for the earth element, curiously, is singing, as in the earth singing and celebrating the sweetness of life. My experience that day was so rich and delicious, I could taste it.
Aalto designed this church for the community. It is not a chapel, but a space for 1,200 people to gather for a shared spiritual experience. The lawn that I discovered on my initial approach to the church is the architect’s first clue that your experience of this place is not meant to be as an individual. The lawn is large enough for 3,000 people, and if you enter that space you feel the potential of community. If you walk around and approach the side entrance, you will be walking with others, again bringing you immediately into a sense of community with others, and there is nothing sweeter than feeling a part of a larger whole, a part of a connected family.
Photo Credit: Les Editions d'Architecture Artemis Zurich. Alvar Alto Band II 1963-1970.
Today I visited Alvar Aalto’s Studio/Museum in Monteniemi. I have been longing to see this small building for many years, but what I experienced was very different than I expected. I thought it would be an active space, full of the energy of the studio where sometimes 50 architects worked elbow to elbow late into the night to draw competition entries for projects all over the country. But it was quiet, not just because there are no architects working there any more. It was quiet because it was intentionally designed to be that way. The softness and stillness of the sound inside the building was very distinct.
The Studio was designed in 1955 in a residential neighborhood several miles from downtown Helsinki. The studio had outgrown their space in the Aalto house a few blocks away, where 10-15 architects worked since 1936 in a wing attached to the home. Aalto chose this nearby site and built his studio here because it was quiet. He purposely designed it to turn away from the noise of what even then was then a quiet, rural neighborhood. The wall facing the street has no windows, and the studio spaces turn inward to a stepped amphitheater and garden.
Stillness is the quality of winter, when ideas gestate below the surfaces, waiting for spring to burst forth. The element for winter is water, and the sense associated with it is hearing. In stillness we can hear our innermost thoughts. The studio building, especially Aalto’s wing, has this stillness quality about it. Not because it was essentially empty when I was visiting it, but because the energy of the space held this quality. There was no backround noise, no sound of cars or buses driving by, no distractions to take the architects thoughts away from their work. Surfaces materials were carefully chosen to make the space quiet. The floor is linoleum, the north wall is acoustical panels with horizontal battens to hang drawings from, and the south wall above the windows is a “pillowed” acoustical material with vertical battens that makes it look almost like logs. There are no parallel walls, no square corners to bounce sound around. The curves and angles quiet the space.
Inside and outside, the house is almost all white. Unlike most of Aalto’s residential scale buildings, there are few changes of materials, few flourishes of wood. The building was a simple container for the activities of design and conceptualization. With the garden amphitheater at the center, everyone in the studio was reminded that nature is at the heart of design, an organic pursuit as much as an intellectual one.
I had expected my visit to Villa Mairea to be all about the sense of touch. With so many rich materials used in so many unusual ways, it would be hard to imagine this house as anything but a rich tactile experience. It certainly is that, but today I experienced the house differently. I experienced it with the soft eye, with my peripheral vision.
It’s hard not to like this house. The setting is exquisite. The drive from Helsinki is about three hours, and the last hour or so is through some of the prettiest farmland I have ever seen. The farmers plow their fields in small plots, leaving wide bands of unplowed areas between then, which at this time of year are exploding with the colors of Queen Anne’s lace and lupines. Surrounded by this natural beauty, I approached Noormarkku and turned up the driveway to the house. Lined on both sides with mature white birch trees, the drive passes the family estate first, a very stately, large, traditional Finnish country home. Another alley of birches, and there’s the parking lot for Villa Mairea.
The approach to the house is on foot from there, up a long driveway into a pine forest. The house reveals itself slowly, one glimpse at a time, then finally the driveway turns, and there’s the front of the house in all its glory. I have longed to see this house for almost 40 years, since I first studied it in college. Arriving there for the first time it was like seeing an old friend, the forms and materials were so familiar to me. There were no surprises on the outside of the house for me, it was exactly as I imagined it would be.
On the inside were the surprises, not so much in the major spaces that are all so well documented, but in the connecting spaces. For me on this day, Villa Mairea was all about movement through the space and the clues that I was getting in my peripheral vision, my soft eye. It was difficult for me to focus my view on any one room, wall, or detail in the house because my soft eye was always moving, always being led from one material to another, from one detail to another, from one vista to another. My eyes and senses were in a continual state of discovery and wonder. A gentle curve would lead me to a stair, then to a change of color and form in the back of the fireplace across the room, then to a view out to the gardens. The wood trim on that window would extend to the brick wall below, that would come to the floor and meet the terra cotta tiled floor, that then would meet a sculpted wood step along a whitewashed brick wall that curved away from me with fir dowels reaching up to a wood ceiling that extended over to the stair opening, disappearing to the upstairs…an endless play of materials and form, a delight for the senses and a rich experience for the full sense of sight.
Villa Mairea’s interior spaces cannot be fully appreciated with a camera or with a “trained”, discerning eye. The full experience of this can only be felt when the peripheral vision is allowed to see all the forms and materials as an orchestrated work of art. Trying not to see the pieces, I was able to experience the whole.
From a five-element perspective, this house most strongly reflects the element wood, which represents spring, a time of surging growth, reaching for the light. As the story goes, Aalto’s first sketches for the house were more traditional, something more in keeping with the family’s existing buildings on the site. But then he saw published photographs and drawings of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater House, and with encouragement from the client, he re-imagined the house in a new way: new growth, reaching for new ideas, new life.
From a materials point of view, the house is very much about wood. The fir dowels in the entry and at the stairwell reflect the birch and pine forests so ubiquitous in this part of the country, making parts of the inside of the house appear as if you are almost looking through a forest. But it is also about stone. On the outside, dark stone is used as the base for the building in the front, with wood above; in the forest the pine trees have dark gray, almost black bark on the bottom of their trunks, then it lightens up to an orange/tan color above. The floors are almost always masonry of one sort or another: brick, stone, terra cotta tiles, ceramic tiles. Brick walls are whitewashed inside the house and out, the heart is natural stone, and there is a rubble stone staircase to the second floor terrace from the garden. It would be difficult to assign one material to this house, from strictly a materials perspective; Aalto used so many different materials at Villa Mairea. But if a connection with the five-element expression of spring is any guide, then this house is most likely presenting wood as its dominant material and element.
For many years I have been interested in the relationship between our most basic building materials of stone, wood, glass, and metal, and the five elements of acupuncture: water, wood, fire, earth, and metal. I have had many conversations with my sister Linda about these relationships. Linda is a very talented five-element acupuncturist and teacher in Bethesda, MD. Five-element acupuncture is the purest form of eastern medicine and derives from a 3,000 year history of tradition and development.
In the studio we have experimented with these relationships in several buildings, most notably the expansion and renovation of the library in Portland where we tried to bring clarity to the use and meaning of these materials and their relationship to the human experience of the space. We used stone on the floors and stairways of the building, under foot, as a way of grounding the space. We used wood for wall surfaces, planters, benches, desks, and as highlights at the circulation areas as a way of creating warmth, tactile experiences, and to indicate spaces where people would meet. Glass was seen as the fire element because of its process of coming into being. It was used to bring light into the space, which had previously been so dark and foreboding. Metal was used sparingly, but when used it was always in its natural state without paint finishes or coloration: metal was metal and could clearly be identified. We used it for acoustical wall panels, window frames, hardware, and handrails. It was seen as a strong, light, and durable material that could be used where these qualities were needed. And finally we brought water into the building in the form of a restored sculpture called “The Water Girl”. This sculpture had been in the fenced in courtyard at the front of the library for years, covered with plywood, her fountain element abandoned years ago. We had her restored and brought her into the main entrance hall where the sound of the water trickling from the dish in her hands is a pleasure to all who enter the building.
After the project was completed, I took Linda through it to show her how we had used the materials. Standing in the entry hall, she remarked how she could see and feel the presence of all five elements and how they contributed to a rich experience of the space. It’s true, in the entry hall you can not only get an intuitive sense of the special organization of the building (88,000 SF), you can also experience the qualities and essence of all five materials.
We were continuing to work with these materials and to experiment with their meaning and relationship to the five elements of eastern medicine, when I came upon Juhani Pallasmaa’s book “The Eyes of the Skin”. Pallasmaa talks about the five senses, the haptic senses, of touch, hearing, smell, taste, and sight. He feels that architecture of the 20th century has been far too concerned with what the buildings look like, and less with how they feel and are experienced by all five senses. The richness of experience that one has with a truly great building can only be appreciated by using all five senses. This little book immediately caught my attention and stimulated deeper thought on the relationships between materials and the five elements, and now the five senses. The timing couldn’t have been better. I was about to leave for a short sabbatical trip to Finland to look at some Aalto, Pietila, Saarinnen, and other buildings, and decided to use these visits as an experiment to see what new things I could learn about the relationships between these three aspects.