Munkkiniemi

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Monday after I’d finished work for the day we got on the No. 4 tram heading north and stayed on board to the end of the line. It took us to Munkkiniemi, one of the more affluent areas of Helsinki, by the sea in the north west of the city.

Right by the tram stop there’s a rather nice café that I’d visited during my last visit to Helsinki, 3 years ago.

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It was a good spot to grab a drink and a bite to eat overlooking the sea on a very pleasant evening. There are plenty of seats on the outside terrace, but although some hardy locals were sitting outside we stayed in the warm.

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After eating we took a short stroll along the sea front then cut in land to have a look at the nearby Aalto House – the home of the renowned Finnish Modernist architect, Alvar Aalto. I’d visited the house when I was last in Helsinki. Of course, it was closed but we got a good look at the outside.

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We then walked the short distance to his studio in a nearby street, again taking a look from the outside.

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Afterwards we cut  back to the sea front and walked back to the tram stop to catch a tram back to the city centre.

Aalto Sites – Part 2

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One thing I especially like about Alvar Aalto is that as a Modernist architect he was able to break away from the “white cube” and use more traditional materials to construct his buildings. An example of this is the Cultural Centre in Helsinki which is located north of the city centre a short walk to the east of the main Mannerheimintie road and north east of Töölönlahti. A relatively sort diversion during my walk around the bay took me there.

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This is a multi-purpose building he designed in 1952 for the Finnish Communist Party – combining the party headquarters, association facilities, and a cultural centre. The office block and a connecting wing are very similar to his Rautatalo building and Academic Bookstore – a copper clad facade dominated by reflective glass windows. But he most interesting and original part of the complex is the red brick faced auditorium.

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It’s irregular, curved structure is about as far away from a white box as is possible!

Aalto designed a special wedge shaped brick for the auditorium

which allowed him to create the complex asymmetric curves

(images of bricks from cargocollective website)

Much of the building work was done by volunteers. This sculpture that stands in the courtyard between the three wings is a tribute to their efforts.

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After visiting the Aalto House I walked a short distance down Riihitie to take a look at a complex of apartment blocks designed by Aalto to house workers employed by the National Pensions Institute.

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There are four blocks that face onto a pleasant grassy “piazza”

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Housing for National Pensions Institute

One of Aalto’s final and most well known buildings is Finlandia Hall in the centre of Helsinki, on the south shore of Töölönlahti. It was originally intended to be part of a cultural quarter that was never realised. It was completed in 1971, a few years before Aalvo’s death.

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It’s a substantial building clad in Carrera marble, a favourite material of Aalto’s although not particularly suitable for the harsh Finnish winter climate. The marble soon began to crumble and safety nets had to be erected to protect pedestrians. Eventuaky the decision was taken to reclad the building with a more suitable white marble, keeping the appearance the same, at a cost of over 3 million Euros. But the replacement panels are also being affected by the cold winters.

A further problem is that the acoustics  are notoriously poor. Not great for a concert hall!

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It’s a striking building, but something of a flawed masterpiece.

Aalto Sites – Part 1

While researching the Alvar Alto before my recent visit to Helsinki I discovered AALTOsites, an app I could download on to my phone that would help me locate buildings by the architect in the city – there’s quite a few of them. So I downloaded it onto my phone and used it to find a number of the buildings during the short time I had available for exploring. It provided an interesting focus for my visit.

The Academic Bookstore, part of the Stockman Department store but in a separate building, which was completed in 1969, was just over the road from my hotel. From the outside it looked like a Modernist office building with a facade of windows glazed with reflective glass set in dark grey concrete. I thought it was quite attractive.

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But it’s the inside of the building which makes it rather special. Aalto created a light, airy atrium three floors deep with two levels of balconies, lit from above by angular prism shaped skylights and with white Carrara marble walls.

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This cross section of the building, from here, shows the relationship of the atrium to the building. Note that there are a number of underground levels

The Academic Bookstore

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A great place to browse for books (providing you can read Finnish!). There’s also a café (Café Aalto) on the first level balcony.

Just around the corner there’s an earlier work, the Rautatalo building from 1951, built for the Finnish hardware dealers’ federation. Today it’s occupied by some expensive shops and offices of the Nordea bank. Again, the facade is glazed with reflective glass set in copper coloured concrete. The first floor has larger windows.

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Looking on the Alvar Aalto’s Architecture website I could see that inside there’s an atrium with balconies lit by skylights.

'Rautatalo' commercial building

This striking building stands at the far end of the Market Square, at the start of the Katajanokanlaituri peninsula just below the Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Locals refer to it as the “Sugar Cube”

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It was built to serve as the head office for the Enso-Gutzeit company.

The main facade faced with white Carrara marble, is divided up into squares. Each square contains a window and vent surrounded by an inward-slanting marble frame.

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This rather curious little structure located on a traffic island oppostie the Swesish Theatre was Aalto’s first commission in Helsinki. It was designed as the entrance to an emergency air raid shelter. Today it’s used as  the entrance to an underground car park.

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The Aalto House

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My main reason for the trip out to Munkkiniemi was to visit the former home of the Finnish Functionalist/Modernist architect Alvar Aalto on Riihitie.

The house was designed by Alvar and his first wife Aino, also an architect and designer who worked with her husband. They acquired the site in 1934 in what was then a relatively unspoilt area, semi-rural on the outskirts of the city. The house was completed in 1936. Aalto lived there with Aino (she died of cancer in 1949 aged 54) and then with his second wife, another architect Elissa Mäkiniemi  who had been working as an assistant in his office who he married in 1952. Today it’s owned by the Aalto Museum which is based in Jyväskylä. Visits are by guided tour only.

The house was designed as both a family home and an office, although Aalto was careful to separate the two. The working part of the building, the studio, was segregated to one end in it’s own wing.

Aalto’s version of Modernism incorporated the use of traditional and natural materials in his buildings. This can be seen in the use of wooden cladding on the exterior of the residential part of he house. 

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The studio wing is constructed of whitewashed brick – so a separation of the building’s two functions is apparent externally

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Aalto believed that there should be a unity between the interior and the exterior of a house and he incorporated this idea into his own home. The large windows open out onto the garden which is effectively an extension of the main living areas on the ground floor – at least, in the summer time, the winters in Finland are cold and harsh – and there’s a roof terrace which extends the upstairs living space.

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The design of the house makes maximum use of natural light and insulating materials are used to protect against the cold of winter.

Aalto’s desk is in the corner of the studio with a view outside through two large windows. Today it overlooks a sports field and nearby buildings but in the 1930’s he had a view towards the sea.

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The studio is separated from the living quarters by a moveable wooden screen.

Aalto’s approach was to see the design of building and it’s interior as a whole, and this is reflected in the residential wing of the house where furnishings and fittings have been carefully selected – largely designed by Aalto and Aino for their design company Artek.

There are two main rooms downstairs that form an open plan living space with large windows overlooking the garden/

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Upstairs there was another cosy living room

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with a roof terrace

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a guest bedroom

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and three family bedrooms.

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It was a very pleasant and cosy home. relatively modest, but it must have been a fantastic place to live and work.

To me, there were many similarities with Erno Goldfinger’s home in Hampstead and also the Bauhaus Masters’ houses – all Modernist buildings used as both family homes and workspaces.

Aalto eventually needed more space for his architectural practice so built a separate studio a short distance away in 1955. The Studio also belongs to the Museum but isn’t open on a Sunday, so I was only able to take a peek from the outside.

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