Helsinki is home to a number of masterpieces of Alvar Aalto. My portfolio contains his most important designs here. More photos of architectural details should be taken. Of other Aalto buildings that should be visited the most important is the Savoy Restaurant. I took the photos in February and July 2016 and in August 2020.
You will find more information about Alvar Aalto sites here.
Check the map below for the locations of the mentioned buildings.
1. Aalto House
Riihitie 20, Munkkiniemi
Alvar Aalto, 1935-1936
Alvar and Aino Aalto designed this house as their home and office. These two functions can be clearly distinguished on the outside: the office wing is made of bricks and painted white, while the residential wing shows the use of dark-stained timber cladding. The street-facing part of the villa looks quite austere, while in the garden-facing part a more diverse play of volumes can be observed. Aalto lived in this house until his death in 1976. Today it is one of the constituent locations of the Alvar Aalto Museum.
2. Insinööritalo / Finnish Engineering Society Building
Ratakatu 9, Punavuori
Alvar Aalto, 1948-1952
This conventional-looking red-brick office building was constructed for the Finnish Engineering Society. It had an unusual basement, comprising a banquet room and an adjacent conference room with a ceiling that consisted of wave-shaped screens. A fire in 1997 destroyed the street façade and most of the interior. The lobby has remained almost original.
3. National Pensions Institute
Nordenskiöldinkatu 12, Töölö
Alvar Aalto, 1948/1953-1956
This huge building was to provide work places for more than 800 people. In order to avoid the oppressive feeling of a large office building, Aalto spread out the volumes forming an irregular U around a raised courtyard. The general public only had access to the customer service hall, which is three storeys high and lit by prism-shaped lantern skylights. The façade materials are red brick, copper and granite. The interior decoration is exquisite, as usual with Aalto.
4. Apartment Blocks of National Pension Institute
Riihitie 12-14 / Tallikuja 2-4, Munkkiniemi
Alvar Aalto, 1952-1954
These four blocks of flats were built for the members of staff of the National Pension Institute, whose main building Aalto had just designed. The blocks on Riihitie 12 and 14 are located along the street line, which creates a large isolated yard area behind them. The layout and the volumes of the blocks are nuanced. Red brick is the main construction material.
5. Rautatalo Office Building
Keskuskatu 3, Kluuvi
Alvar Aalto, 1951-1955
This building, constructed for a hardware dealers’ federation, is organised around an inner court, or the Marble Hall, which was supposed to be the Nordic counterpart of the covered passages of Milan. The inner court was illuminated through a uniform grid of circular lights in the ceiling. It had a fountain, exclusive boutiques and a café which soon became one of the most popular meeting places in Helsinki. Its copper-clad façade looks austere, but it fits in well in its environment, especially because of its red-brick firewalls. Aalto’s famous bronze door handle appeared here for the first time.
6. Studio Aalto
Tiilimäki 20, Munkkiniemi
Alvar Aalto, 1955-1956
Alvar Aalto conceived this building, located not far from his home, as his studio. It curves around a courtyard with a small open-air theatre, used by Aalto for lectures and presentations. The main space on the inside follows the curving outline of the structure, with its windows opening to the courtyard. An extension was built in 1963. The building remained Aalto’s studio until his death in 1976. Today it is part of the Alvar Aalto Museum and can be visited.
7. Kultuuritalo / House of Culture
Sturenkatu 4, Alppila
Alvar Aalto, 1952-1958
This is one of Aalto’s most important works. It was built for Communist cultural organisations, and Aalto designed it pro bono. It is a multifunctional building, consisting of a concert hall, an office block, and a lower wing for lectures and conferences connecting the two. The sinuous concert hall is made of red bricks. The asymmetry of the hall entailed the development of a new facing element, the wedge-shaped brick, with which all the curves of the irregular exterior could be realised. The roof of the concert hall is made of copper, just like the firmly rectilinear office building that stands in contrast with it. A 60-metre copper-plated canopy runs along the street front.
8. Enso-Gutzeit Headquarters
Kanavaranta 1, Katajanokka
Alvar Aalto, 1959-1962
This building, the headquarters of one of the biggest paper and cellulose companies in Finland, was one of the most controversial designs by Aalto. Its façade is made up of square windows with wooden frames deeply set into white surrounds of Carrara marble. The plan of the office floors is arranged in a way that large rooms are located on the outside and can be subdivided according to needs, whereas the subsidiary rooms lie on both sides of the central lobby connecting with the offices. The recessed roof storey contains a restaurant and banqueting facilities. Aalto was influenced by the palazzi of the Riva degli Schiavoni in Venice in terms of how the building opens up seaward. In the interior, there are many outstanding elements.
9. Nordic Union Bank
Fabianinkatu 29, Kluuvi
Alvar Aalto, 1960-1965
This is another copper-clad façade divided into rectangles so typical of Aalto. What makes this building special is the way it connects to its neighbours. The volumes match the heights of the adjacent buildings (eight storeys on one side, three storeys on the other). The difference in heights also enables a roof-top terrace with great views over the Esplanade.
10. Kirjatalo / Academic Bookstore
Pohjoisesplanadi 39, Kluuvi
Alvar Aalto, 1961-1969
This building, probably the most beautiful bookstore that I have ever visited, was constructed on the site of the former Kino-Palatsi. It looks dark from the outside: the façade is copper-clad, just on the side of the Pohjoisesplanadi are the window frames lined with strips of white marble. The interior atrium, however, is bright. It is illuminated by three crystaline rooflights in a way similar to the Marble Hall of the Rautatalo. The vertical balustrades of white marble accentuate the height of the space and elegantly dominate the colourful display of books. The Café Aalto at the back of the lower gallery level uses furniture designed by Aalto for the Rautatalo café.
11. Finlandia Hall
Mannerheimintie 13, Etu-Töölö
Alvar Aalto, 1962/1967-1975
This congress and event venue is the most famous of the buildings designed by Aalto in Helsinki. Its main feature is the tower-like section with a sloping roof which was, with its high empty space, supposed to provide better acoustics like the resonation created by tall church towers. Inside, a ceiling hides this section from the audience.
Aalto’s aim to create a Gesamtkunstwerk reflects in his design of each lamp, piece of furniture, panel, flooring material, and decorative board. The materials are pure, unadorned, forming a frame for human beings, not trying to impress with their ostentatiousness as common in classical opera houses. Carrara marble was used in indoor and outdoor surfaces. For Aalto it was a tie to the Mediterranean culture, which he was so fond of and wanted to bring to the North. It stands in contrast with the dark Finnish granite.
The building was inaugurated in 1971. The congress wing was designed later, in 1970, and was built in 1973-1975. In 1975, the Helsinki Final Act of the OSCE took place in the Finlandia Hall.
12. Sähkötalo / Office Building of the Helsinki City Electricity Company
Kampinkuja 2, Kamppi
Alvar Aalto, 1965-1976
This building consists of offices spread over six floors. It also has an arcaded ground floor with exhibition spaces and a double-height customer service hall located under a central light court perforated with a series of skylights. The top floor is recessed from the façade, covered by a pyramidally terraced roof structure and occupied by a staff restaurant, a roof terrace, lecture rooms, management offices, and conference rooms. From the outside the building looks rather collage-like, because a power station previously standing on the site was incorporated into the new complex.
13. Grave of Alvar Aalto
Aalto is buried at the Hietaniemi Cemetery in Helsinki. His grave can be found on the main alley of the cemetery, near the southeastern entrance.