IntroductionA building interacting with its natural environment is a theme which has been utilised in many different projects across a variety of architectural periods. This idea of nature can be seen as a distinguishing factor in Finnish culture demonstrated in the ‘Villa Mairea’ designed by Alvar Aalto.
Aalto’s design of ‘Villa Mairea’, completed in 1939, was designed as a guest house and rural retreat. However its design marks an important transition from traditional to modern architecture in the flow of space within the building, Aalto’s work and the wider Finnish culture. The design for ‘Villa Mairea’ could be perceived as the refinement of key ideas which originate in Aalto’s other works. Aalto’s key ideas include: a courtyard differentiated from the natural pine forest of the site, a cluster of residential spaces connected with a more domestic service, bedroom and sauna wing, the social and private aspects of the house, the articulation of living spaces and the integration of art exhibits with residential functions. These ideas are important in understanding his approach to modern architecture, as it differs from the ideology that the building is a machine which is commonly adopted in this period. Aalto, while only becoming known for his modernist work at a late stage of the movement’s progression, was widely considered a main figure of Nordic Modernism. Adhering to the international style as well as the Finnish vernacular, Aalto’s work shows his individual interpretation on the modernist ideals.
Aalto said ” Nature, rather than the machine, should serve as the model for architecture” ( Curtis, 1996, p.346). This shows that nature is not only important in Finnish culture but also in Aalto’s design style. It can be seen that Aalto uses his buildings as the link between people and nature; ” Architecture cannot disengage itself from the natural and human factors; on the contrary, it must never do so …Its function rather is to bring nature even closer to us.” (Curtis, 1996, p.346). It is this link between human scale and its relationship with nature which I will explore to show how Aalto’s design choices in composing the interior space impacts the human experience. 1 .
Definition of organic architectureThe idea of the organic can be seen throughout history as one of two trends, the rationale of a strict geometrical order to space or the irrational and the organic. These can be understood ways of dealing with the environment. There is no clear definition for architecture of the ‘organic’ however it can be understood as more growing naturally similar to the way a tree grows and expands, not conforming to a strict grid like structure. Aalto became a pioneer of this approach in the northern regions of Northern Europe following the steps which Frank Lloyd Wright had committed his career to trying to define.
Wright argues against his mentor, Louis Sullivan who followed the design ethos of form following function. Wright believed that every building should grow naturally from its environment, saying that “form and function are one” ( ). A definition for organic architecture is as follows; “A philosophy of architectural design, emerging in the early 20th century, asserting that in structure and appearance a building should be based on organic forms and should harmonize with its natural environment.” (Dictionary of Architecture and construction)As a whole organic architecture can be seen to unify space, similar to the Villa Mairea where Aalto manages to seamlessly blend the interior and exterior. The end result is a design that is a harmonic balance between the built environment that is not separate and does not dominate its natural surroundings.3.
Fluidity of SpaceThe flowing space in Aalto’s design can be associated with the seemingly limited space of nature, which is only defined into specific areas of the building through human experience. I show how the use of materials makes the existing geometries soften the boundary definitions.It can be seen that Aalto followed particular methods for designing space. The idea of having an enclosed space is a feature of many his designs, this ‘courtyard’ area as can be seen in the Villa Mairea is used as an organizing feature which he uses to organise the program of the building around. His interest in having a fluidity running through his design aids this in showing how every part of the villa forms one coherent space. This fluidity could be seen through the elements he used as well as the way in which he treats movement through his building.
Aalto approaches the way of people moving through space almost ceremonially. His design has a balance between order and disorder, juxtaposing elements from the modern with Finland’s traditional vernacular adding influences from the Japanese Edo period. All of this blend of many techniques which have been inspired from his artistic background creating a coherent architecture which reacts to its surroundings.
This mediation between spaces and connections can be seen with the structure designed to embrace the surrounding nature with the vertical cladding of the exterior as well as the organic stone hearth. 4. Tempo of spaceThe experience of the Villa Mairea can be distinguished more clearly as an encounter with the building through a sequence of events to show the human relationship to built form. This architectural encounter with the villa is made clear in the arrangement of spaces to flow round the building. The sequence of events in experiencing each space has a tempo which allows the domestic atmosphere of the villa gradually reveal itself.
As you begin to explore the villa you follow a winding gravel driveway from the edge of the forest at using an oblique approach in which at first sight, the home is not visible. As you progress down this purposefully designed route glimpses of the villa gradually reveal themselves to the user. Each glimpse forms a framed image of the buildings key features as the tall pines of the forest control the buildings exposure to the public. These key views of the building being the white stucco wall rendering, wood cladding, the unusual entrance canopy and the several unorthodox windows on an upper floor. From this approach it is clear that Aalto treated the approach to the building with the same importance as the journey through the building, blending the definition of interior and exterior spaces. Aalto’s designed disclosure of the building is designed to be slow and indistinct. However as you come closer to the building the tempo changes and following the gradual build up the building has a sudden unveiling.
This happens at a point where there is a sharp curve in the entrance pathway which reveals the front corner of the villa and its prominent entry portico. This approach has a calming effect when experiencing the space, the leisurely approach through the forest prolongs the subtle awakening of the senses. At this point the villa is now clearly the focus of the approach as it sits in the foreground of Aalto’s composition, with the background the ever present forest setting. A theme which Aalto reinforces through many stages of experiencing the Villa Mairea.The approach to the building is also significant in a way that unlike some buildings which are prominent immediately, there is no long view; no place to analyze the appearance of the villa from a distance. The relatively short distance in which the villa is presented as well as the close surrounding space created by the surrounding forest means that the initial response to the building is somewhat instinctive ( ) , engaging with the senses suddenly instead allowing an analysis to be taken from distance.
The contrasting dark wooden features are balanced visually yet, set against a sharp contrast to the white mass characteristic of orthodox modernity which forms the primary structure. The integration of wood as a material both indoor and outdoor is a key design motif which Aalto follows throughout the design, more predominantly inside the villa drawing attention to the natural materials. This idea of earthy ambience engages with the sense of touch through the compositions visual qualities which is a theme common in Aalto’s work and appears primitive in linking modern day back with its natural landscape. ( ) This concept clearly appeals to Aalto as in an essay from 1922, in which he illustrates a subconscious link with old architecture. “The emotions it arouses”, he wrote, “are so elevated, even intoxicating, that we usually pay no attention at all to details – if there are any.” (37)At the entry portico however, it is precisely the discreet details in which visitors focus on with the twisted rattan joinery, small geometric feet made of steel which work as a transition between wood and stone, and an unusual cast bronze door pull which grabs your attention and keep you engaged with experiencing the building. This shows Aalto’s clever design extending the time it takes for the simple experience of entering a building to happen.
In a literal sense, by how long the route to the front door is through the site, also by memory through evoking memories of times past through details in the design and finally under the portico and strangeness of the smaller features individual to Aalto’s design and arousing the curiosity of the individual. Similarly, on the interior of the villa Aalto uses his mix or artistic and architectural background to skillfully control the tempo of the individuals experience. Creating an atmosphere which is intimate and a warm domestic atmosphere. This is shown as you enter Aalto’s villa where after a short pause in a small, sky lit antechamber, visitors arrive a the main hallway defined by a low angled wall that directs visitors away from a formal dining area to continue straight on through the building.
It is at this point you can see a strong contrast between the small antechamber and the entrance hall. With the antechamber being relatively plain compared to the rich variety of forms, textures and subdued colours which are all immediately visible from the entrance hall. This is a significant method of entering the space as it flows from enclosed to more open spaces through a series of welcoming gestures. These gestures continue through the villa with Aalto’s careful design of the following interior spaces.
Designing down to the smaller details of segregating soft and hard materials helps aid Aalto’s designs visual impact already experienced, sounds of the hard tile and softer wood helping define moments of transition through the space. This shows a key idea of Aalto’s design by triggering another of the individuals senses to positively augment their spatial experience Aalto completes an entrance sequence by ending them with a warming domestic living space. This can be seen as visitors follow the curve of the main vestibule wall where seating designed by Aalto’s wife Aino is utilised to invite visitors to relax.
There is no feeling of solitude to anyone experiencing the spaces within the Villa Mairea due to Aalto’s careful immalgamation of design styles and details to create a domestic intimacy.With the individual experiencing the villa having reached the living areas, Aalto’s principal place of arrival it is here that the buildings connection to its natural landscape are exposed. The screens of wooden poles help soften the end of the solid vestibule wall and are used to define other areas in the room such as surrounding the open stair to the second floor. Visitors can finally relax in the warm atmosphere looking out up the framed view of the garden, courtyard, the sauna and the vast surrounding forest.2. Relationship with nature In the design of the Villa Mairea, Aalto’s work creates a smooth transition of exterior space into interior space. He achieves this by projecting the outside in and the inside out; displaying the building and its landscape as a one.
With this idea Aalto reconfirms the fact that the entire building its cultivated courtyard and its extension into the surrounding forest are all part of one composition. This idea is made clear initially when the building is viewed from the exterior. Here the wooden window mullions break down the large amount of white plastered cladding of the second floor living accomodation.
This second floor is also supported by steel columns which mirror the vertical geometry of the trees in the forest. Perhaps strongest of all the design of the buildings immediate garden consists of small rise near the entrance, evocative of the style of a Japanese garden with mound which links the forest with the courtyard instead of having a clear boundary. When looking at the courtyard, you can see the many different techniques Aalto has used by manipulating the light and utilising multiple textures and materials which help to create a outdoor space which can be understood as many individual volumes as well as one coherent space. Aalto uses this space to order works from the dwelling spaces to become a civic center. This civic use provides a setting for communal activities as well as establishing a place in the forest. It also recognised its Finnish heritage, where the arrangement of space replicates the traditional methods used to plan farm complexes.
This use of differentiation between the honorific and utilitarian spaces is a technique which Aalto uses to inform the ordering geometry of many designs. He articulates his most important spaces by articulating their unique shaping in plan and section. These natural organic forms as which Aalto uses in the communal spaces are complemented by the clever use of material to strengthen the links to the buildings natural context.In the Villa Mairea the use of soft natural materials can be seen not only covering its exterior form but also form an essential element in the important internal living spaces.
Aalto’s demonstrates his skill in allowing nature to engage with the built form, this can be seen with the use of planting in both the interior and exterior spaces. This not only strongly bonds his building with the immediate forest context and the rhythm cycle of the natural order, but also suggests an antagonism between nature and the built form.Aalto’s choice of material is decided not only for their physical and tactile qualities, but more importantly aid in creating proper atmospheric space. It helps inform the visitors experience of the space as it helps create a spatial hierarchy of the various living spaces and the elements which this includes.Each individual piece of Aalto’s design has the purpose of complimenting his overall composition.
He mixes traditional with modern, natural landscape with built form but most importantly was the pieces of his own innovation which were added. The most radical of these occurs as part of the design for the interior, which displays Aalto’s design as an abstraction of the Finnish forest. He achieves this by using steel columns, which while they are common in any architectural design Aalto adapted these to fit into his design ethos effectively. By wrapping the steel in a various kinds of wood shows his attempts to conceal the industrial element in his design which would have been the same as other designs of the period. This is what helps Aalto achieve an overall ambience of intimacy, warmth and welcome Opposing the technical logic he finishes the steel with a soft black gloss and wraps in twisted rattan. This has the effect of softening an otherwise cold, hard material which embodies durability and strength, into the finished product which suits Aalto’s interior for the Villa Mairea.
Exuding warmth, delicacy and almost forms an invitation for human interaction, linking to the idea of Aalto designing to engage all the senses.The inclusiveness and Aalto’s ability to blend together multiple contrasting features is what makes his work unique to other buildings. Its richness in layer upon layer of detail which evokes memories from history and plays with the different senses is what makes it different. Aalto integrates ideas of nature, technology, emotions and sense of tradition which allows his design achieve a humane quality in how it engages with each individuals experience. –By linking the vernacular, the familiar language of ordinary people, with the strangeness of the new, Aalto created a work with broad appeal.
Whereas the constructive and functional priorities of early modernist housing created distance from geographic and historical contexts in an effort to be universal, the Villa Mairea emphasized features particular to Finland––the regional economy, local materials, available labor, and established traditions––to create a place that Finns could identify with and recognize themselves in.50 In doing so, Aalto created a safe middle ground between tradition and modernity, between the security of a familiar past and the promise of an exhilarating future, a place where everyday people could engage the new forms of modernity from a frame of reference they were familiar with––from the mirror of history, their history. What gives the Villa Mairea its distinctive place in the history of architecture is not only a skillful play with contrasting forms or a mastery of time and tempo, scale and density, politics and geography, but how prescient it was and how relevant it remains.51 Questions of national identity and international influence, the right-balance between the newness of the present and the aura of the past, the integration of architecture and its natural site, and the role that new technologies play in making a better life for the common man, are perennial difficulties brought into sharp focus in the villa. 52