Form must have content, and that content must be linked with nature. – Alvar Aalto.

An exhibit manifesting the idea of Gesamtkunstwerk in all its glory, with Finlandia hall, Alvar Aalto built a soaring and intimate sanctuary for the celebration of events formal and informal alike. Let us take a journey through it.

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©Alvar Aalto – säätiö / Alvar Aalto Foundation, 2017
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Initial Sketches, Alvar Aalto Museum ©Alvar Aalto – säätiö / Alvar Aalto Foundation, 2017
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Floor Plan, Finlandia Hall © ©Alvar Aalto – säätiö / Alvar Aalto Foundation, 2017

The City of Helsinki commissioned the Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto to design a congress and event venue in the Töölönlahti Bay area of Helsinki, Finland. The designs of Finlandia Hall were completed in 1962 by the architect, with the building inaugurated in 1971. For the sheer function that Finlandia Hall embodies, the spaces in the building can be divided into three categories: the concert/event halls and its foyers, the music halls, and its foyers and the restaurants. The extension to the building houses the Congress’ need for conference rooms which were specifically planned. The spaces as a whole were linked together, but the design facilitated the premise of acting as separate units whenever necessary. The asymmetric fan-shaped concert hall and acoustics as architectural manifestations were studied and carefully grafted at the concept stage itself.

Late career, Monumentalism

The last stage of Aalto’s architecture life was informed greatly by the early career functionalism and mid-career experimentation into an interpretation of modernism translating to a monumental form of architecture exhibited in his design of public buildings. His architecture though attributed to being on the monumental side, on the scalar measures do not depart from being humane and nature-centric. The focus while into the creation of the building is not on extraordinary forms and flamboyant interiors, but rather the people – the viewed and the viewers. 

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Finlandia Hall ©Alvar Aalto – säätiö / Alvar Aalto Foundation, 2017
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Undulating facade of Finlandia Hall ©2020 Condé Nast

The main building houses the Main Auditorium with a capacity of some 1700 people, along with four other halls or event centers and restaurants as well as cafes. The most striking feature of the Finlandia Hall building emerges out of Aalto’s concerns for acoustics resonance and user appreciation of the venue, knowing that a high empty space would provide for better acoustics, he created a tower-like section with a sloping roof. The interior design element of a lattice ceiling does hide the space to the audience but creates an enigmatic deep post echo that is in the classic tall church towers. The exterior is marked by his departure from classic modernist principles and exhibits undulating patterns emerging out of curving balconies and exterior of white marble and black granite.

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Optical Illusion, Finlandia Hall ©2017 ADC Group Srl

Placing the building in its nuanced context, the framed view from the eastern shore of Töölönlahti Bay expresses an illusion of the National Museum building, rising from the edge of the Finlandia hall tower. The particular effect described here is achieved by a black trapezium on the white marble surface of the building’s tower, which goes in consonance with the material of the National Museum building. Aalto used Italian Carrara marble in both indoor and outdoor surfaces of the building in contrast to the black granite, which was a tie to the Mediterranean culture, which he aspired to bring to Finland.

Idea of Gesamtkunstwerk

What distinguished Aalto from his peers was his commitment to creating designs with an innate sense of warmth and humanity as opposed to strict and rigid functionality, and most notably his dedicated and conscious integration of the concept of gesamtkunstwerkwhich translates to “total work of art”. He interpreted gesamtkunstwerk as a necessitated appropriation in all spheres of building design, from the structural to the interior finishing.

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Lamps and table designs, Finlandia Hall ©2020 Condé Nast
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The design of the organ references tropes used throughout the building. ©2020 Condé Nast
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The design of the organ references tropes used throughout the building. © 2020 Condé Nast

Aalto manages to never veer into the ostentatious side of interior art while still managing to be involved in every little detail of furnishing. Marble has been used for the interior, supplemented with the use of hardwood, ceramic, and the soft wool carpeting. One of the most striking features of the interior layouts is a shallow and broad ‘Venetian’ staircase, acting as a sculptural artifact leading from the ground floor foyer to the main auditorium and chamber music hall. Aalto’s maturity which resulted from his experimentation phase as a designer of lamps, furniture, and fixtures is manifested greatly in the detailed designs of each lamp, piece of furniture, panels, flooring materials as well as decorative boards. Each little design was specially curated for the building, creating a total work of art, and each material speaks a language of nature, without any technical artificial tone.

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Piazza, Finlandia Hall © 2017 ADC Group Srl

The piazza is a large foyer that has abundant natural light, and its name and function both go back to the deep admiration of Aalto for Italy and the Mediterranean. The market places and squares where people gathered to be with each other, is being expressed and attempted to be brought about in this strong formal Scandinavian context. The colors are subdued and quiet, and the floor is covered with high-quality English wool carpeting, creating a perfect backdrop for the theatrics of human interaction to manifest itself.

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Scale model of Plan of Helsinki City Centre © Alvar Aalto – säätiö / Alvar Aalto Foundation, 2017

Aalto envisioned the Finlandia Hall to be a part of the larger plan of moving closer to the idea of independent Finland, symbolically by re-imagination of the city center. That could not be achieved in his lifetime, but as a cultural identity and major choice of global political events, Finnish identity and expressionism are manifested to the international audiences at and by Finlandia Hall, time and again. With his primacy to qualities that depart from rigid functionality, such as mood, atmosphere, intensity, and quality of life and even national characteristics to some extent, his analyst Gideon declared that “Finland is with Aalto wherever he goes”.

Expressing intent-purpose, manifested by the ethics and ethos of its creator, Finlandia Hall stands tall as a testament of a paradoxical Scandinavian minimalist understated work showcasing the late-career monumentalism of Aalto’s career.

Author

Shiza Christie is a Masters in Urban Design student at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. She is an observer of the phenomenon of time and forever enchanted by the power of words. These days she spends her time deliberating on urban complexities, its constituents and place making.

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