Alvar Aalto’s buildings have never been overshadowed by dogmatism. While following modernist traditions, Aalto’s buildings remain highly idiosyncratic and site-specific. This singular quality was achieved by designing the building for its own sake and not being subdued by an overtly strong conceptual framework. In terms of Aalto’s development, Saynatsalo Town Hall was a milestone where the architect found his style. The project also served as a guiding post for Finnish Architecture that had been devoid of any concrete philosophy for over a century.
Commissioned in 1949 as a multifunctional structure consisting of municipal offices, council chamber, library, and apartments, Aalto used the opportunity to design a building celebrating European democracy. It is remarkable considering the fact the civic center is dedicated to a small, remote town with a population of 3000. Aalto thus brought dignity to the citizens because he acknowledged the importance of the voice of the common public. His entry for the project was titled Curia, that is, the free association of men.
Saynatsalo Town Hall bridges the gap between the public and bureaucracy by throwing open the genius loci of the layout to the common man. The building is a dance of elements in opposition: a juxtaposition of monumental and intimate scale, modernism and regionalism, transparency and opaqueness, technology, and connection to nature in a poetic stance. It also paved the way for ‘Critical Regionalism’ which equally criticized the fixations of Modernism and Post- Modernism.
The majority of Aalto’s work was inspired by Renaissance and Medieval Italian Architecture. This Saynatsalo Town Hall borrows its massing and layout from the “Court and Tower” model of civic space found in Venice, Italy. A rectangular library block and a U-shaped office block surround the center court. The court is raised above the natural site level by filling the central space with soil excavated for the foundation of the building. The gaps between the two blocks provide public access to the courtyard and open it to the penetration of the low northern sun. The Board of the Council stands as the master volume supplemented by the public library in the south, offices to the north and east, the west homes.
Due to the undulating masses, the building changes with the viewing angle. From outside, the three-story Council chamber with its bare brick façade appears to loom over the city. There are small shop fronts for essential purchases. The rooftop of the major block is abrupt, inclined, imposing like mountains and establishes the center that is already at the highest point of town as the seat of authority and power. As one climbs the staircase filled with sod bound by wooden planks, one is taken back to the rugged topography of Finland. The immersive quality of landscape intensifies when one reaches the courtyard. The trees loom large over the single-story library block. Viewed from the courtyard, the dialogue with the surrounding takes a different tone.
A single water body to cool one’s feet serves as a reminder of bountiful Finland lakes. The red brick façades complement the lush greenery of both the forest and the court. The vertical struts in fenestrations mimic the rhythm of the forest and render the courtyard as an extension of the forest outside. The glass doors smash the authority established by the brick façade. The building assumes transparent apparel. It is now literally open for the public gaze, no longer an almost Orwellian bureaucratic center.
The space behind the glass doors doubles up as a semi-public circulation area. Through this transition space, light percolates into the library and offices. The effect reverses in the corridor that leads to the council chamber. This corridor is dimly lit, with a narrow staircase and the light from clerestory guiding the user.
The Council chamber is a big space with only two points of interest, a latticework that lets in light and the butterfly truss that supports the roof. Despite being elements of necessity, they render a sculptural quality to space, transforming the scale again from intimate to monumental. The height of the council chamber was a big divisive issue during construction, which Aalto defended citing its antecedent in Sienna. Thus the roof stands 17 m tall in a peculiar inclined shape derived from the Karelian Architecture of Russia.
This inversion in the quality of elements, light, and scale is observed throughout the structure, while one staircase is rectilinear, the other is organic. Sunlight, a scant resource in Finland, is controlled with the expertise to achieve the desired effects. It is important to note despite the seemingly poetic transitions in space, ultimately the design of the building is dictated by the requirement and environment. Aalto weaves the romance and function together by controlling the details, making them humane, and creating a space that contains a tactile and sensory experience as well. It is not only achieved by well thought out elements, but also by the material palette.
Alvar Aalto uses dark red brick, highlighting the local industries, and accentuates it with wooden, copper, and stone used in floors. The bricks are placed slightly off-angle, and as the sun changes the angle, the shadows change, rendering varied hues to the walls. The Flemish bonds with recessed mortar provide a tactile quality to the façade. The stone pavements and dado break the abruptness between the brick walls and the grass cover. Aalto doesn’t later cover the materials, owing to the modernist traditions of the time.
The unplastered walls, both inside and outside, bring cohesiveness and counter other dramatic shifts in the quality of space. The rhythmic elements in the façade like horizontal window bands and wooden vertical struts and the omnipresence of a controlled palette tie the experience together and highlight the permeability of the center and the idea that it serves the public, not rule them.
Despite the surface playfulness, it is integrity in design that sets the Saynatsalo Town Hall apart. Not only in the materials but also in how the spaces morph to fit the function and remain true to the site. Aalto being against ostentatiousness, the building is devoid of the excess of any kind. The richness is created by how form, materials, and elements blend with the psychology of the users and nature they inhabit.