Alvar Aalto and Finlandia Hall

Designed by Alvar Aalto, Finlandia Hall was completed in 1971. Located in a beautiful park by the sea in the centre of Helsinki, Finlandia Hall is a true work of art and embodies Alvar Aalto’s vision down to the smallest detail.

A new centre for a an independent Finland

When Helsinki was made the capital of the newly established Grand Duchy of Finland at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the architect Carl Ludvig Engel designed a monumental central square, known today as Senate Square, and flanked by the Cathedral, Senate Palace, and the University.

Alvar Aalto believed that independent Finland needed a central square of its own in the new centre of the city near the Parliament House, the symbol of the country’s independence granted in 1917. lt was a lucky coincidence that a large railway freight yard lay right in front of the Parliament and that plans were already in place to relocate it elsewhere. Aalto thought that this area would provide a unique opportunity for the realisation of an idea, originally suggested by Eliel Saarinen in 1917, for building a new traffic route known as Freedom Avenue (Vapaudenkatu) from the northern suburbs right into the heart of the city.

A new square and a new traffic artery

Aalto envisaged a large, fan-shaped square terraced on three levels and extending to where the equestrian statue of Mannerheim now stands. The square would open towards Töölönlahti Bay, and be flanked on one side by a concert and congress hall and further on by an opera house, an art museum, the city library and, possibly, other public buildings.

Freedom Avenue was to be built on columns over the northbound railway tracks, and people approaching the centre by car would see the city opening up before them, a magnificent urban landscape with its facades mirrored in the waters of Töölönlahti Bay, a similar effect to the palaces of Venice. The fan-shaped square would welcome people in a wide embrace, while the Parliament House and the Railway Station would provide a supporting flank to the sides.

Aalto drew up his first plan for this new city centre area in 1961 and subsequently modified it in 1964 and 1971 on the basis of criticism from various sources.

Building begins

Finlandia Hall was designed in 1962 and built between 1967 and 72. The plan for the Congress Wing was drawn up in 1970 and it was constructed between 1973 and 75. With the completion of the first stage of his overall project, Aalto thought he had triumphed.

Architecture

Finlandia Hall embodies many of the ideas that Aalto experimented with during his lifelong preoccupation with designing monumental buildings.

lt is not a functional creation, if the term is taken to signify a building whose forms are dictated solely by its practical functions and associated structural solutions. ln contrast, it is a decoratively conceived composition of cubistic forms forming a multi-faceted whole. None of the elements are purely decorative, however; Aalto remained faithful to functionalism to the extent that he always sought a practical reason for his forms.

The main idea of Finlandia Hall, with its tower-shaped central section and inclined roof rising over the entire structure was, as Aalto thought, to improve the acoustics of the concert hall by providing a resonance area overhead. The audience would not see it because of the suspended ceiling, but it would be capable of creating the kind of acoustic effect that high churches possess, or so he thought.

lt is unfortunate that this attempt proved to be partially unsuccessful in practice. All the same, the result still provides us with the visual satisfaction of a monumental exterior.

Materials

There is a similar twofold reason for the marble that Aalto chose to use both on the exterior, where it is contrasted with black granite, and in the interior. Marble for Aalto represented an important link with the culture of the Mediterranean, which he was keen to introduce into Finland.

Finlandia Hall and its foyers

The interior also provides numerous examples of Aalto's hallmarks and motifs. The large asymmetrical auditorium is virtually free of right angles, yet still tightly controlled, with naturally harmonious and acoustically influenced wall reliefs and bold balcony outlines. In many respects, it is a simplified version of Aalto's most magnificent auditorium, in the Great Opera House in Essen.

A foyer lies between the main auditorium for 1,700 people and the small auditorium for 340 people – where the ceiling borrows much of its inspiration from Aalto's church in Detmerode in Germany – and acts like an open landscape. As a space, it lacks any overall form, but is surrounded by numerous powerful elements that Aalto was able to really master.

The layout of the foyer extends to, or is continued into, the Congress Wing, where the most conspicuous architectural feature is the wall, which curves inwards in small sections. Even here, Aalto’s motivation was twofold: on the one hand, he wanted to save a number of trees growing on the original lot, and, on the other, he wanted to break the rigid uniformity characteristic of straight walls.

Putting the focus on the public and the performers

ln addition to these general observations, a few words must be said about the preoccupation with detail and the high-quality construction that is so typical of Aalto.

Here in Finlandia Hall these details are stretched to the limit. Every lighting fixture, every piece of furniture, as well as all the mouldings, panels, and flooring materials were specially designed, and are the outcome of Aalto’s extensive career as an architect. All the materials and colours speak in nature's own subdued way without anything artificial to distract.

This is very much in keeping with Aalto's conviction that architecture serves as a background for human beings. lt is not startling forms or interiors with vivid colours that are supposed to attract attention, it is the audience and the performers. It cannot be denied that something is required of the people, too. Guests at Finlandia Hall do not need to be attired in the same way as audiences in traditional opera houses or gilded theatres, rather they should be as natural and as honest in their appearance as their surroundings.

Göran Schildt, Ph.D.
Alvar Aalto’s biographer

Article in PDF format

A printable version of this article in PDF format can be found here.

Alvar Aalto & Finlandia Hall (pdf, 296 kb)

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Links

Finlandia Hall’s Organ

Organ (pdf 894 kb)