Alvar Aalto (1898–1976) is one of the best-known Finns that has ever lived. He built a major international career as an architect and designer and is often held to be one of the most important architects of the twentieth century.

Aalto, who was born in the small Finnish town of Kuortane, qualified as an architect at Helsinki University of Technology in 1921. He set up a practice in architecture and monumental art in the town of Jyväskylä in 1923. The practice moved to Turku and then to Helsinki in the early 1930s.

Alvar Aalto was married twice. Aino Marsio, an architect who worked in his office, became his first wife in 1924. Aino was a very close colleague who collaborated with Alvar on the design of many of the practice’s early projects. Sadly, Aino died in 1949. In 1952, Alvar married another architect, Elsa-Kaisa Mäkiniemi (Elissa Aalto), who carried on the work of the office after Alvar’s death, right up to 1994. Both of Aalto’s wives had an important role in Aalto’s work.

Aalto’s international breakthrough came with Paimio Sanatorium (1929-33). Aalto came in touch with international trends on his trips abroad and he adopted Modernism as his own design philosophy, developing it into a distinct architecture of his own. Already at Paimio Sanatorium, Aalto designed the interiors, complete with all their details, as a natural part of the overall building. This idea of the ‘complete work of art’ can be seen in many of Aalto’s buildings and it takes on a major role especially in buildings of great symbolic importance, such as Finlandia Hall.

Finlandia Hall was designed as a concert and congress hall. The name encapsulates the significance with which the building is charged. Aalto saw the building, and indeed the whole of the Töölönlahti plan as a symbol of an independent Finland – as distinct from Senaatintori (Senate Square) which is a reference to an earlier Finland that had been an autonomous Grand Duchy of Russia.

The white Carrara marble used on the facades of Finlandia Hall was Aalto’s choice for several important buildings. The marble, which was also used in the interior of Finlandia Hall, is a reference to the culture of the Mediterranean countries, Aalto’s source of inspiration. The choice of material links Finland in with the European cultural tradition. In Aalto’s architecture, interior spaces of major hierarchical importance are often expressed in the external envelope of the building. The lofty space needed for the concert hall, with its fan-shaped form, is expressed in the elevations in precisely this way.

As a young man, Aalto had taken part in many major architectural competitions in Helsinki, for example the design competitions for the Parliament Building and the Olympic Stadium. It was not until the Helsinki Central Area Plan and the design of Finlandia Hall in the latter part of his career that he was given the opportunity to design a building of major symbolic importance to Finland. Finlandia Hall, one of the last buildings planned by Aalto’s office, was designed during the periods 1967–71 and 1973–75. Alvar Aalto died in 1976, soon after Finlandia Hall was completed.