Thursday, October 16, 2014

Notes from Alvar Aalto's Villa Mairea in Noormarkku

Villa Mairea in Noormarkku in southwestern Finland - one of Alvar and Aino Aalto's most well-known and celebrated designs, built in the late 1930s.
Sometimes things take time - like this post about my visit to Villa Mairea while in Finland last summer. I'm not sure if it's because so much has been said of this pearl of 20th century modernist architecture, which kind of takes out both the need and the fun of adding anything. Or because I actually was slightly disappointed at the visit that I'd been waiting for such a long time.

With disappointment I definitely don't mean the building - one of Alvar Aalto's finest, commissioned by Harry and Maire Gullichsen, one of the wealthiest couples in Finland (at the time), who gave Aalto and his architect wife Aino pretty much free hands to form everything to the perfection. Both couples were friends and even business partners - Maire and the Aaltos had briefly before founded Artek, originally an avant-garde art gallery that later morphed into the furniture company that still produces and sells Aalto's designs worldwide.
The building shines white amongst the tall pines of a gravelly hill - while the wooden parts connect to the coppery bark of the trees.

The L-form of the building leaves a grassy courtyard between the house and the sauna (on the left, not seen in the picture). Some parts of the roof are covered in grassy turf, just like traditional Finnish buildings were since ancient times, connecting the building both to history and to the surrounding nature.
The building was a holiday home for the Gullichsens, an experimental house where only the best was good enough - of course, being true modernists, this translates to a minimalistic style typical for Alvar Aalto and his wife Aino. Sculptural, light, airy, connected to its surroundings and utilizing materials from the nature - the building has stood the test of time. There is a great indoor/outddor contact between the house and the surrounding pine forest, and overall atmosphere is calm and sophisticated - and still, after almost eighty years, completely current. Unfortunately, photography is not allowed indoors, so I have to direct you to Villa Mairea's own site to make your own mind.

The outdoor entertainment area between the house and the sauna, with Artek furniture.

The famous free-form pool, from another angle -the sauna is just to the right. Read more about the pool (and Alvar Aalto's friendship with Thomas Church) in my previous post here.
The disappointment part starts first in the garden of Villa Mairea - often the only garden in Finland mentioned in international texts and other media (sadly, as there is much more to Finnish garden design than this). I'm not sure how much the Aalto's spent time designing the garden - of course, they did the overall plan with the famous free form pool (sometimes said to be the first in the world), but how much they spent time with choosing the plants and other important garden elements is not certain. Maire Gullichsen herself was a keen gardener, so she probably had her hands on these matters to a great extent.

Garden gate behind the sauna - it ties to traditional Finnish structures, but the design has also been said to have taken influences from Aalto's visit to Japan.

The absolutely lovely stone wall behind the sauna (all Finnish holiday houses have a sauna, it is more essential than the house itself...). And again, a reference to the traditional Finnish countryside in form of hops growing on tall poles.
I say slightly disappointed above - the garden connects smoothly both the building and its surroundings, the massed plantings form sculptural groupings and soft mounds against the coppery pillars of the pine forest. It is just that I find it difficult to love bright red hybrid roses, massed rhododendrons, berberis, cotoneasters, ligularias and other perfectly fine plants that unfortunately were so overused in the 1960s and onwards that they still smell too much of municipal plantings to be really exciting. When planted, they probably were as avant-garde and exotic as the house itself, but my eyes just can really see past the more recent garden history. Still, changing the plants would be an anachronism, so I guess the best solution is to try forget about public plantings, and to see them with untainted eyes - not easy, but definitely worth a try. So despite starting my post with mentioning that pretty much everything  has already been said about Villa Mairea, I've now managed to add some 550 words into the bulk of writings - so surely, the building still is - if not as avant-garde, at least as engaging as when it was built in 1938.
One more picture of the typical Finnish pine forest - how I sometimes miss the sound of wind soughing through the needles, and the fresh scent of the trees...
Visits to Villa Mairea are by appointment only - check the Villa Mairea Foundation's information pages here: 

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