Aalto University’s name pays homage to the life and work of architect Alvar Aalto, and to the importance of his work both nationally and internationally.
Alvar Aalto (1898–1976) had a diverse international career as an architect and as a furniture and an industrial designer. He did his matriculation examination in 1916 in the City of Jyväskylä in Central Finland. In 1921, Aalto received his diploma in architecture from the Helsinki Institute of Technology, later the Helsinki University of Technology, now a part of Aalto University.
Early years and Artek
After becoming an architect, Alvar Aalto set up his first architectural practice in Jyväskylä in 1923. During many trips to Europe in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Aalto became familiar with the latest trends in Modernism. A pure Funcionalist phase was reflected in Alvar Aalto's work for several years. This enabled him to break through internationally, and largely, because of the Paimio Sanatorium (1928–1933).
Alvar Aalto treated each building as a complete work of art, including the furniture and light fittings. The growing production and sales of Aalto furniture led to establishing Artek in 1935.
Alvar Aalto drew up the plans for the Otaniemi campus with his first wife Aino Aalto (1894–1949). Aino worked closely with her husband especially in designing furniture and interiors.
Together, with his second wife Elissa Aalto (1922–1994), Aalto designed the main building of the Helsinki University of Technology on the Otaniemi campus. The fan-like auditorium part was completed in 1964. Today, the building is Aalto University's Undergraduate Centre (below).
Elissa and Alvar also designed the Otaniemi campus library which was completed in 1969. The library has undergone an extensive renovation and in the autumn of 2016 all Aalto University campus libraries moved under the same roof, the Harald Herlin Learning Centre.
Lecturer and professor
Aalto’s reputation, as one of the main figures of modernism in architecture, grew beyond the boundaries of the Otaniemi campus, and Finland. His version of modernism has strong humanistic and natural characteristics.
A 1938 exhibition of his work at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) – Furniture and Architecture – was the first American examination of Aalto’s work.
Following the exhibition, Aalto received invitations from prestigious universities in the United States. For instance, he was invited by Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, to be a visiting lecturer, and he was a visiting professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where Alvar Aalto designed the Baker House dormitory (1947–1949) for its campus.
Open-minded, research-oriented Aalto
Alvar Aalto’s work was characterised by an open-minded and creative research-oriented approach – he tackled problems in depth, avoided settling for anything ordinary, and found new, even surprising solutions.
Alvar Aalto’s work was characterised by a radical re-utilisation of themes from the history of architecture, an organic relationship to natural elements and a cross-disciplinary approach. He tackled problems in depth, avoided settling for anything ordinary, and found new, even surprising solutions.
The objectives of Aalto University may be characterised in the same way — we attempt to break traditional barriers between different disciplines in science and art.
Photo of Alvar Aalto: Eva and Pertti Ingervo. © Alvar Aalto museum.