Classics of Architecture

Alvar Aalto

Säynätsalo Town Hall, 1952

The Säynätsalo Town Hall is a multifunction building complex – town hall, shops, library and flats – designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto for the municipality of Säynätsalo (merged with the municipality of Jyväskylä in 1993) in Central Finland. Aalto received the commission after a design contest in 1949, and the building was completed in December 1951.

The design of the Town Hall was influenced by both Finnish vernacular architecture and the humanist Italian renaissance. It was the Italian Renaissance from which Aalto drew inspiration for the courtyard arrangement which informed the name of his original competition entry entitled “Curia.” While the main program of the building is housed within a heavy brick envelope, the courtyard is bordered by a glass-enclosed circulation space which can be linked to the model of an arcade-bordered Piazza.

The town hall is crowned by the council chamber, a double-height space which is capped by the Aalto-designed “Butterfly” trusses. The trusses support both the roof and the ceiling, creating airflow to manage condensation in the winter and heat in the summer. The butterfly truss eliminates the need for multiple intermediate trusses. It also gives call to medieval and traditional styles. The council Chamber is approached from the main entrance hall a floor below via a ramp which wraps around the main tower structure under a row of clerestory ribbon windows.

Aalto constrained his material palate to one dominated by brick and accented by timber and copper. Though Aalto practiced at the same time as Modernist Architects Le Corbusier and others, he rejected the Machine Aesthetic for the majority of his architecture. Instead, he saw his buildings as organisms made of up of individual cells. This principle informed Aalto’s use of traditional building materials such as brick which is, by nature, cellular. The bricks were even laid slightly off-line to create a dynamic and enlivened surface condition.

The massive brick envelope is punctuated by periods of vertical striation in the form of timber columns which evoke Säynätsalo’s setting in a heavily forested area.

Another distinctive feature at Säynätsalo are the grass stairs which complement a conventional set of stairs adjacent to the tower council chambers. The grass stairs also evoke notions of ancient Greek and Italian architecture through the establishment of a form resembling a simple amphitheater condition

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