Making an Architectural Masterpiece: Alvar Aalto’s Oregon Library


Editor’s Note: This article is drawn from the typewritten notes for a lecture, 12 pages in all, which were discovered tucked in a copy of the Alvar Aalto catalog for an exhibit at MoMA in New York City in1998. Vernon DeMars, the author of these notes, is an architect who was able to observe Aalto’s design of the Oregon Library, located at Mt Angel Abbey, a Benedictine monastery and seminary and open to the public and south of Portland. DeMars gave a lecture on the Mount Angel library at the Museum of Modern Art. Seattle bookseller Peter Miller discovered the notes and, realizing their significance to the history and understanding of the Mt. Angel Library, one of only three Aalto-designed buildings in America, showed them to David Brewster of Post Alley. Thanks to the Environmental Design Archives of the University of California for permission to publish this essay.

My association with Alvar Aalto, architect of the Mount Angel Library in Oregon, was due to our mutual friendship with William Wurster, Dean of the Architecture school at M.I.T. in the post War 194Os. Wurster had invited Aalto to join the architectural faculty there and then arranged for Aalto to design Baker House, the undergraduate dormitory at M.I.T. I was on the M.I.T. faculty for several years at the same time and got to know Aalto well enough to verify the incidents and anecdotes which follow.

William Wilson Wurster was a San Francisco architect who, by the mid 193Os, had already established a reputation as the leading proponent of a relaxed, non-formal, new architectural expression which Lewis Mumford was later to label “the Bay Region Style.”

By the mid 1940s, with the war over, Wurster was chosen Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at M.I.T. and very soon found a way to bring Aalto there as a visiting professor. Wurster met Aalto almost by accident on a European study trip in 1937. Travelling with landscape architect Tommas Church and his wife, they came upon Aalto’s home and studio on the outskirts of Helsinki. What followed was a philosophical and spiritual accord that was to last throughout their lives.

In 1938 Aalto came to the United States to supervise construction on the Finnish Exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Although housed in one of the fair’s standard buildings, Aalto’s completely interior exhibition design and the Swedish Pavilion of Sven Markelius were the most important architectural statements at the ’39 fair. Since he had already come as far as New York, Wurster persuaded Aalto to come on West where he could see something of the “Bay Region Style” among other things.

Aalto, as part of his architectural practice, concerned himself deeply with things that Le Corbusier had no time or training for: an improved entrance door handle accessible to children as well as adults, or the design and mass production of attractive yet moderately priced furniture of wood — a major resource of Finland. It must be acknowledged that Aalto operated in a culture where climatic necessity and general practice expected the use of fine materials such as brick, stone, even marble for walls, copper for roofs, and fine craftsmanship in the final product.

It was in 1946 that Wurster, now Dean at M.I.T., brought Aalto to the faculty as a visiting professor for a part of the year, an arrangement he continued for several years. I joined the faculty at M.I.T. in 1947, also as a visiting professor for part of the year. I was supposed to alternate with Aalto but somehow it worked out that we were mostly there at the same time, much to my delight.

Twenty years ago, when the Catholic Sentinel, in an article mixed with surprise, admiration and incredulity, announced the assured funding and imminent construction of a new library for Mt. Angel Abbey, a monastery on a hill south of Portland, Father Barnabas Reasoner set forth with some eloquence the role of the Benedictines since the Middle Ages: to serve not only as the preserver of civilization’s inheritance, but as a catalyst for the advancement of the thought and arts of the time. And so in this tradition, the monks at Mt. Angel had chosen an architect which the article describes as “world famous, though familiar mostly only to the cultural innermost in-qroup.”

Quite true! So how did the monks come to know of him? Father Barnabas, the librarian, in the process of selecting an architect for the much needed new library came across an article in Time magazine somewhat to the effect: “the recent death of Le Corbusier leaves Alvar Aalto, the great Finnish architect, as sole survivor of those pioneers of the modern movement in architecture which included Le Corbusier, Mies Van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Walter Gropius.”

Father Barnabas said that the Benedictines had always sought excellence in whatever they undertook and since they now needed an architect–why not the best! Why not indeed! So the monks wrote to Aalto and explained, “We need you. We have this magnificent monastic site and we want you to give us a building that will fulfill our needs in a beautiful and intelligent way.”

Aalto “liked what we were trying to do and what we were trying to say,” said Father Barnabas and Aalto agreed to design the building. It was assumed and understood (without ever needing to be discussed) that this was not to be an Aalto-inspired design by an American firm but genuinely an Aalto building as though it had been completely carried out by his own office in Helsinki.

This purpose, the desire of all parties involved, was greatly facilitated by the availability of Eric Vartianen, an architectural graduate of U.C. Berkeley, where he had been one of my students. Now he was Aalto’s design associate on the library and had been from its inception. Eric would come first to Berkeley to discuss all this, would go on to Oregon to meet with the monks, gather data on the site, and other information, then return to Helsinki where he and Aalto would complete the library’s conceptual design.

The structural engineer for Mt. Angel was Stefan Medwadowski of San Francisco, who had collaborated with DeMars & Wells on several other projects including the large concert-hall and theater on the Berkeley campus. Aalto had indicated no specific structural system for the library, and although the great curved skyliqht and fan-shaped volume were somewhat unique, even among his other fan-shaped libraries.

Medwadowski suggested the double columns that pick up the radiating beams which support the main ceiling of the stack area, and which as a design element respond to the segments of the fan-shaped plan. The single column and beam supports of the skylight itself were also his suggestion. This all made sense to Aalto and it was now part of his design.

It will be noted that the radiating beams are not exposed. Whatever complexities occur are covered by the flat ceiling. Aalto typically felt no compulsion to reveal the structural system for the sake of “honesty,” one of the tenets of the International Style, unless it suited his purpose as an expressive design element. At Mt. Angel the radiating beams would likely have been in confusing conflict with the also radiating book stacks below them.

Later when plans and estimates had progressed to the point of reasonably insuring construction of the building within the budget, there came up the matter of furniture and furnishings. “What a shame,” some of us said, “that we couldn’t go all the way and have Aalto-designed furniture, lighting fixtures, hardware — a11 the trademarks of a real Aalto building.” Not long after, Father Barnabas announced that the funds “would be available” for this too.

Aalto did come to Oregon to visit the Abbey in the midst of this process, made some important changes in the library’s siting and left feeling that the concept, the design and progress were all in accord with his wishes. Aalto once advised the architecture students at M.I.T. to design their windows as if the girls they loved were sitting in them.


  1. Aalto’s influence on Northwest architecture is an untold story. Our version of modernism is more humanistic, warm to the touch than the austere, cold modernism of other masters. It is detectable in the work of Ibsen Nelsen and Fred Bassetti. Nice to think if this spirit were more present in Seattle’s downtown library.

  2. A couple of thoughts: 1. Scandinavian Functionalism ain’t warm. I’m a fan, student, and former designer taught in the Bauhaus method (gestalt yall). 2. I went to a beerfest in Mt Angel in the late 70’s. From what i recall it was fun. 3. Are the monks still brewing?


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