The household names in twentieth-century architecture are Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, “Mies,” (1888-1969), and Le Corbusier (1887-1965). Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) is less well known, but I am increasingly drawn to his work. There is a warmth to his designs and a gentle humanity in his detailing that is increasingly appealing to me.
Aalto was born in Finland in 1898, and died there in 1976. Buildings of his design can be found in Switzerland, Germany, Ireland, Estonia, Croatia, and Iraq. The majority of his work is in Finland, including two buildings that I consider his masterpieces, the Villa Mairea near Noormarkku of the late 1930s, and the Town Hall at Saynatsalo of 1949-52. Believing in comprehensive design of the environment, Aalto also designed much furniture; for decades I have longed for an Aalto tea trolley.
Aalto taught in the United States at MIT in 1947-48 while overseeing construction of his serpentine Baker House dormitory, including most of its furnishings. From 1967 to 1970 Aalto also designed and oversaw a library for the Mount Angel Abbey at St. Benedict, Oregon, a dozen miles northeast of Salem. Wikipedia lists the library as one of Aalto’s significant buildings.
Aalto designed several libraries within other buildings, and five as independent buildings. Four of the independent ones are organized with service and administrative spaces in a rectangular plan, while the stacks and the reading and study spaces radiate in a fan-like arrangement. The Mount Angel design is the finest of these, for several reasons.
In other examples, the fan-like spaces are subordinate, and they account for less than a third of the footprint At Mount Angel the fan dominates. Left of the lobby a corridor serves administrative and meeting spaces grouped as rectangles; right of the lobby is a small square auditorium. Ahead is the space that is the fan. Its northern exterior wall is a series of four facets; they are facets because immediately inside are many of the book stacks, whose shelves are necessarily straight. The facets are designed to make a prow or point at the east.
It is hard to find a practical reason for this arrangement. It seems to be just a shape that Aalto liked, and it does indeed make a geometrically handsome plan. Farther inboard are more stacks, radially arranged, then tiers for reading and study that in plan are portions of concentric circles. They descend to a floor far below the lobby; the space is the equivalent of four stories in height.
This height was made possible, almost inevitable, by the site. The land slopes sharply downward from the entry, and Aalto has seized the opportunity to lower that fan floor. In this too the Mount Angel design is unique among the fan schemes. The floors of the other fans are extensions of the entry floor plane; the fan spaces are barely higher than the lobbies.
One enters, then, through the unassuming façade, its diminutive height is emphasized by the still lower pergola. It gives no hint of what lies beyond. Inside, straight ahead. one quickly comes to the edge of the lobby, and to an unimpeded view overlooking the grand space.
There is grandeur here, no doubt of that; it is a decisively three-dimensional primal geometry of impressive dimensions. But it does not overwhelm or intimidate; it lies ahead of and below us, not above.
Within the grandeur, delicacy is everywhere. Floors are a light gray, reading surfaces are slightly darker. The wood that is sparingly used is light in value and small in dimension. Handrails are metal tubes of small diameter. All other surfaces, including the columns, are white. The equally-spaced white lamps are tiny, and are held by uniformly angled white arms that are as thin as pencils. These lamps arise from a very thin band of wood that seems to float, unsupported, above the uninterrupted sweeps of horizontal surface that are edged by another thin band of wood. Stools of Aalto’s design are at every lamp. And all is flooded with light, from that generous and continuous skylight. It is a space of gentle drama.
From their first deliberations on the project, the directors intended that the building be of exceptional design quality. In choosing the Finnish master Aalto they chose a particular kind of exceptional quality. He gave them a gentle drama, a beautiful culmination of his fan idea, the finest of the series, detailed as an embodiment of his typical thoughtful humanity. He gave them one of our region’s great buildings.
Aalto had considerable influence in Northwest architecture. Wendell Lovett (1922-2016), having obtained his Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Washington in 1947, chose to do his graduate work at MIT in 1947-48, specifically because Aalto was there; Wendell then taught design studios at UW for decades. T. William Booth (b. 1938) worked for Aalto from September of 1962 to August of 1963, and later partnered with Ralph Anderson, whose firm was a training ground for dozens of Seattle architects.
Phillip Jacobson (b. 1928) has had an almost dual citizenship with Finland; in 1992 the Finnish Society of Architects awarded him their Silver Medal. Jacobson directed design at Seattle’s TRA Architects for 30 years, and taught design at Washington for 40, during which he chaired many graduate theses.
In these ways, Aalto has directly influenced at least three Seattle architects. and has indirectly influenced others beyond number.
Some photographs are courtesy of Andrew van Leeuwen, as indicated. All other images are courtesy Mount Angel Abbey, with special thanks to Rachel Schlachter and Dr. Brian Morin.