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An analysis of Alvar Aalto’s Säynätsalo Town Hall and its contribution to the advancement of Critical Regionalism

David A. Gross

The design of Alvar Aalto’s Säynätsalo Town Hall is generally regarded as a major transitional event in the Finnish architect’s distinguished career, as his work moved away from the anonymous cubic typology of internationalism, to a more site-specific and humanistic approach incorporating the tectonic ideals of modernist form. Concurrently, Finland may have finally found it’s own architectural expression after a half century of stylistic indeterminacy, through the practice of what is now known as ‘critical regionalism’. Säynätsalo Town Hall represents the hybridization of a localized architecture referring to vernacular traditions and the genius loci, with the abstracted geometric form of international modernism.

Regionalism began to gain strength and visibility in the era of post World War II reconstruction as a reaction to the modernist principles of architecture and urban design being promoted by the European Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM). CIAM’s manifesto advocated a universalizing, “top-down” approach to architecture and planning which tended to ignore local sensitivities and traditions. The American architectural theorist Lewis Mumford promoted the concept of regionalism as a “native and humane form of modernism,” which acknowledged local cultural, historic, climatic and geographic influences while utilizing modernist forms. (Lefaivre, Tzonis) Regionalism respected and celebrated the genius loci of site, without rejecting modernist principles.

The concept of Critical Regionalism as originally advocated by Lewis Mumford, and later more coherently articulated by Liane Lafaivre and Alexander Tzonis, is critical of the globalizing effects of modernism, and it’s subsequent reduction of cultural diversity. More importantly, critical regionalism is critical of regionalism itself as a reaction to the universalizing effects of modernism. Mumford understood that resisting the advancement of modernist ideals would be counterproductive in a world of increasing relativity, and instead, sought to engage the positive attributes of internationalism. He also rejected the notion of historicism as a basis for regionalism as anachronistic, arguing that “Our task is not to imitate the past, but to understand it, so that we may face the opportunity of our own day and deal with them in equally creative spirit.” (Mumford)

Alvar Aalto was influenced early in his career by the later stages of the National Romanticism movement but quickly moved to embrace the emerging concept of modernism in collaboration with Erik Bryggman. Aalto first gained international recognition with his award-winning design for the Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Paimio in 1929 as an exemplary expression of functionalism in the modernist mode. (Mäkelä) With the patronage of the industrialist couple Harry and Mairea Gullichsen, Aalto was able to build on his modernist tendencies while seeking to express a more purely Finnish identity through the use of metophor and indigenous materials as seen in his Villa Mairea, in Noormarku, built in 1938. Although clearly regionalist in palette, this residential project defied stylistic categorization. Villa Mairea was highly functional in the modernist tradition, but achieved a rare dialog with it’s wooded site while encoding the entire assemblage with uniquely Finnish cultural traits. This harmonious balance between artificial form and genius loci, combined with Aalto’s concern for the common man, was the precurser to the creative solution of Säynätsalo Town Hall.

Alvar Aalto’s interest in Mediteranean architecture, particularly the traditional town square, is clearly evident in the Säynätsalo plan. Aalto compared his town hall with Italy’s Palazza Pubblico in Siena, both using the courtyard motif to symbolize the center of community and the unification of democratic values. (Lahti) Aalto’s plan may also have been influenced by the vernacular Karelian farmhouse compound he wrote about in 1941, in Architecture in Karelia. “The Karelian house is in a way a building that begins with a single modest cell or with an imperfect embryo building, shelter for a man and animals, and which then figuratively speaking grows year by year. The expanded Karelian house can in a way be compared with a biological cell formation. The possibility of a larger and more complete building is always open.” (Aalto)

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Aalto’s sketch showing the proposed town hall in site context.

Aalto rejected the notion of
Paimio

Turberculosis Sanatorium in Paimio (1929).

VillaMairea

Villa Mairea in Noormarku (1938).

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