Thursday, October 29, 2015

5 Years of following Alvar Aalto

Dear reader,

University of Jyväskylä
today exactly five years ago for the first time I set foot into the Alvar Aalto Museum in Jyväskylä. Before visiting the museum I had only known the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto's name and perhaps seen some of his buildings here and there. I always had an interest in design and architecture but it was this particular visit that changed my life in some way. I got so inspired by this museum's visit that two days later on October 31, 2010 I started writing this very blog. Five years have pasted since. The goal I formulated at the very beginning, namely visiting all 80 Alvar Aalto buildings that exist in the world sounded at that time almost unfeasible. Today five years later I feel I have come closer to this goal than I ever thought. While it was easy to visit first local sites in Jyväskylä and nearby towns, things became more concrete when I did a two days train trip to Seinäjoki, Alajärvi and Rovaniemi in summer 2011. Then in 2012 the destinations became international with Estonia, Denmark and even Iceland as well as Germany later that year. It got a bit more quiet during 2013 and 2014, but I was still visiting key landmarks in Finland such as the Paimio Sanatorium, the House of Culture or Finlandia Hall. Nevertheless, the biggest challenge seemed always to reach the sites across the Atlantic. Finally this year the dream became true and I was able to visit all three sites located in the United States of America, while staying there for a one year research visit at UCLA. I was able to combine all three visits with a 45 day USA roundtrip by train that not only gave me the opportunity to see the entire country but also to visit all three Alvar Aalto sites at once.

By now the amount of visited sites has almost reached 60. Visits have been documented in 45 posts and with more than 1 000 pictures. There are not many of Alvar Aalto's key landmarks left that I haven't visit and covered in this blog. Among the very few ones is certainly the Viborg Library in Russia, the Neue Vahr High Rise-Building in Bremen and the Essen Opera House both in Germany, Maison Louis Carre in France as well as the Church of Santa Maria Assunta in Italy. In Finland remains still the inside of the Finlandia Hall and the Villa Maire in Normakku and Villa Kokkonen in Järvenpää.

But also in terms of readership this blog has seen a steady increase. By now almost 43 000 visitors have been counted and every month approximately 1 500 new visitors are joining. I am especially thankful for this interest which also keeps me up and traveling, photographing and writing about all this wonderful pieces of architecture made in Finland.

Säynätsalo Town Hall

Also the sixth year of this blog will be seeing many new posts related to new site visits. I am currently planning to capture the missing sites in Central Europe with a round trip in summer 2016 by train. Besides that still many sites remain in Finland. Also the update of previous posts will continue as soon as I am able to find time in order to revisit some of the sites especially located in and around Jyväskylä and Helsinki. So dear reader stay tuned and thank you for your ongoing support by reading this blog.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Alvar Aalto and Mount Angel

Site No. 58: Library for Mount Angel Benedictine Abbey in St. Benedict, OR / USA (1964)

Train to Oregon
Today I am presenting the site which is probably the most far away from both Alvar Aalto's and also my current home, Finland. Alvar Aalto had to come all the way to the U.S. West Coast in order to realize this building. After visiting Aalto sites in New York and Boston and crossing the continent once again by train and a short visit to Seattle and Portland I finally reached Salem in Oregon. Salem Railway Station was the closest I could get by public transportation in order to reach the Mount Angel Benedictine Abbey. From the station I had to take a taxi which was the only way to reach St. Benedict in Oregon. Also I had to
stay the night as the train timetable didn't allowed me to visit the abbey just during one day. I was however lucky and the abbey itself was able to provide me with accommodation. The taxi ride had taken more than half an hour and also hadn't been cheap either. Nevertheless, I got to see the beauty of Oregon and a very friendly taxi driver took me all the way right to the abbey. He was certainly impressed when I shared with him that I had come all the way from Finland to see this, by Alvar Aalto designed, library here at the West Coast. Night was falling once we reached the abbey which was located slightly outside of St. Benedict. The abbey is nicely located on top of a hill giving a beautiful view over the surrounding area of seeming endless farmland. From the parking lot I had to climb up to the actual campus of the abbey. There on the left I spotted the library and had a first look although the light was already fading. After a good night sleep in the abbey's own guest house I spent the next morning discovering the actual library.

The dominating building of the campus was of course the church. The library was more blending in among other buildings, stood however out. Not so much because of its shape which the side facing the campus was kept rather conservative compared to the other building but because of its color. All the other buildings were of course significantly older and kept in red brick. It is interesting to consider the fact that although the library had been erected in a time that is still close to Alvar Aalto's red brick period, he decided to not choose red brick but beige instead. As I learned from the friendly lady working at the library, Aalto had quiet some difficulties fitting the building into the campus.

My impression of the building changed completely once I did a walk around it discovering the side facing the open land. Immediately typical elements of other Alvar Aalto libraries such as the one in Rovaniemi or in Seinäjoki came to my mind. While the front seems narrow the library opens up to the back like a leave.

The advantage of this kind of layout became even more obvious once entering the building. While the entrance is rather narrow the building opens up to the back where the shelfs with books are located. At the same time there are also large windows facing the open land letting in a lot of natural light. The shelfs are located in two floors. On the lower floor also some private working/reading rooms can be found.

There is also a seminar room right to the entrance.

Although this Aalto site had been the most far away and most difficult to reach making it necessary to stay over night and included an expensive cab ride, it definitely was worth a visit. If you are around that area don't hesitate to go and visit this place. The library is open to the public and the friendly staff is glad to answer any kind of questions you might have about the architecture. After I had spend the entire morning at the library it was again time for me to move on. A taxi took me back to Salem from where I caught the southbound Coast Starlight that took me back to Los Angeles, the starting point of my 45 day USA rail trip and my home at that time.

Alvar Aalto at MIT

Site No. 57: MIT Baker House Senior Dormitory in Boston Cambridge, MA / USA (1947-49)

Train to Boston
The second Alvar Aalto site located in the United States of America is located not too far from the first one, presented earlier, the Edgar J. Kaufmann Conference Room in New York City. Also this site has a relation to higher education as it houses seniors studying at the world renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Altogether 318 students can be housed in this dorm. The building in question is another key landmark of Alvar Aalto's long career. Alvar Aalto designed it while being a visiting professor of architecture at MIT. Located at 362 Memorial Drive in Boston Cambridge, MA this building almost perfectly blends in with the rest of the MIT campus, well almost.

After I had left New York taking the train up to Boston, enjoying the indeed beautiful scenery, it was time to visit the second Alvar Aalto site along my 45 day USA rail trip. I had two days in Boston but I didn't want to leave it to a chance missing out to see this Alvar Aalto landmark. With the subway red line I reached MIT/Kendall station which is only a few stops from the city centre away. From the subway station I followed the river and after 15 minutes walk I had reached my destination. Due to its Serpentine shape the building was easy to distinguish from the map.

Erected in the late late 1940s the Baker House belongs to Alvar Aalto's red brick period. Some similarities with the University of Jyväskylä dorms can be seen which have been built just a few years later. Nevertheless, the Serpentine shape of the building is unique and to my knowledge the only Alvar Aalto building that features such a layout. These special layout allows 90% of the rooms a direct view to the river and the skyline of Boston. While the front facing the street and the river feature only windows the entrance and the staircases are located in the back. Typical design elements such as the indirect lighting and on the roof top installed lamps as well as the typical door handles are just a few visible aspects of Alvar Aalto's signature. Of special interest are also the staircases which are visible from outside and the main entrance door that is of similar design than the entrance doors to the large auditorium of the University of Jyväskylä Main Building.

Unfortunately I wasn't able to enter the building. I would have been curious to also see the interior and some of the dorm rooms as well as the furniture designed by Alvar Aalto and still in use. The front door was locked and the there wasn't anybody around that could have opened the door for me. According to a note at the door only tenants and their guests were allowed inside. Too bad I didn't know anybody living in the building. Also due to the summer break (my visit took place in mid-August) nobody was around, the building appeared abandoned. The building itself appeared slightly run down to me. However, just to see the Serpentine shape in the front and the famous stair cases in the back are already worth a visit and a must for every Alvar Aalto fan.