The town that Alvar Aalto built:
A Commission of Scale

After graduating from architecture school, a study visit can take on more diverse impressions than merely design inspirations. Rather, the process of a project is of foremost consideration: how did the inquiry of an existing scheme begin and how was the commission assigned? The method behind the final project is what lead Jenny Beijar to investigate Seinäjoki, Finland, a town that was planned and developed under the instruction of legendary Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto.

There is an audience for design work through websites, blogs and the blogospheres today however, there is nothing that equates to the lived experience of a work. A client who commissions a new building needs have an understanding of the previous work of an architect. This is a story about how an architect won a commission in the modernist era after WWII.

An hour drive inland from the Baltic coast of Finland is the small town where one architect made a compelling series of buildings. Seinäjoki has grown around few important railroad crossings laid out in the end of 19th century, but it is in the last fifty years that the town has grown significantly. Then a small town of 15,000, it has exploded to 60,000. The Ostrobothnian town owes a certain magnitude from an outlay by Alvar Aalto. When I first approached the area from the surrounding rye and barley fields, the towering of his church dawns at the horizon. Built after the war in 1951, it must have set a tone of brighter aspirations.

My first impression is that the solemn church figure lacked a partner, but the designer had worked in details, as I later discovered the ground surfaces bring in corresponding dimensions. It reassembles the Finnish landscape with a forest clearing, the tower being the only birch tree still standing. Drawing this image closer to the time when the church was built, it bears an untouched, sanctuary presence having survived the war in full spirit.

Aalto’s good relationship with the town council and the completed church exceeding expectations were two significant factors for the commissions of the city plan in 1956. What is extraordinary about the commission of the new central plan of Seinäjoki was that while Aalto participated in the design competition, he did not win.

His submitted plan was based upon four converging streets that widened in this area. Adding to the church was a new library, state hall, city council building and state office. Precedescents from historic Greek colonies such as Palermo and Quattrofontane were monumentality influential, and his vision was directed for pedestrians more than for cars- unlike Le Corbusiers city plan, Ville Radieuse.

In direct opposition of the Corbusier plan as well as the Chartrees d’Athenes by CIAM, the Seinäjoki project gives priority to the individual. The modernist era moved away from styles and ornamentations to give new shape to the larger picture of societal change. Above all, the extent of its success and failure lay with attempts to form new social freedom and coherencies with the modern ideal.

In Seinäjoki building volumes state a range of place makings with mediated materiality as well as traffic solutions that direct city flows. Like some of Aalto’s other projects, it takes care of both the city district scale and a well-composed detail scale. As Fredrick Gutheim has described Alvar Aalto’s work “it begins with man and ends with man”. It believes in the civilising effect of architecture.

The church was most likely the reason for the further commissioning and the point of departure for his city plan as the vantage point. The elevated landscape elongates the chapel hosting up to 15,000 for summer services. The soaring tower starts a dialogue with the surrounding squares and its presence defines the physical spaces. The church continues to be pointing out, if not a direction then a crossroad. It articulates a sentiment for an era, an era of change. The tempo of the city had changed sharply by the turn of the century, and by the middle of the Twentieth Century Finland was a country recovering from the war, on its own and ready to make changes.

The middle century urban shift led to a great project for Alvar Aalto and for Seinäjoki- it began to shape a new beginning. In 1980, after the death of Alvar Aalto the town finished the city library and his city plan was then completed. It is one of few completed planning projects by the architect Alvar Aalto.


Words & photography: Jenny Beijar.
Jenny is an architecture student in Lund, born in Sweden with Swedish-Finnish family.  She is interested in modest Nordic design and its impact and recognition locally as well as internationally.