Villa Mairea: The Cultures Behind a Humanized Design

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8th Feb 2020 Architecture Reference this

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An iconic piece of architecture is usually known not only by its aesthetics, but also by its contribution into the innovation of the field of architecture itself. Alvar and Aino Aalto’s Villa Mairea is located on a rural site in Noormarkku, Finland, where it portrays what it takes to successfully bring to life an experimental house. It is probably Aalto’s most personal work, a masterpiece that fused together numerous influences in a remarkable coherent whole.[1] The house was designed for Maire and Harry Gullichsen, wealthy industrialists and art promotors, who gave the architect the opportunity of design experimentation. The Finnish architect took an unexpected turn into welcoming a fusion of Finnish and Japanese cultures and architecture styles as a major inspiration source for the final design of the building.

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 Alvar Aalto was an architect born in 1898 in a small Finnish town. He is one of the most acclaimed Finnish architects from the 20th Century, with a new approach into modern architecture that would affect the future in the field of architecture. His approach consisted mainly of self-expression, the use of organic resources in order to connect his designs to the environment around it. His work can be recognized by a number of elements; for example, he was one of the architects that worked in opposition of Le Corbusier’s concept of the home as a “living machine”[2]. He committed to designs that would bring a sense of humanity and warmth to the user as opposed to only functionality. As an art enthusiast himself, Aalto developed his designs by following the concept of gesamtkunstwerk, literally meaning “a work of art.” [3]

Illustration of Villa Mairea

A work of art to live in

 Villa Mairea was built in 1939 as a modern residence, which has attained world-wide recognition as one of the greatest masterpieces of 20th-century architecture. In his design for the Villa, Aalto is celebrated for his shift between Functionalism into an organic modernist style of architecture. The design has its precedents in both Finnish and Japanese cultures, where both types of architecture seek to connect nature and man-made structures. This house prefigured as one of the most challenging of modern architecture and the twenty‐first century: How to be connected to an specific place, its local economy, and its traditions, while at the same time being globally intertwined with the world at large and its ideas, forms, and technical innovations.[4] The Villa is commonly celebrated in the 20th century architecture as one of the most successful designs when it comes to incorporating multiple cultures, traditions, and modernism into one whole. Firstly, Aalto creates a connection with the local environment and culture, through a representation of the Finnish forest within the materiality and structure of the residence. This concept results in a design that not only brings an ecologically sensitive design, but also enhances “the emotional attachment to particular landscapes”[5]. Similarly, Japanese architecture is strongly linked to an emotional connection and spatial interactions with nature and the overall environment around and inside of a house. A building is not seen as an independent structure[6], but as a collaboration and constant interaction with the environment surrounding it, and this results in the creation of a design with qualities that will enhance these interactions. In fact, just as in Villa Mairea, the elements used to promote these principles are both materiality and boundaries. Through the usage of thresholds within a structure, spaces can be perceived in a completely different way.

 For instance, Villa Mairea shows a very unique use of columns not only for structural purposes, but as spatial boundaries within the house and a visual connection with the forest through the materials used. They are strategically placed in order to give the space a sense of transparency that connects visually the spaces in the house, while it mimics the verticality of the trees in the background seen through the windows facing the back of the house.

Traditional Japanese screen, or “Shoji”.

Wood columns used in main staircase, Villa Mairea.

 Aalto purposely makes each column different, “to avoid all artificial architectural rhythms.” [7] The columns are different in size and grouped in different numbers throughout the house, giving a sensation of informality which harmonizes with the forest outside the residence.

1            2           3            4           5

1: Single steel painted black; 2: steel bound in rattan to wainscot height; 3: vertical scoring; 4: double steel bound in rattan; 5: faced with pine slats

Illustration of column distribution, Villa Mairea

 The main living area space appears to open and close, which reproduces a similar experience as when walking through a forest, which enhances the search for harmony with nature in Japanese culture and architecture. When entering the residence the front door is hidden behind a row of columns, placed by the architect in order to emphasize the “continuity found in the environment of both inside and out the villa”[8].

Illustration of main entrance, Villa Mairea

Column

Illustration of positioning of columns, Villa Mairea

“After all, nature is a symbol of freedom”

 

 “Nature, rather than the machine, should serve as the model for architecture”[9]. As Aalto believed, Finnish culture is in fact surrounded by the importance of nature, adapting to it, which tends to create a bond between people and nature. Both Finnish and Japanese cultures have quite a strong influence in Villa Mairea, its materiality, spatial organization and circulation; not only a connection, but a fusion with nature. The exposure to heavily forested areas shaped both cultures to cooperate with the environment, and to build with nature as one of the main elements in the architecture. The Villa has deep historical, urban and cultural inspirations used for the design as Aalto incorporates both cultures simultaneously in total harmony. The location of a house becomes paramount at the moment of coming up with a particular design, as Finland is known to be a country heavily influenced by its relationship to nature. Given that about 70% of its land covered with dense forests all over the country, there is a constant exposure to both flora and fauna at all times.

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 A major component of Villa Mairea is the connection to its surroundings, through the generous use of wood and stone, as well as the garden surrounding the structure separating it from the forest. One of the characteristics of Japanese culture is often said to be a close and harmonious relationship between man and nature.[10] In the 1930s, Aalto’s admiration for Japanese art, craft and design grew. He loved its poise and skill and what he saw as its “enormous sensitivity and tact towards the individual”[11]. In designing the sauna building, for example, Aalto took as his starting point the Karelian village bathing house and laundry, a homely communal building with turfed roof. He flattens and extends the roofline, paring down the structure to its purest abstract geometry. It is the sort of delicate, meditative building you find on a Kyoto temple site.               The tradition and nature Aalto found in Japanese houses and gardens as well as religious structures would be the inspiration and confirmation for his extended concepts of rationalism and functionalism: humanizing the modern architecture with both the physical and psychological needs of human beings.[12] A lot of the Japanese aesthetic, like a lot of Japanese culture, has its roots in religion. Shinto is a set of beliefs that puts a lot of emphasis on nature, and the spirit, or kami, within. Mostly, Japanese culture orbits around the idea of peace, tranquility and harmony with the environment around you. Japan’s culture of resilience is built into its architectural practice, and its ideas about openness translate to even the most modern forms of urban living. In Japanese thinking there is no built or natural environment, just nature.

 On the other side of the design, the forms and proportions of Finnish architecture are strongly influenced by two basic characteristics of the Finnish culture and people: intense individualism and determined utilitarianism. These somewhat contradictory qualities find their artistic unification means of stylistic expression. Aalto’s intention was to humanize space and form; his method consisting of blending modern technology and standardization with a craft-based approach to the design and the making of buildings. Finnish architecture has identifiable components in its traditions that take part in the materiality of Villa Mairea. Mainly, the tradition of using primarily stone, brick and wood, which is rooted in the construction of Finland’s churches. The intent of designing the fireplace space as the hearth, being environmentally and symbolically crucial in northern climate is also a tradition seen in Finnish vernacular houses. He sought to celebrate the many dimensions of human life; to provide design that operated on a functional as well as spiritual—and decidedly humane—level.

 Aalto’s uniqueness in design derived from his ability to extend, modify and blend these different traditions with international and historical themes, such as Japanese architecture and culture. He achieves in this experimental house a design approach that combines recognizable elements in new and original forms, such as the use of the wood in the vertical columns, which at the same time reassemble the forest and create a moment of “nature within the architecture”[13] that Japanese architecture is well-known for. Aalto’s use of Japanese motifs is not merely a borrowing of forms, but an attempt at allying himself with a more humane architectural tradition than that of what was becoming a “soulless”[14] modernism. 

Life after Villa Mairea

 In an article in Arkkitehti in 1939 Aalto describes Villa Mairea as his own “laboratory experiment”[15]. The principal importance in this particular project from Aalto was how he was given a unique opportunity of exploration, with he proudly embraced to develop his own architectural vocabulary. This house is representing a synthesis of Aalto’s architectural and design beliefs, mixing many different elements which were also a part of his future buildings and inspiration for future architecture. Villa Mairea offered the chance to incorporate and fuse together diverse techniques, styles and spatial qualities, influences from cultures such as Finnish and Japanese to forge his own style. The house is compared to many things in the realm of a “love poem”, a “chamber music” by his colleagues who visited the masterpiece. “A rare thing has been achieved: the feeling of an uninterrupted constant flow of space throughout the house which is never lost, and yet a feeling of intimacy is always preserved, wherever you are in the house”[16]. The Villa is in fact a perfect example of cultural fusion at its best, where the juxtaposition of architectural traditions has been used in the creation of a whole new modern architecture vocabulary.

 It is quite fitting that when translated to English, the Finnish word Aalto means “wave”, since not only does he subvert the prevailing rectilinear language of Modernism, but imposes a sort of spatial exuberance that challenges its reliance on regimen and regularity. He infuses the Villa Mairea with strategies that both disorient and enfold the observer. Richard Weston maintains that “anyone who experiences the interior of the villa can feel themselves at home, the moving center of a richly articulated space, which seems, like its model forest, to be structured around the human subject.”[17] It is thus impossible to classify Aalto as a true Modernist or even to declare his kind of Modernism intrinsically Finnish; it is humanist. He is, as Goran Schildt labelled him, Modernism’s “secret opponent”[18], subtly re-humanizing a practice that had focused too heavily on function and abstraction and denied the essential human experience of memory, of place and of soul. Perhaps what Aalto’s Villa Mairea is most successful in demonstrating is this fissure in the Modernist conception of space: that every straight line has within it the potential to bend. In the rigid exists the fluid.

Bibliography

  • Chiu, Chen-Yu, Aino Niskanen, and Ke Song. “Humanizing Modern Architecture: The Role of Das Japanische Wohnhaus in Alvar Aalto′ s Design for His Own House and Studio in Riihitie.” Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering 16, no. 1 (2017): 1-8.
  • Curtis, William J. R. “Modern Architecture Since 1900.” [London]: Phaidon, 1996. Print, 29.
  • Hyon-Sob, Kim. “Alvar Aalto and Humanizing of Architecture.” Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering 8, no. 1 (2009): 9-16.
  • Hyon-Sob, Kim. “Architectural History: Supplement. Records of Buildings.” Architectural History, vol. 2, 1959, p. 81., doi:10.2307/1568223.
  • Nerdinger, Winfried. “Alvar Aalto’s Human Modernism.” Toward a Human Modernism. Ed. Winfried Nerdinger. New York: Presel Verlag, 1999.
  • Orr, David. “Architecture, Ecological Design, and Human Ecology.” Towards an Architecture of Ecology, Economy and Equity. Ed. Kim Tanzer and Rafael Longoria. New York: Taylor & Francis Inc., 2007. 15-33.
  • Phenomenology 2005, “Inside and Outside in Wright’s Fallingwater and Aalto’s Villa Mairea”. Pages 25-36, Zeta Books, Volume 5, Issue Part 1, 2007.
  • Poole, S. (2017). Villa Mairea: Alvar Aalto. In Companion to the History of Architecture, H. F. Mallgrave (Ed.). doi:10.1002/9781118887226.
  • Quantrill, Malcolm, and Alvar Aalto. Alvar Aalto: A Critical Study. New Amsterdam Books, 1989.
  • Ray, Nicholas. Alvar Aalto. Yale University Press, 2005. Pages 90-102.
  • Tabeada, José Antonio Franco. “Return to Villa Mairea. An Approach to Analyzing His Conceptual Drawings.” Revista de EGA, no. 11, Oct. 2006, pp. 175–177.
  • Weston, Richard. “Between Nature and Culture: Reflections on the Villa Mairea.”
  • Nerdinger, Winifried. Toward a Human Modernism. Ed. Winfried Nerdinger. New York: Prestal Verlag, 1999.
  • Yuriko, Saito; The Japanese Appreciation of Nature, The British Journal of Aesthetics, Volume 25, Issue 3, 1 March 1985, Pages 239–251

[1] Ray, Nicholas. Alvar Aalto. Yale University Press, 2005. Page 88

[2] Hodge, Susie. Architecture in Minutes. New York: Quercus, 2016.

[3] Ray, Nicholas. Alvar Aalto. Yale University Press, 2005.

[4] Poole, S. (2017). Villa Mairea: Alvar Aalto. In Companion to the History of Architecture, H. F. Mallgrave (Ed.). doi:10.1002/9781118887226.

[5] Orr, David. “Architecture, Ecological Design, and Human Ecology.” Towards an Architecture of Ecology, Economy and Equity. Ed. Kim Tanzer and Rafael Longoria. New York: Taylor & Francis Inc., 2007. 15-33.

[6] Beita, E., and A. Fujii. “Harmonization between Architecture and Nature through Traditional Japanese Screens.” International Journal of Design & Nature and Ecodynamics8, no. 1 (2013): 29-40. doi:10.2495/dne-v8-n1-29-40.

[7] Tabeada, José Antonio Franco. “Return to Villa Mairea. An Approach to Analyzing His Conceptual Drawings.” Revista de EGA, no. 11, Oct. 2006, pp. 175–177. 

[8] Poole, S. (2017). Villa Mairea: Alvar Aalto. In Companion to the History of Architecture, H. F. Mallgrave (Ed.). doi:10.1002/9781118887226.

[9] Curtis, William J. R. Modern Architecture Since 1900. [London]: Phaidon, 1996. Print, 29

[10] Yuriko Saito; THE JAPANESE APPRECIATION OF NATURE, The British Journal of Aesthetics, Volume 25, Issue 3, 1 March 1985, Pages 239–251

[11] Phenomenology 2005,Inside and Outside in Wright’s Fallingwater and Aalto’s Villa Mairea”. Pages 25-36, Zeta Books, Volume 5, Issue Part 1,2007.

[12] Chiu, Chen-Yu, Aino Niskanen, and Ke Song. “Humanizing Modern Architecture: The Role of Das Japanische Wohnhaus in Alvar Aalto′ s Design for His Own House and Studio in Riihitie.” Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering 16, no. 1 (2017): 1-8.

[13] Hyon-Sob, Kim. “Architectural History: Supplement. Records of Buildings.” Architectural History, vol. 2, 1959, p. 81., doi:10.2307/1568223.

[14] Ray, Nicholas. Alvar Aalto. Yale University Press, 2005. Page 101

[15] Kim, Hyon-Sob. “Alvar Aalto and Humanizing of Architecture.” Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering 8, no. 1 (2009): 9-16.

[16] Ray, Nicholas. Alvar Aalto. Yale University Press, 2005. Page 99

[17]  Weston, Richard. “Between Nature and Culture: Reflections on the Villa Mairea.” Toward a Human Modernism. Ed. Winifried Nerdinger. New York: Prestal Verlag, 1999.

[18] Nerdinger, Winfried. “Alvar Aalto’s Human Modernism.” Toward a Human Modernism. Ed. Winfried Nerdinger. New York: Presel Verlag, 1999.

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