vii 14

Talo Aalto

Alvar Aalto’s house is surprisingly modest for that of a master of twentieth century architecture, though quite possibly this says less about the rewards of the architectural profession and more about Finnish restraint. I don’t know what Mies or Corb’s houses were like.

Originally on the edge of Helsinki with views to the sea, but now suburban with generic apartment buildings in place of the views, it lies low, looking familiar only because of the immense influence it had on everyday mid-twentieth century British housing. As Corbusier redefined housing for the poor, so Aalto did for the middle classes. The painted brick, asymmetric timber framed windows and sections of slatted timber wall cladding of leafy cul-de-sac Modernism were born here.

As ever, the original is best, undiluted. The copies miss the careful balance of mass and void, expressed through both form and material, the tactile detailing, and the gentle flow of living spaces – here also opening to his architectural studio, a modest room with a low gallery along one side (latterly he built a larger studio/office space a block or two away).

There is nothing radical; downstairs a tight hall, a bright living room and dining room, and a small kitchen for the staff; upstairs three bedrooms around a terrace and a bathroom, all where you would expect them.

What elevates it is the detail – the bespoke brass doorhandles, the rattan balustrade, a fabric panelled wall in the dining room – and the contents. Otherwise it is a quiet, civilised and reticent house, like Helsinki itself.