First Drafts is a series exploring the early work of our architectural icons, examining their careers through the lens of their debut projects. Occasionally unexpected but always insightful, these undertakings represent their initial, finished buildings as solo practitioners. While anecdotes accompany the work of all great builders, there’s often more to learn about their first acts.
Alvar Aalto’s first project, a Youth Center for the town where he’d summer as a child, was the first of many commissions he’d complete for Alajärvi.
Alajärvi Youth Center in Alajärvi, Finland
Date completed: 1919
Getting the Gig:
Finns and forests are, perhaps, too stereotypical a connection to make when discussing the influences of Alvar Aalto (though he did once tell a journalist that “you should not be able to go from home to work without passing through a forest”). But the countryside always played a large role in his life, none more than the one surrounding Alajärvi, the small rural town where he would summer as a child, and later complete some of his first and final projects. He spent most of his youth in the central Finnish town of Jyväskylä, where he was exposed to sketching and nature’s contours early. Sitting at the desk of his father, a surveyor, which he called the “great white table,” he would occasionally take turns drawing the landscape and figuring out its shapes and contours. That makes his first commission for the local Youth Center in Alajärvi seem like a fitting beginning, considering its pastoral setting and natural connection with outdoor activity. Still a college student when he won the job, Aalto had already completed a small civic project for the town, a granite memorial for the recent Finnish Civil War (a teenaged Aalto fought on the winning White side which defeated the socialists in 1918). It’s not exactly clear how Aalto landed the Youth Center gig, but it seems plausible that a well-received public sculpture presented opportunities for the aspiring architect.
Damaged by a fire, the building was repaired and repainted yellow in the ’70s. Photo by Evan Chakroff via Creative Commons
Description and Reception:
Initially a small, U-shaped building, the Youth Center is a functional structure topped with a cupola, a small feature that provided a bit of personality. It gives the impression of a squat schoolhouse, a comparison that rang especially true when it was first built and painted red. Aalto’s design was a then-contemporary take on simplified Classical composition. Coming in the wake of influential buildings such as the 1912 Finnish National Museum in Helsinki, which streamlined traditional cultural references, this Youth Center showed the Finnish architect was of the moment, looking ahead while stepping away from the trend towards Romanticism that had dominated the recent past.
Impact On His Career:
This small project fit neatly within an early period of Aalto’s work that may best be described as “Nordic Classicism,” according to scholar Richard Weston. It also may be described as omitted, at least as far as the architect himself was concerned, who left it out of his first anthology of work, published in 1963. Like other architects later exalted as icons, Aalto may have felt pressure to keep his own narrative as clean as the modern buildings he designed. But the work he did during the postwar period of the early ’20s such as Villa Flora, completed at a time when Finnish society was more inward looking, may not have been as revolutionary as his later projects but still utilized new, modern techniques and materials. And they also signaled a turn toward a new influence, Italy, where Aalto would honeymoon in 1924. His Workers’ Club for Jyväskylä, completed that same year, drew influence from The Palace of the Doges in Venice. While trying to recreate Tuscany in Scandinavia seems like a tall order, Aalto found inspiration in the way vernacular architecture in Italian hill towns appeared like natural extensions of the landscape. These two design narratives—streamlining classical forms and finding synthesis between nature and the built environment—would be the pillars on which he would build an enduring body of work.
Famous Future Works::
Paimio Sanatorium (Paimio: 1932), Restaurant Savoy (Helsinki: 1937), Villa Mairea (Noormarkku: 1939), Baker House (Cambridge: 1948), Muuratsalo Experimental House (Säynätsalo: 1953), Church of the Three Crosses (Imatra: 1958), Wolfsburg Cultural Center (Wolfsburg: 1962), Finlandia Hall (1971), Aalto Theatre (Essen: 1988)
Aalto’s first work is still standing, and along with the municipal hospital (1924), family memorial (1965) and town hall (1966) he also designed for Alajärvi, it makes this small town a perfect place for fans to see some of the bookends tofhis career. Guests can contact the Alajärvi town hall to tour the inside of the building.
・Finnish Brand is Reviving Alvar Aalto’s Furniture from the ’30s [Curbed]
・Alvar Aalto Library Goes From Imperiled to Prize-Winning [Curbed]
・Take a Street-View Tour of Alvar Aalto’s Influential Oeuvre [Curbed]