Space travel: on the trail of Alvar Aalto

The inspiring designs of Finland's greatest architect are proving a major attraction in Helsinki and beyond. Andrew Spooner offers a visitor's guide
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The Independent Travel

You could be forgiven for finding that the Finnish town of Jyvaskyla presents something of a pronunciation challenge. It's easier by far to make sense of the buildings created there by the great 20th-century architect and designer Alvar Aalto, for whom Jyvaskyla was home.

Good design is to the Finns what good food is to the Italians - an essential part of everyday life. Aalto was a key figure in establishing this philosophy in his homeland and throughout Scandinavia, and with Nordic design having become so popular, many of his architectural creations are drawing the visitors.

Examples of Aalto's work can be found across Finland, from Jyvaskyla, set in Finland's enormous and beautiful lake district to the capital, Helsinki, an architecture buff's dream town, stuffed with many of Aalto's finest works.

Deeply influenced by Bauhaus functionalism, Aalto's career lasted from 1917 until his death in 1976. He imbued the cold minimalism of Bauhaus with the warm natural tones of his homeland. But whereas a typical Bauhaus design used steel tubing, Aalto preferred wood and leather, creating sweeping lines filled with movement to juxtapose with the clinical styles of his Functionalist contemporaries.

As a designer, Aalto created a number of beautiful and iconic pieces, not least the celebrated Flower and Savoy vases, the Paimio chair, and the three-legged Aalto stool, which have all been in continuous production since their creation in the 1930s. His architectural works reflected his commitment to a humanistic agenda, creating light and airy spaces that allowed for human interaction. Aalto used a number of signature devices, such as covering metal hand-rails with leather so that nobody had to touch metal surfaces.

In Helsinki, it's possible to take in the best of Aalto in a day. Guided tours can be arranged at The Finlandia Hall (00 358 9 40241), at Mannerheimintie 13, a striking, angular, Modernist display, clad in sheets of white marble, on the edge of a lake in the heart of the city.

It was here that Aalto faced his greatest challenge when he was commissioned in the 1960s to design a futuristic city centre. In the end the Finlandia Hall was the only part of the grand plan that came to fruition, and its history has been troubled. The élitist attitude of its directors, and the money spent saving the white marble cladding - it's prone to falling off - has rendered Finlandia a bit of a white elephant. Aalto, the great pragmatist, would turn in his grave. (If you visit on a cold clear winter's day, walk across the frozen lake - double check that it's safe with locals - for the best photo-op.)

On the other side of the lake, on a small hill, stands the House of Culture (00 358 9 774 0270), at Sturenkatu 4, which was designed by Aalto in the 1950s. Originally the headquarters of the Finnish Communist Party, it is now home to various cultural organisations. The remarkable auditorium is sheltered by an arched roof.

More enduring is Aalto's wonderful National Pensions Institute (00 358 20 43411), at Nordenskioldinkatu 12, just off Mannerheimintie. Designed in the 1940s to house the apparatus of Finland's burgeoning welfare state, this building is classic Aalto. The exterior is red brick, while the inside is filled with marble, leather fittings, cylindrical tiles, Aalto furniture, and his famous tiered lamps. The play of light and space is inspiring. Guided tours take place at 2pm, Monday to Friday.

Aalto's well preserved domicile (00 358 9 480 123) is at Riihitie 20 in Munkkiniemi. He created this splendid red-brick and glass cube in the 1930s and filled it with experimental and classic designs. Visitors can take a look for themselves from 2pm-6pm, Tuesday to Sunday.

A huge swath of Aalto's work can be found in Jyvaskyla, including the town's university, the cultural centre and the police station. But the first port of call should be the Alvar Aalto Museum, (00 358 14 624 809), at Alvar Aallon katu 7, which is open 11am-6pm, Tuesday to Sunday. There are also examples of his work in the town of Seinajoki, which can be reached by train (www.vr.fi) from Helsinki in just under four hours. The town is famous for its tango festival but it's also known for its collection of Aalto municipal buildings. Look for the church, the library, the town hall and the theatre, all of which are located on Kirkkokatu or Koulukatu.

Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland, is home to one of Aalto's most famous creations, the Lappia Hall (00 358 16 356 2096), at Jorma Etontie 8a. Visitors can look around the building, but by appointment only. Next door to the Lappia is the Aalto-designed Rovaniemi Library (00 358 16 32 21). It's open open to the public from 11am-8pm Monday to Thursday, 11am-5pm Friday, 11am-4pm Saturday.

The Paimio Sanatorium (00 358 2 474 5440), in Salo, also accessible by train and bus from Helsinki in just over two hours, is the building that placed Aalto on the architectural map. It was designed in 1929, and everything from the door handles to the plans for the building was created by Aalto. It is without doubt a Modernist classic. Visitors must make an appointment with Helena Kaartinen.

By now you should have become an Aalto devotee. For a souvenir head for Artek (www.artek.fi), at Etelesplanadi 18, in Helsinki, a shop set up by Aalto and his influential first wife, Aino, in the 1930s. Just over the road is Iittala (www.iittala.fi), at Pohjoisesplanadi 25, which sells Aino and Alvar's glass works.

You can even dine in a restaurant designed by the great man himself - it also happens to be one of the best places to eat in Helsinki. The Savoy (00 358 9 684 4020), on the eighth floor of an office building at Etelesplanadi 14, has wood panelling, leather seating, low lighting and city views. Everything - tables, chairs, lamps - is original Aalto.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Finnair (0870-241 4411; www.finnair.co.uk) flies direct from Manchester and London to Helsinki with prices starting at £155 return. Internal flights from Helsinki to Jyvaskyla and Rovaniemi start at around £142 return.

Where to stay

The Scandic Hotel Simonkentta, 9 Simonkatu, Helsinki (00 358 968 380, www.scandic-hotels.com) has double rooms starting at €100 (£71) per night with breakfast.

Further information

Finnish Tourist Board (020-7365 2512; www.visitfinland.com/uk) and the Aalto Foundation's website (www.alvaraalto.fi). Furniture and glass work by Alvar Aalto can be sourced through London-based Scandinavian design specialist Skandium, 86 Marylebone High Street, London W1 (020-7935 2077; www.skandium.com).

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