Obituary: Elissa Aalto

Berit Virtanen
Friday 22 April 1994 23:02

Elsa Kaisa (Elissa) Makiniemi, architect: born Kemi, Finland 22 November 1922; married 1952 Alvar Aalto (died 1976); died Helsinki 12 April 1994.

ELISSA AALTO was the wife and partner of the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. After 1949 she assisted in all competition projects that his office undertook and after his death in 1976 she managed the office in Munkkiniemi, Helsinki, herself, and took over the chairmanship of Artek, the design and furniture company he had started in the 1920s. She championed his work, completed his unfinished projects and defended his completed projects against unwarranted alteration. She was a remarkable ambassador for Finnish architecture.

Elissa Aalto was born Elsa Makiniemi in 1922 in Kemi, north Finland. She went to school in Rovaniemi and qualified as an architect in Helsinki, in 1949. In the same year she gained a post in Alvar Aalto's office. And in the same year Aalto's first wife, the architect Aino Marsio, had died. Aalto married Elsa Makiniemi, 24 years his junior, in 1952.

Aalto's international reputation was already well established. Elissa joined him on his travels round the world and shared with him his enormous workload. As he got older, their collaboration grew closer and she undertook more and more of the executive work of his practice. The many projects she managed after his death included the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland, a Danish art museum in Alborg, a housing estate in Lucerne, Switzerland, churches in Lahti, Finland, and in Risla, Italy, and the celebrated Maison Carre at Bazoches-sur-Guyonne, in France.

Several Finnish towns are famous for their Aalto buildings, and even after his death they sought to enhance their reputation. So they turned to Elissa Aalto. She took care of such exacting projects as the theatre buildings in Seinajoki and Jyvaskyla. She looked after the building of the Town Hall in Rovaniemi in 1988 - a project particularly close to her heart. Rovaniemi, where she was brought up, had suffered serious damage in the Second World War. During the same period, and after years of difficulties, she finished the Opera House in Essen, Germany, a project initiated in 1959.

The continuing of Alvar Aalto's work involved, too, renovation and maintenance work on his buildings. This proved over the years to be demanding and, occasionally, frustrating, especially when suggested changes paid no respect to Aalto's original thinking. A heated dispute took place over plans to replace the marble in the walls of the Finlandia House. The Helsinki city authorities proposed that the expensive marble be changed for granite. Elissa Aalto fought strenuously against the idea until the building was given protected status.

The office of Alvar Aalto & Co in Helsinki saw a constant flow of foreign visitors, architects and students interested in Aalto's work. One of Elissa Aalto's services to future generations was to hand over the collection of Aalto's drawings to an 'Alvar Aalto Foundation', which makes the material available for the use of researchers.

Elissa Aalto was a modest person, who worked to the end. Two weeks before she died she had been discussing renovation plans for the historic library building at Viborg in Karelia, near the Russian border.

(Photograph omitted)

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