The concept of designing a house to meet the individual needs of the owner or oneself is a fascinating and luxurious idea. Designing how you want to live at home to the tiniest detail is a rare opportunity. Whenever I have the opportunity to peel back the layers of this in process it is an interesting study not only in design, but in individual style and human behavior. In the case of Villa Mairea, Alvar Aalto had what appears to me to be the dream clients. They were open to his ideas and suggestions of how to achieve their lifestyle goals. They were matter of fact about the notion of the concept failing and that seems to have pushed the project from what could have been beautiful in a safe, predictable way – to a project that took risks and pushed boundaries, resulting a building and home that is exceptional on many levels. It’s a fun exercise to play out and one that we do as designers often… design our dream home. How would we do it today versus how we might have done it 15 or more years ago? I think the evolution of my dream house would shrink from year to year, with less indoor space and fewer possessions, yet with more outdoor space to watch the natural world change from season to season. On the other hand, if someone told me I could live at Villa Mairea for a period of time, I would gladly do so. — angela
Below text, photographs and sketches from Alvar Aalto. Friendship and a shared view of art and society resulted in Maire and Harry Gullichsen commissioning drawings from Alvar Aalto for the Villa Mairea: We told him that he should regard it as an experimental house; if it didn’t work out we wouldn’t blame him.
In the 1930s, Aalto was a great protagonist of standardization, in terms of both writing and designing. Designing his own house and the Villa Mairea at the same time as small, industrially fabricated houses aroused questions which Aalto himself answered as follows: The general idea seems to be that there is a distinct contrast between small-scale mass-produced housing on the one hand and residential buildings designed according to the needs of the individual, on the other. Special one-off houses have thus, in a way, been left outside the trend which has made the production of small dwellings the main social issue. However, there are circumstances in architecture where individual lifestyle, personal instincts and cultural concepts form the basis for the commission can have unique, far-reaching, even social significance, in the long term. This points the way to a new individualism; what with the continuing development of production machinery and improved forms of organisation, this will make more flexible consideration of the individual possible, even in places where the still partially developed machinery of our primitive mass production leaves its mark on housing today. One-off architectural commissions can be used as experimental laboratories where things can be done which are not possible with today’s methods of mass production, but which will gradually spread further and become available to one and all as production methods advance. (Aino and Alvar Aalto, Arkkitehti (Finnish Architectural Review) 1939. Göran Schildt, The Decisive Years, Keuruu 1986. p154) In the upstairs hallway was the children’s play space with its circular roof-light. This hallway also provides access to the guest wing with its ascetic corridor which is also illuminated by a roof-light.
The construction of the canopy is interesting: the timber roof rests on concrete beams supported on metal columns. The white-painted metal columns are associated with the modern look of the house, while the log construction and composite columns supporting the sauna roof refer to the vernacular tradition. The vernacular character of the sauna is reinforced by the surrounding stone wall with its wooden gates. The way Aalto gathered details for the Villa Mairea is well illustrated by the fact that the wooden lock mechanism used for the gate on the west side of the sauna is a traditional Swiss type. The grandfather of Aalto’s assistant Bernoulli had also been an architect and Bernoulli just happened to have his grandfather’s sketch book on his drawing table, and the lock was taken from that.
From the internal courtyard, the Villa Mairea terraces run round to a large terrace in front of the parents’ bedroom. Although the terraces are connected with each other, they retain a private character. The little light set in the wall of the terrace for telling the time is an example of the comprehensiveness of the design.
Being able to see the intimate, private sauna building from the reception room of the main building is not only a reminder of the national heritage and the company’s business, but also a message about the residents’ unconventional cultural outlook.
The conservatory or ‘winter garden’ was designed for the lady of the house to look after her flowers. The fixed furnishings in the room include a natural stone floor and a free-form pool. In contrast to the natural forms there are the Japanese-style windows and a large bench made of bricks. Bernoulli recalls that Aalto was using a reddish-brown Japanese kimono at the time he was working on the Villa Mairea. The idea of a kimono fits in well with conservatory. Conservatory
As built, the stairs are finished in grey carpet, but the lowest stair is in birch finished with a high-gloss varnish. It forms an asymmetric landing, like a speaker’s podium. The details of the vertical timbers bring to mind the world of boating so that the stairs look as though they have just been lowered for a moment like a gang-plank.Main door detail.
The library door had a door handle specifically designed for the Villa Mairea as did the other doors. Aalto’s attention was often drawn to door handles, perhaps as a detail linked with the idea of the complete work of art and his choice of the Art Nouveau style as a student.Spiral stairway to roof
Fireplace in dining area
Natural light filters into the large living room through the exterior blinds. The lightweight furniture makes the space seem very close to nature. In the middle of the room is a double metal column which carries the upper floor in conjunction with the columns adjacent to the windows. The columns are designed in different variations. The double columns in the middle of the room are clad with rattan, while those next to the windows are clad with vertical beech boarding.