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Great Detail: Phil Coffey on Aalto’s Säynätsalo Town Hall brickwork

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The next in a series looking at the building details that have impressed and inspired our readers. Today: Phil Coffey of Coffey Architects

Architect Alvar Aalto 
Building Säynätsalo Town Hall, Finland (1949)

Aalto brick detail edge reduced

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Aalto’s buildings are recognised as being national treasures, but are also visibly local and rooted in place. This juxtaposition can be seen at its best in the town hall in Säynätsalo, which is both civic and domestic. The gesture of a raised courtyard for the citizens to assemble echoes the Roman ‘curia’ his competition entry was named after. But from its grand etymological origins this building is unquestionably intimate and habitable with carefully crafted details and a modest material palette of brick, tiles and stone contributing to the pragmatism of its everyday use.

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With Aalto the surrounding landscape plays a critical role in the experience of his architecture. The ‘forest space’ immerses the town hall. The Finnish landscape with its horizontal and vertical planes, layered and juxtaposed, can be seen throughout Aalto’s architecture. These overlapping planes are represented at the scale of a full building in his town hall project, but also at an intimate scale in the pattern of bricks on walls in his ‘experimental house’. Aalto brickwork consists of richly textured planes of surfaces and volumes. Sometimes his brick has a standard bond such as Flemish bond, laid at angles to catch the low light in Finland, and sometimes they mimic the forest’s rhythm, such as in the narrow vertical slots in the upper section of the town hall wall.

Where the building touches the ground, tiles and stone treatments resolve issues of dimension and construction, but they are never mechanical, always playful and sometimes collaged. Aalto was influenced in both the town hall and experimental house by his proximity to nature. He described architecture as a ‘component in the struggle between man and nature’ where he believes nature will always be victorious, reducing all architecture to ruin.

‘For what are these walls if they are not imitations of ruins?… and can still be contemplated simply as an abstract collage.’ 

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Phil Coffey is director of Coffey Architects 

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