Compromise, Conflict and Communion: Building Alvar Aalto’s Church of the Three Crosses

The building of the Church of the Three Crosses in Vuoksenniska, Imatra (1955–58), testifies not just to the visionary creative praxis of the Aalto studio, but to the socio-cultural, political and religious milieux of post-war Finland. Aalto found in the Church a patron sympathetic to his design ambitions, and the Church in him an architect to promote an image of its own relevance in the twentieth century, but their collaboration is irreducible to coolly transactional terms. The alliance between the Church and Finland’s foremost modernist was a consciously and productively symbiotic partnership, stimulated by shared interests and values, but also encompassing compromise and conflict.


Framing “Free Form”

Completed in 1958, the Church of Three Crosses in Vuoksenniska, Imatra was received both in Finland and abroad as a singular achievement, “far from either historical or fashionable form, and completely impartial.”[i] Its reputation is warranted: unburdened by the constraints imposed on most Finnish twentieth-century church-building—in particular, competition rules—Alvar Aalto seized the opportunity to create a church like no other. The Three Crosses became a watershed that concluded decades of reserved conventionalism and ushered in structurally- and spatially-stirring expressionism in Finnish ecclesiastical architecture.

Eastern wall and windows, Church of the Three Crosses. Photograph: Heikki Havas, c. 1958.


The hagiographic historiography of the project has, however, constrained analyses of its relationship to the surrounding milieux that framed its inception and development. The special status assigned to the Three Crosses as Finland’s “first free-form church” has stifled rather than stimulated analyses of its architecture in relation to its own time: its perceived idiosyncrasy has bred assumptions of its unrelatedness to precedent, context, debate and discourse. Closer analysis of the building of the Three Crosses reveals the significant contributions that actors and factors extrinsic to the Aalto studio imprinted on the project.


The Secular and Sacred Planning of the Modern City

The Finnish national Lutheran Church and its local parishes influenced the Aalto studio’s work in Imatra far before the commission for the Church of the Three Crosses. Hired to produce a master plan for the new town in 1947, the Aalto studio set off to fashion from the remains of three former war-torn municipalities a “unified Imatra concept.”

The influence of the national Church is evidenced by the retention of the three former settlements as nuclei of the city-to-be. The unusual structure, often simplistically dismissed as an experiment in decentralised planning, was in fact also a product of parochial politics: the symbolic retention of the three villages was to placate parishioners mourning the loss of their former parishes and churches. Furthermore, the very ambition of planning a future city—pertinent to Finland’s rapid modernisation and urbanisation from the 1950s onward—was backed not just by industrialists and municipal officials, but the new parish of Imatra. Whereas the former envisioned Imatra as a Nordic Ruhr, the latter cast itself as a patron a Northern New Jerusalem.[ii]

Both secular and sacred powers in Finland had vested interest in promoting Aalto’s conception of Imatra as a “forest town” (metsäkauppala). More than a purely personal exploration of the forest as a design motif—commonly associated with Aalto’s oeuvre, not least due to the fluent connections from interiors to natural landscapes in his buildings—the plan for a “forest town” was an amalgamation of politico-religious perceptions and propaganda concerning Karelia, the Finnish province ceded to the Soviet Union. Addressing the “forest town” as an evocation of the sacral Karelian woodlands opens up new perspectives into the critical regionalism of the Aalto studio, reminding us that the religious history of Finland reverberates in the “identity-giving culture” it seeks to cultivate.[iii]

The Church of the Three Crosses on its forest plot in the “forest town” of Imatra. Site model, 1:1000 scale. Model and photograph: Sofia Singler, 2019.


Rather than an unrelated sacral “offshoot” to an otherwise secular master plan, the Three Crosses was thus an outcome of a planning exercise co-supported by municipal, industrial and parochial parties, and imbued by religious resonances far before the commission for the church. The absence of purpose-founded “administrative structures dedicated to the planning, financing and designing of religious infrastructure” established by many Catholic dioceses in the post-war years is not, in the Finnish context, indicative of the exclusion or absence of religious officials from planning matters.[iv] In Finland, the national Church and its parishes involved themselves in planning through more tacit means, namely by participating in the planning projects steered by the State, municipalities and industry, which assumed churchly involvement based on a long history of symbiosis between secular and sacred powers.


Resisting Reform for the Sake of Reform

If the collaboration between the Aalto studio and the national Church was pragmatic and mutually beneficial in the urban realm, their relationship encompassed more conflict with respect to liturgy and church architectural discourse. The resultant compromises are legible in the architecture of the Three Crosses: exploiting its sui generis register as proof of its architectural modernity, the building makes manifest Aalto’s aversion to “ecclesiastical modernity,” namely the novel building typologies and liturgical programmes promoted by the Church in the second half of the twentieth century.

Across Europe, the Protestant Church’s post-war “voluntary relinquishment of self-representation” was justified as a material expression of the theological ambition to extend outreach particularly in urban settings.[v] So too the parish of Imatra envisioned “a register of humbleness” for its post-war churches, such that the “national Church would appear in exterior expression as obliging as God’s grace.” Aalto objected, consistently and even confrontationally reminding the parish of the need to “valorise the sacred.” The balance, or indeed tension, between the semi-primitivism of the Three Crosses’ organic, asymmetrical massing and the heroic confidence of its monumental bell-tower illustrate the types of compromises Aalto and the parish eventually arrived at. Local priests retrospectively justified the suspect degree of grandeur by classing the building a site of pilgrimage, where a dose of allure was only appropriate.

The national Church’s desire to communicate its humility architecturally crystallised in the parish centre building type. Parish centres strove to secure the presence of religion in the day-to-day life of newly (re)constructed neighbourhoods, especially suburban districts; the building type allowed the Church to ensure continuity of building activity during austerity, since the erection of complexes devoted to work and socialising provoked less opposition than new churches. At a conference co-organised by the national Church and the Finnish Association of Architects on the “form and content” of parish centres in 1957, architects expressed dismay at the clergy’s unbridled enthusiasm for parish centres, arguing that the dignity of churches was still needed in modern times.[vi] Aalto did not attend, but voiced similar concerns elsewhere, rebuking parish centres for removing “from church buildings their character as public buildings.”[vii]

The spatial syntax of the Three Crosses stands as a testament to the tug-of-war between architects and church officials on the parish centre question. On the one hand, the longitudinal plan, dominance of the altar area, and vaulted interior counted among the “conservative” and “hierarchical” elements that parish centre proponents repudiated. On the other hand, the tripartite nave—divisible by movable walls, to allow for the multipurpose use of the space—and the club rooms attached to the foyer aligned with parish centre ideals.

The interior of the Three Crosses. Photograph: Pertti Ingervo, c. 1958.


Illustrative of his suaveness, or perhaps even genuine, if disapproving, respect for the Church’s strategy, Aalto was willing to selectively accept and even accede to demands for flexibility in ecclesiastical architecture, but only to a degree that did not risk devaluing an overall register of sacredness. The relative conservatism of Aalto’s church designs was rooted in an appreciation of religion as a set of unchanging cultural heritage; he therefore defied programmes of renewal, whose aims to modernise, popularise and update religious life he considered superficial or even antithetical to the very purpose of faith.


Bishoply Backing

The fact that local priests, industrialists and municipal councillors in Imatra involved themselves in the building of the Three Crosses was not unusual in twentieth-century Finland, where modern architecture attracted collective engagement and interest far beyond architectural ateliers. It was highly unusual, however, for a senior member of clergy to play a role in such projects, steered as they were by local parishes. Bishop Martti Simojoki (1908–99) confessed his involvement, “as Bishop, in the building of many churches,” disclosing that “only in one case did the architect himself feel the need to discuss church-building with a bishop: Alvar Aalto when he designed the church in Vuoksenniska.”[viii] Fittingly for the Church of the Three Crosses, Simojoki met with Aalto thrice during the design process.

At its consecration service, Simojoki interpreted the building’s titular theme: “A single cross, the middle one, of course already testifies to God’s love for the world […] but the two crosses that stood beside it at Golgotha communicate precisely this: that He belongs to all people, to those who repent and to those who don’t, and to those who have some sense of the sacred, as well as to those for whom nothing is sacred.”[ix] Citing “the architecture of this building” as evidence, Simojoki extended his interpretation from soteriology to a broader thesis on certainties, intimating that Lutheran doctrine called into question strict divisions between the righteous and unrighteous, the obvious and obscure, and the possible and impossible.

Fascinatingly, Simojoki’s theological interpretation resonates with the central thesis of architectural analyses made of the Three Crosses, and of Aalto’s architecture at large—namely, a resistance to dualisms.[x] It is the Three Crosses’ eastern wall and ceiling, in particular, that crystallise the building’s ambiguous relationship to architectural pairings such as inside and outside, and surface and structure.[xi] What emerges from the cross-examination of religious and architectural interpretations of the building is a shared reading of it as an “opposition to opposites,” that is, a challenge to the rigidity of dichotomies both in religion and in architectural modernism.

Section through eastern wall, Church of the Three Crosses. Original at 1:10. Drawing: Studio Alvar Aalto, 1956/1957.


Due to the somewhat clandestine nature of the dialogues between Aalto and Simojoki, records are scant, and the precise content of their exchanges is condemned to mystery. Their mutual engagement with and interest in defying dualisms, as suggested by archival fragments, nonetheless points to a common affinity or even communion, and serves as an example of the type of theological discourse that contributed to the application and maturation of Aalto’s architectural impulses into religious themes. Undeniably an exemplar of the Aalto studio’s idiosyncratic design culture, the Three Crosses is also indebted to figures such as Simojoki for anchoring its architectural splendour into religious meaning.


Author Sofia Singler, PhD is an architect and architectural historian. The article is based on her doctoral dissertation Building Alvar Aalto’s Church of the Three Crosses (1955–58), which was examined in the University of Cambridge in 2020.




[i] Walter Moser, “Lutherische Kirche in Imatra, Finnland: 1956–1958, Architekt: Prof. Alvar Aalto, Helsinki,” Das Werk: Architektur und Kunst 46, no. 8 (1959): 289–93.

[ii] Timo Österlund, “Suurteollisuuden kauppala ja kaupunki,” in Imatran kirja, ed. Anu Talka (Jyväskylä: Gummerus, 1997), 99.

[iii] Kenneth Frampton, “Towards a Critical Regionalism: Six Points for an Architecture of Resistance,” in Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (London: Pluto, 1985), 16–30.

[iv] Sven Sterken, “A House for God or a Home for His People? The Church-Building Activity of Domus Dei in the Belgian Archbishopric (1952-82),” Architectural History 56 (2013): 387.

[v] Horst Schwebel, “An Aversion to Grand Gestures: Theological and Liturgical Perspectives on Protestant Church Architecture”, in European Church Architecture 1950–2000, ed. Wolfgang Jean Stock (Munich, New York: Prestel, 2002), 219.

[vi] Keijo Petäjä, “Seurakuntatyön ja arkkitehtuurin vaatimukset seurakuntataloja suunniteltaessa,” Arkkitehti, no. 9–10 (1957): 159–60.

[vii] Alvar Aalto, “Vuoksenniskan kirkko,” Arkkitehti 39, no. 12 (1959): 194–207.

[viii] Martti Simojoki, “Oma kirkkoni,” in Meidän kirkkomme: seurakuntien paimenet kertovat kirkoistaan, ed. Aimo Vuokola (Porvoo: WSOY, 1979), 5.

[ix] Record of Consecration, Church of Vuoksenniska (Imatra Parish Archives, 1958), 3.

[x] For instance, Juhani Pallasmaa reads Aalto’s architecture as being ever-suspended between “nature and culture, history and modernity, society and the individual, tradition and innovation, standardisation and variety, the universal and the regional, the intellectual and the emotional, the rational and the intuitive.” Juhani Pallasmaa, “Alvar Aalto: Towards a Synthetic Functionalism,” in Between Humanism and Materialism, ed. Peter Reed (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1998), 21.

[xi] Randall Ott, “Surface Versus Structure: Alvar Aalto and the Finnish Wooden Churches,” ACSA Annual Meeting 84 (1996): 511–21; Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1966), 18.

Kaija and Heikki Siren’s experimental wooden structures of the 1950s and 1960s

By the time, after the war, when architects Kaija and Heikki Siren were beginning their careers, the research and development of factory-made wood-framed houses in Finland had already been in progress for some years.[1] An important step in the industrial prefabrication and standardization of low-rise houses in Finland was taken when the company Puutalo was founded following the Winter War of 1940. This joint body of the wooden house industry, founded by 21 companies, focused on the design and marketing of industrially-produced standardized wooden houses.[2]

The Sirens were actively interested in the development of new technology and new construction techniques. Their long-term goal was to increase the use of industrially-produced building components in their buildings. The architects began cooperating with Puutalo in the mid-1950s, and this continued well into the 1960s, resulting in several bold experiments, some of which were actually built. A good example are the prefabricated wooden facade elements which, following the Sirens’ designs for terraced houses and apartment buildings, became Puutalo’s most popular product.[3]


Two-storey terraced houses

The first building type in which the Sirens experimented with the use of industrially manufactured wooden building components was the two-storey terraced house. The terraced houses built at Kontiontie 3 in Tapiola in 1954–1955 marked the beginning of a series of experimental houses. They were the first wooden houses built in Finland using large-sized prefabricated elements. The wooden components of the facades were designed in collaboration with the company Puutalo. The elements are exceptionally large: 16 square metres in size. Their use was made possible by the fact that the load-bearing partition walls were built in brick and the supporting longitudinal beams in concrete. In addition to the facade elements, the houses’ wooden roof trusses were also preassembled at the factory and then delivered to the building site.[4]

The large-sized prefabricated wooden elements for the Kontiotie terraced houses were moved into place by crane. Photo: Laatukuva / Museum of Finnish Architecture.


The terraced houses built at Kimmeltie 11-13 in Tapiola in 1955, north of the Silkkiniitty park, used the same construction methods as on Kontiontie, the only difference being that the load-bearing partition walls are concrete instead of brick. Wood-concrete composite slabs were tested for the intermediate floors, in which wood baulks replaced the need for reinforcement bars in the concrete. This was presumably the first and also the last time the Sirens experimented with this special type of construction.[5]

A couple of years after the completion of the terraced houses in Tapiola, another two Siren-designed two-storey terraced houses were built, the Näätäkallio condominium at Näätätie 19, in Herttoniemi in Helsinki. Puutalo was a partner in the design of this project, too. The wood used in the houses was sawn into suitably sized parts and numbered at the factory, after which the material was transported to the building site. In addition to this so-called pre-cut construction method, the wooden roof trusses, the houses’ exterior and partition wall panels and window frames were pre-assembled at the factory.[6]

Näätäkallio differs, however, from the terraced houses in Tapiola, in that the load-bearing structure on the ground floor consists of wooden frames placed on top of a concrete plinth and with pillars placed next to the stairs, thus leaving the rest of the dwelling as free space. The upper-floor ceiling is made of timber boarding and the roof structure rests on trusses supported at each end. The facades are comprised of prefabricated wooden elements with both vertical and horizontal wooden boarding.[7]

The Siren’s terraced houses at Kanneltie 12 in the Helsinki district of Etelä Kaarela were completed in 1960. The building commission had come directly from Puutalo, because they were interested in developing new construction methods. The company delivered all the wooden components for the houses: panels, doors and windows. The load-bearing frame consists of transverse, piled concrete walls, on top of which were placed prestressed concrete beams – so-called MJ beams – to form the lower floor slab, and braced beams made from multiple pieces of plywood nailed together that supported the roof construction.[8] Chipboard was used for the ceilings and the outer layer of the partition walls, and with a laminate-coated variety for the bathrooms. The wooden facades appear to be prefabricated elements, though this was not mentioned when the project was presented in the journal Arkkitehti.[9]


Prefabricated wooden facade elements in apartment buildings

At the beginning of the 1950s, the Sirens were awarded the commission to design the student dormitories for Helsinki University of Technology, located on Jämeräntaival in the Otaniemi campus’s student village. They were built using traditional construction methods, with the load-bearing structure, as well as the facades, built of fair-faced brick. However, the Sirens used industrially produced building components in the housing in the Retuperä area, south of the student village – designed at the same time as the terraced houses of Kontiontie and Kimmeltie. The complex of four condominiums was built in several stages from 1952 to 1962. To save on costs, as much new construction technology as possible was utilised in the houses, including concrete for the bathroom walls and the floor slabs of the balconies.[10]

Unlike in the terraced houses, large-sized prefabricated wooden elements could not be used in the construction of the apartment buildings. The lighter prefabricated exterior wall elements for the two apartment buildings Otaharju (1955) and Otalaakso (1956) were manufactured by Puutalo, for the use of which special permission had to be obtained from the fire authorities. According to a publication from 1965 marking the 25th anniversary of the founding of Puutalo, such lightweight prefabricated wooden elements were first used in an apartment building designed by architect Matti Lampén in 1954,[11] and though the name of the building is not mentioned, it is probably the Uusi Pajamäki condominium on Poutamäentie in Helsinki.[12] The use of prefabricated elements required that the transverse partition walls separating the dwellings and the concrete intermediate floors acted as the load-bearing structures. A similar construction was also implemented in the Otaharju and Otalaakso apartment buildings. Although the example included in the publication was the apartment building designed by Lampén, the accompanying photo shows the Sirens’ Otalaakso apartment building.[13]

The prefabricated wooden facade elements for the Otaharju apartment block, for the use of which special permission was obtained from the fire authorities. Photo: Laatukuva / Museum of Finnish Architecture.


Tapiola Primary School and teachers’ terraced houses

Tapiola Primary School and the nearby teachers’ dwellings were completed in 1957. The school and teachers’ terraced houses were considered pioneering, and the buildings were published in several magazines, also internationally.[14] In the design of the school building the Sirens experimented with such advanced design principles that the implementation required deviations from the prevailing building regulations.[15]

The exterior walls and part of the walls of the classroom corridors of the single-storey, flat-roofed school building were built from prefabricated wooden elements manufactured by Puutalo. Although they were not as large as those in the houses on Kontiontie and Kimmeltie, they probably had a similar construction. The construction of the walls was examined closely in 2017 for the preparation of a building-historical report on the school. The prefabricated wood-framed elements of the exterior walls were fixed on to cast concrete plinths. The composition of the elements, from the outside layer inwards was as follows: vertical wooden panelling, rough-sawn T&G boarding, 22 mm lining felt, 100 mm rock wool, 2 layers of aluminium membrane, 15 mm wooden boarding, and gypsum board. The light-weight internal partition walls were mainly blockboard given a stained finish.[16]

Built close to the school building were three terraced houses for teachers, one of which has two storeys. Typical of the time, the Sirens used composite structures in the houses, and took advantage of new materials as they became available. The long facades consisted of prefabricated wooden elements, the gable walls were heat-insulating lightweight concrete blocks, the partition walls and intermediate floors were reinforced concrete and the roof construction and trusses were wood.[17] The exterior walls of the houses were made from the same materials as those of the school. The facades of the upper floor of the two-storey terraced house were painted in a dark tone, just like the Kontiontie terraced houses.


Volumetric modules of the 1960s

In 1964 the Housing Foundation organised an invited competition among the building industry, in which stakeholders representing its different branches were given the opportunity to present their views on how a low-rise house of the future should be built. From among the proposals, the competition jury found the most interesting to be that submitted by Puutalo, the designers of which were Heikki Siren, Kaarlo Rautkari and Kauko Rastas, and the proposal was awarded first prize.[18] Heikki Siren gave it the name “Polar”. The detached house version, the so-called Polar People’s House, was introduced in 1966.[19] In the Helsinki metropolitan area, the type was first built in 1967 as a two-storey terraced house in Tapiola, and a year later as a single-storey version in Hakunila in Vantaa. Elsewhere in Finland, the type was built at least in Punkaniemi in Punkasalmi, Kaarela in Turku, Koskela in Oulu, and a dozen or so in Mäntylä in Lappeenranta.[20]

Large-sized prefabricated elements were first used in Tapiola, in the Tapionsolu condominium at Aarnivalkeantie 10, designed by the Sirens and completed in 1967. 80% of the building components of the houses were prefabricated at a factory.[21] The “boxes” were dimensioned so that they could be transported by road from the factory to the building site and then hoisted onto lightweight foundations. According to the earlier mentioned 1965 Puutalo anniversary publication, the houses were raised “figuratively speaking, in the midst of rose bushes pre-planted in the garden”. Typical of the time, the author also noted that society was now entering the “space age”.[22]

The wooden volumetric modules of the Tapionsolu condominium are lifted on top of the concrete supports. Photo: Bengt Andersson / Museum of Finnish Architecture.


Tapionsolu consists of seven large-size prefabricated units. The wooden volumetric modules were placed on top of concrete walls cast using gang forms. The house consists of two such “building boxes”, the ground floor one of which comprises all the technical facilities, a garage, a laundry room and a sauna, while the upper one comprises the living room, bedrooms, kitchen and bathroom. The concrete walls extend beyond the house to form 90m2 sheltered gardens between the units.[23]

In addition to the Polar houses, the prefabricated volumetric modules developed by Siren, Rautkari and Rastas were also used for temporary churches in the Helsinki city districts of Myllypuro and Kontula. Temporary lightweight churches were erected in the new city districts that urgently needed congregational facilities. The Myllypuro and Kontula churches were wooden structures with a floor area of around 400m2. The units originally designed for residential buildings were here attached to a main frame, which comprised the nave of the church. These were used, for instance, for church clubrooms. Both the exterior facades and the interior walls were clad with vertical wooden boarding. The two churches were built between 1968 and 1969.[24] Relocation of them was never considered, and both have since been demolished.


Impressive wooden roof structures

In the 1950s, Kaija and Heikki Siren designed two buildings in the Otaniemi campus’s student village which feature impressive wooden roof structures. The first, Servin Mökki, a student self-service restaurant and events space, was completed in 1952. The building’s large restaurant hall comprises V-shaped pillars made of unplaned baulks bolted together, which in turn support braced beams supporting the roof. The braced beams extend beyond the uniform glass facade. No prefabricated parts were used in the structures, because the wood was surplus material from the nearby student dormitories. Interestingly, the construction manager for the student village’s building board was Kauko Rastas, who later became a partner in the major construction company Polar. Also involved in the project was Kaarlo Rautkari from Puutalo. Heikki Siren developed prefabricated wooden structures with both these engineers up until the 1960s.[25] The structure of the roof supports in Servin Mökki are very similar to the Swedish-designed HB braced beams marketed by Puutalo in the early 1950s.[26] A good example of product development collaboration is also the “lighter” versions of the roof beams, the plywood-framed braced beams that were used in the roofs of the terraced houses at Kanneltie 12.[27]

Wooden roof supports in Servin Mökki, a student self-service restaurant and events space. Their structure is reminiscent of the so-called HB structure developed by the Swedish engineer Hilding Brosenius. Photo: Heikki Havas / Museum of Finnish Architecture.


Five years after the completion of Servin Mökki, the Sirens’ Otaniemi Chapel was built nearby. Within the main church space, perpendicular to the south-facing upper window, is a system of wooden trusses that supports the roof structure. Within the trusses are cables connecting the vertical supports to the roof beams. The solution means that the loads from the roof structure are transferred to the exterior walls of the building, thus freeing the space of the need for pillars.[28] Lamps have been inserted into the ends of the roof beams nearest the altar. Just as in Servin Mökki, exposed large-sized bolt heads have been used in the roof construction as an artistic device.

The development of glulam beams, made by gluing together laminations of boards, marked an important new area in the development of roof structures. Thanks to the invention, wood became a competitor to concrete and steel, as it was now possible to create a long-span load-bearing structure using wooden beams. Glulam began to be used in the Finnish construction industry in the late 1950s.[29] For example, Puutalo developed a so-called “yardstick” system for glued wood for two-storey terraced houses.[30] The Sirens utilized glulam beams at least in the central garage belonging to the company Tapiolan Lämpö, built at Jousenkaari 12 in the western suburb in 1961, and which still exists today.[31] The garage’s curved glulam roof beams are elegantly sculptural and create the impression of a new modern building type.

The load-bearing structure of Tapiolan Lämpö’s garage consists of wide glulam beams. Photo: Eero Troberg / Espoo City Museum.


Author Elina Standertskjöld, Lic.Phil., is a researcher in art history, who specialises in 20th century architecture.




[1] Heikki and Kaja Siren first founded their joint architects’ office in 1946.

[2] Ab. Puutalo Oy, history (PDF in Finnish), Central Archives for Finnish Business Records (ELKA). See also: “Puutalo”, Wikipedia:; “Jälleenrakennuskausi” (in Finnish), Museum of Finnish Architecture: (accessed 5.1.2021).

[3] Nikula, Riitta (2014). Suomalainen rivitalo –Työväenasunnosta keskiluokan unelmaksi. Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, 112.

[4] Siren, Kaija & Heikki (1956), “Rivitaloale Kontiontie”, Arkkitehti, 1–2/1956, 22–25. See also: Tuomi, Timo (1995). Tapiola – A History and Architectural Guide. Espoo City Museum, 88–89.

[5] Tuomi 1995, 90–91.

[6] Siren, Kaija & Heikki (1959), “Rivitalotyyppi”, Arkkitehti, 1–2/1959, 19–20.

[7] Siren 1959, 19–20. Kaarlo Rautkari and Paavo Simula were responsible for the structural engineering, while Matti Hakala and Lasse Gestranius from the Sirens’ office were responsible for the design.

[8] The braced beam (in Finnish: naulapalkki) is formed from boards or planks mounted side by side; they are fixed together with ledges, that is, perpendicular and diagonal boards nailed to the flat sides. So-called MJ beams are 30 cm wide channel-like beams made of reinforced concrete.

[9] Siren, Kaija & Heikki (1961), “Kaksi rivitaloa”, Arkkitehti 4–5/1961, 67–71. Participating in the work were Kaarlo Rautkari from Puutalo and Paavo Simula, who designed the structures. Heikki Tegelman at the Sirens’ office was project architect.

[10] It was not until the mid-1960s that legislation regarding these was updated. Kouti, Yrjö (ed.) (1965) 25-vuotta suomalaista puutaloteollisuutta, Myyntiyhdistys Puutalo, 30. The structures of the Retuperä apartment buildings were designed by Paavo Simula. Siren, Kaija & Heikki (1959), “Asuntoalue Otaniemi”, Arkkitehti, 1–2 / 1959, 13–18.

[11] Kouti (ed.) 1965, 30.

[12] Museum of Finnish Architecture photo archive. The photos show that the rear walls of the balconies of the buildings are wooden elements. However, it could be concluded from the wording in the publication that the building was situated elsewhere in Finland.

[13] Kouti (ed.) 1965, 30.

[14] Saatsi Arkkitehdit (2017), Aarnivalkean koulu. Rakennushistoriaselvitys 29.9.2017 [Aarnivalkea school. Building-historical report]. Espoon kaupunki, 20–22.

[15] Bruun, Erik & Popvits, Sara (eds.) (1976). Kaija + Heikki Siren: Architects/Architekten/Architectes. Otava, 221.

[16] The project’s structural engineer was Paavo Simula and the technical expert was Kauko Rastas. Saatsi Arkkitehdit 2017, 24–25.

[17] Saatsi Arkkitehdit 2017, 30, 201. Siren, Kaija & Heikki (1957), “Tapiolan kansakoulu”, Arkkitehti, 6–7/1957, 94.

[18] The Housing Foundation (Finnish: Asuntosäätiö) organised the invitational competition, in which the planning of the guidelines for the industrial production of houses were to be within the framework of Puutalo’s manufacturing programmes. Heikki Siren worked together with the engineer Kauko Rastas. They undertook research development under the direction of Kaarlo Rautkari. Rautkari, Kaarlo (1964). “Kevytrakenteinen rivitalo puusta”, Rakennustekniikka 13–14/1964, 834–835. Kouti (ed.) 1965, 5.

[19] The Polar prefabricated elements were used in the construction of an entire residential area in Hakunila, Vantaa, in 1968. They were designed to be single-storey linked houses. Siren, Heikki (1966). “Polar-kansantalo”, Arkkitehti, 7–8/1966, 114–115.

[20] Central Archives for Finnish Business Records (ELKA). Puutalo Oy:n arkistoluettelot / Rakenteet [Puutalo Oy archives / structures].

[21] Puutalo manufactured the elements, and the building contractor was Polar-rakennus.

[22] Kouti (ed.) 1965, 5.

[23] Maunula, Jarmo (ed.) (1970). Suomi rakentaa 4. Suomen arkkitehtiliitto, site 35. Bruun & Popvits (eds.) 1976, 212. Tuomi 1995, 132–133.

[24] Jetsonen, Sirkkaliisa & Viertiö, Sari (2002). Heikki Sirenin haastattelu (Interview with Heikki Siren). Rakennustaiteen seura. ”Elementtirakenteinen siirrettävä kirkko”, Arkkitehti, 2/1969, 56–57.

[25] Lahti, Juhana (2020). ”Johdanto: Sirenit”, in Lahti, Juhana & Autio, Frans (eds.) Kaikki ja ei mitään – Arkkitehdit Kaija + Heikki Siren. Arkkitehtuurimuseo, 20, 144. Siren, Kaija & Heikki (1956). “Servin mökki”, Arkkitehti, 6/1956. 94–97.

[26] HB-rakenne. Myyntiyhdistys Puutalo [Puutalo sales publication], no date. This type of roof truss was used, for instance, in the Otaniemi sports hall designed by Alvar Aalto, which was completed the same year as Servin Mökki.

[27] Siren, Kaija & Heikki (1961). “Kaksi rivitaloa”, Arkkitehti, 4–5/1961, 67–71.

[28] Siren, Kaija & Heikki (1958). “Teekkarikylän kappeli”, Arkkitehti, 6/ 1958, 87–97.

[29] Suomen liimapuuyhdistys ry & Puutalo Oy (2014). Liimapuukasikirja osa 1, (accessed 5.1.2020).

[30] Kouti (ed.) 1965, 7–8.

[31] Espoo City Museum photo archives. Asuntosäätiön kokoelma (Housing Foundation collection).

Homes built from prefabricated concrete elements – Alvar Aalto and the post-war housing production

In Alvar Aalto’s housing projects, prefabricated concrete elements do not dominate the architecture, though the techniques were applied and even promoted in a surprising number of his houses. The hollow core slabs developed by Juho Tapani in the 1910s, the last and best-known application of which was Aalto’s Standard Rental Apartment Building in Turku at the end of the following decade, remained mainly a curiosity. Aalto nevertheless studied the utilization of prefabrication in his design work: for instance, he designed prefabricated standard type houses soon after the mid-1930s and participated in the work of the Finnish Association of Architects’ Reconstruction Office,[1] established in 1942 to promote standardization. The fully fledged construction of prefabricated concrete elements gained a foothold in Finland only after the Second World War.

There was no shortage of labour in Finland at the time when it was recovering from the war, so the use of new construction techniques was limited. The weight of the concrete elements also restricted their application in an industry using mostly manual construction methods, and only four construction companies in Finland were using tower cranes before the mid-1950s. International influences were sought, however, from, for example, France and Germany, in addition to which the recurring Nordic Building Forum Conference provided information on the latest developments in the construction industry. When Helsinki hosted the event in June 1955, it became the first large-scale presentation of industrial construction in Finland.[2]

Early examples of prefabricated concrete elements in housing construction were, for example, flights of stairs, as in the Olympic Village in Helsinki, designed by architect Pauli Salomaa – included in the Docomomo Register Selection – which was completed for the 1952 Olympic Games.[3] In this case, the impact of the prefabricated elements on the buildings’ architectonic appearance was relatively minimal. Finland’s first housing with facades constructed using non-loadbearing exterior panels, in which the seams of the elements were boldly displayed, is probably Koivikkotie 14, in the Helsinki district of Maunula. The terraced housing, designed by architect Rudolf Lanste and completed in 1956, was also as a dwelling type modern for its time.[4]

Koivikkotie 14 terraced housing in summer 2019. Photo: Jonas Malmberg.


Prefabricated elements for intermediate floors, partition walls and pillars were tried out already two years earlier in Tapiola, Espoo, in the Mäntyviita apartment building designed by Viljo Revell. The load-bearing structures were made of elements that had been cast on the construction site.[5] The country’s first multi-storey apartment building with concrete sandwich-element facades is probably the four-storey Otavantie 1 in the Helsinki district of Lauttasaari, designed by Saara and Usko Tilanterä and completed in 1957.[6]


National Pensions Institute housing

Aalto was also involved in the technical development of concrete construction. He designed a prefabricated concrete project which on the Finnish scale was significant, the employee housing of the National Pensions Institute, completed in 1954 – the same year as the projects of the pioneers of Tapiola. The housing complex, built in the Helsinki district of Munkkiniemi, comprised of four apartment blocks, the architecture of which, like many of Aalto’s post-war modernist landmarks, is notable for the use of red brick.

The core of the housing complex is a small, wedge-shaped public square that creates a forced perspective. The surrounding commercial premises, together with their commercial signage, created a modern urban atmosphere for the paved square. The local town plan followed contemporary traffic objectives. Aalto wrote:

“This housing district comprises a tri-dimensional grouping of dwelling houses of 4–5 storeys. The central section consists of a small market square, intended to be a modest business centre for the community. With regard to traffic, the main principle was that when the town plan was changed, the roads would be drawn behind the buildings (to the east), so that the gardens on the west side become parks for family use, undisturbed by traffic. In this park area, a kindergarten was also planned, which according to the decision of the Board [of the National Pensions Institute] would not, however, be carried out, since it was considered to be ’uneconomic’.”[7]

The balconies of the National Pensions Institute housing, Helsinki, in summer 2019 (photo: Jonas Malmberg).


The impactful appearance of the apartment blocks, with strong variations in the colour of the red brick, laid on site, draws attention away from the pioneering technical solutions. Bricks from the Paloheimo brickworks supported the row of balconies stretching the entire length of the facades, the concrete slabs and parapets of which relied on advanced prefabricated elements. The floors of the basement corridors are also prefabricated concrete elements, which hide beneath them ducts for the technical infrastructure. These correspond well with Aalto’s ideas about standardization: methods that facilitate ease of construction must be used, but other features of the architecture take centre stage. Aalto became interested in the potential of standardization and serial production in the wake of his European colleagues already early on in his career in the late 1920s, but became aware of the risks soon thereafter. Already in 1940, he stated:

“Although the purely rational period of Modern architecture has created constructions where rationalized technique has been exaggerated and the human functions have not been emphasized enough, this is not a reason to fight rationalization in architecture. It is not the rationalization itself which was wrong in the first and now past period of Modern architecture. The fault lies in the fact that the rationalization has not gone deep enough.”[8]


Hansaviertel cladding panels

Aalto continued, however, to utilize prefabricated elements, for example in Berlin. Socially and technically sustainable housing solutions were sought for the reconstruction of central Europe at the extensive, international Interbau exhibition in Berlin in 1957, where 13 renowned architects were invited to participate.

The structural frame of Aalto’s Hansaviertel apartment building was cast on site, but the seams of the relatively small-sized, 10 cm thick lightweight concrete cladding panels bring compositional structure to the white facades. The facades of the building meander in and out and the coordinate grids of the two stairwells deviate from each other, which gives the building an overall appearance that is strongly relief-like. This was not something determined by the prefabricated construction technology, for at the heart of the design were the experiences of the residents. The transition from the plot boundary to the individual apartments was differentiated by numerous distinct stages. Between the two stairwells was a large, covered entrance space. Dominated by a straight-run stair, the spacious stairwells receive abundant natural light via large windows. In the apartments, the rooms are arranged around recessed balconies, creating a very special – and even contemporary – apartment solution that connected the “outdoor area”[9] of the apartment almost seamlessly with the lounge and other living spaces.

An advertisement for Leca elements, Ark 11–12 / 1957.


At the end of the 1950s, Aalto continued to develop these housing types in his plans for projects in Karhusaari and Hanasaari in Espoo, but the projects did not materialize.[10] Aalto nevertheless developed white cladding panels for the Neue Vahr tower block in Bremen, Germany, completed in 1962, which has the distinctive look of a building constructed of prefabricated elements. And in the Schönbühl tower block in Lucerne in 1967, Aalto experimented with the Preton-Verfahren prefabrication method, based on horizontal wall elements, developed in Switzerland at the beginning of the decade.[11] The prefabricated element look was concealed in the Seinäjoki town hall, completed in 1962 and in the Sundh Center residential and commercial building in Avesta, Sweden, from the year before, where Aalto clad the prefabricated elements with cobalt-blue rod tiles he had designed.

The facades of the Seinäjoki City Hall, constructed of prefabricated elements, in autumn 2018 (photo: Jonas Malmberg).


Gammelbacka, Porvoo

The role of architects in the development of precast concrete production in Finland remained minor. This was partly due to the controversy in the mid-1950s between the Finnish Association of Architects SAFA – then chaired by Aalto – and Jussi Lappi-Seppälä, Director-General of the National Board of Public Building.[12] Aalto’s interest, like that of many other architects, in prefabricated concrete elements waned as production in Finland shifted to an increasingly larger scale, along with comprehensive development.

Despite, or because of, the many suburbs planned and built on the terms of prefabricated technology, Aalto wanted to participate in large-scale housing development and to actively develop it through his own close-to-nature approach. He gave a speech at the Housing Reform Association in 1964, expressing his concern yet again about the monotony caused by standardization. Housing and architecture, he stated, could be developed by building experimental cities that monitor the impact and validity of new technologies on a real scale. The idea dates back to 1940, when Aalto presented his idea of flexible standardization and building a model city in the context of the post-war reconstruction project “An American Town in Finland”.[13]

The Helsinki Housing Co-operative HAKA together with Aalto set out in 1966 to design a 100-hectare experimental residential area in the varied terrain of Gammelbacka in Porvoo, initially planned to form an experimental housing area for around 1500 residents. The intention was to implement a flexible experimental area for prefabricated construction, where the technology would be a tool in the construction but would not dictate the end result. Aalto’s plan consisted of seven different prefabricated lamella-type blocks comprising the whole.

The functions of the entire area were separated in the spirit of functionalist urban planning. The basic idea followed Otto-I Meurman’s and Olli Kivinen’s cutting edge “lung town plan”, based on the separation of different modes of transport and green areas. The draft designs developed for the project in 1969 included eight areas of apartment blocks and two areas of linked low-rise housing and terraced housing. Aalto arranged the buildings into fan-like groupings, following the terrain and emphasising its natural features.

The economic requirements of that time, however, and the limitations of the Arava system of state-subsidised housing proved too rigid for Aalto’s flexible standardization.[14] At the same time, other projects emerged that reshaped and challenged the solutions propagated by the housing industry, such as the architectural competition for the Kortepohja area of Jyväskylä in 1964 or the implementation of the Suvikumpu housing area in Tapiola at the end of the decade. Aalto’s participation in these remained at best at the level of model example, and Gammelbacka would be his last residential or suburban plan – and was never implemented as the planning of it was passed on to other architects.


Author Jonas Malmberg is an architect and a Master of Arts in art history, who works at the Alvar Aalto foundation specializing in restoration of modern architecture. He is also a board member of Docomomo Suomi Finland.




[1] Waltari, Mika (1942). Rakennustaide ja standardi. Jälleenrakentamisen ydinkysymyksiä. Suomen arkkitehtiliitto; facsimile 1982 Rakennustieto Oy.

[2] Hytönen, Yki & Seppänen Matti (2009). Tehdään elementeistä. Betonitieto Oy., 39–43.

[3] Hurme, Riitta (1991). ”Asuntorakentamisen murrosvaiheita 1940-luvulta 1960-luvulle”. Betoni Suomessa 1860–1960. Betonitieto Oy., 83–84.

[4] Heikinheimo, Marianne ( (2007). Maunula. Arjen kestävää arkkitehtuuria. Helsingin kaupunkisuunnitteluvirasto.

[5] Hurme, Riitta (1991). ”Asuntorakentamisen murrosvaiheita 1940-luvulta 1960-luvulle”. Betoni Suomessa 1860–1960. Betonitieto Oy, 86–90.

[6] Neuvonen, Petri (ed,) (2006). Kerrostalot 1880–2000. Rakennustieto Oy, 85.

[7] Alvar, Alvar (1957). ”Kansaneläkelaitos. Henkilökunnan asuntoryhmä” Arkkitehti 3/1957, 33.

[8] Aalto, Alvar (1940), “The Humanizing of Architecture”, Technology Review, 11/1940. Schildt, Göran (ed.) (1997). Alvar Aalto in His Own Words. Otava, 102.

[9] Aalto, Alvar (1930), “The Housing Problem”, Domus, 10/1930. Schildt, Göran (ed.) (1997). Alvar Aalto in His Own Words. Otava, 82.

[10] Jetsonen, Sirkkaliisa (2004). Alvar Aalto Apartments. Rakennustieto Oy, 80.

[11] Schildt Göran (1994). Alvar Aalto A Life’s Work. Otava, 240–245.

[12] Hytönen, Yki & Seppänen, Matti (2009). Tehdään elementeistä. Betonitieto Oy., 40–41.

[13] Aalto, Alvar (1941), “An American Town in Finland”, Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, 17.3.1941. Schildt, Göran (1997). Alvar Aalto in His Own Words. Otava, 125–131.

[14] Koski, Minerva (2011). Kokeellinen lähiö: Alvar Aallon kaupunkisuunnittelun periaatteet 1960-luvun lopulla Porvoon maalaiskunnan Gammelbackassa. Pro gradu Jyväskylän yliopistossa / Master’s thesis, University of Jyväskylä.