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.