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, 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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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’.”
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.”
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” of the apartment almost seamlessly with the lounge and other living spaces.
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. 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. 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 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. 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”.
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. 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.
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