Rautatalo Office Building

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Photo: Kari Hakli / AAM
  • PlaceHelsinki
  • Completion 1955
  • Decade1950s
  • PeriodPost-war modernism
  • Year of selection1993


The surrounding urban space – a new commercial street in the Helsinki city centre – was an important starting point in the design of the Rautatalo office building, an issue already mentioned in the brief for the invitational architecture competition for the building. Aalto carefully examined the proportions of the immediate milieu. Having very different types of neighbouring buildings – a red-brick commercial building from the classicism period (Eliel Saarinen, 1920) and the low Litonii Domus building (Gustaf Leander, 1847; Valter Jung, 1929) – posed a challenge in adapting to the surroundings. Aalto opted for a solution that was “a structure connected with its neighbours through a harmonious compositional rhythm, but without any structural imitation” (Arkkitehti, 9/1955). The neutral façade with its grid composition is also found in other commercial and office buildings designed by Aalto in the Helsinki city centre. The choice of metal as the main façade material came naturally because the client, Rautakauppojen Oy, was an ironmongery company.

An even more central issue than the cityscape, however, was the formation of an impressive interior. In Aalto’s own words: “The Rautatalo building was built from the inside out.” The heart of the building is the central hall on the first floor, also referred to as the marble courtyard. Aalto’s winning competition proposal for a seven-storey hall was lowered at the client’s request and for economic reasons, but the atmosphere has hardly suffered. The three-storey-high central hall was the realisation of the Italophile Aalto’s dream of a roofed piazza conveying an Italian spirit. The central space and the balconies surrounding it received natural light via circular skylights, and during the hours of darkness from lamps positioned on the outside of each skylight. The floors are in Carrara marble and the walls of the balconies in travertine. Aalto even influenced the choice of planting around the fountain in the central hall, which was also to be a reference to Italy. The Rautatalo door handle, Aalto’s most famous door handle, was first used in this building.

Aalto also designed several of the interiors of the stores around the central hall and on the ground floor. For the so-called Colombia Cafe in the marble courtyard Aalto designed square wooden tables with metal legs, black-leather armchairs and three-legged stools. The lamps also played an important role in the interior design; the Artek lamp A333, also known as “Turnip”, was first designed for the Rautatalo building.

After ownership of the building changed in the 1990s, a thorough renovation was carried out, in connection with which the owner wanted a new interior design for the cafe. The original furniture ended up either in storage or in the collections of the Alvar Aalto Museum. But luckily they eventually found their way to the same urban block, to the café that operates in the Academic Bookstore also designed by Aalto.


Leena Makkonen

Aalto, Alvar (1955). ”Rautatalo”, Arkkitehti 9/1955.
Norvasuo, Markku (1998). ”Valaisimet Alvar Aallon arkkitehtuurissa” / Light fittings in Alvar Aalto’s architecture”, Arkkitehti 1/1998.
Tuomi, Timo (1998). ”Rautatalo”. Paatero, Kristiina; Rauske, Eija & Tuomi, Timo (toim./eds.), Alvar Aalto seitsemässä talossa. Tulkintoja arkkitehdin elämäntyöstä / Alvar Aalto in Seven Buildings – Interpretations of an Architect’s Work. Helsinki: Suomen rakennustaiteen museo.


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