Villa Mairea Analysis Essay

Must-Know Modern Homes: Villa Mairea

Experimenting led to rich rewards in this Finnish architectural masterpiece by modernist Alvar Aalto

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Aalto met Maire Gullichsen, wife of industrialist Harry Gullichsen, through his associate, Nils-Gustav Hahl, in 1935. Maire and Harry would become Aalto's clients for the villa in Noormarkku, but not before Aalto and his wife, Aino, started the furniture company Artek with Hahl and Maire; to this day the company produces the chairs and glassware designed by Aalto. Their friendship, which also included a shared view of art and society, resulted in some fairly lax guidance to Aalto from the clients: "We told him that he should regard it as an experimental house; if it didn’t work out we wouldn’t blame him."

One of Aalto's early responses was a scheme with cantilevers echoing Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater—Aalto saw it in project form in journals in 1937, when he started work on Villa Mairea.
Before Aalto's Fallingwater-esque design, he had proposed a variation on a vernacular farmhouse. Instead of ignoring this initial impulse, Aalto expanded his historical reach to incorporate L-shaped Scandinavian plans typically used for aristocrats (appropriate, given the Gullichsens' wealth). The L-shaped plans loosely define the private outdoor space, and in the case of Villa Mairea that area is filled by a pool and a sauna building connected to the house by a sod-covered walkway.

This plan shape was developed and agreed upon by the client, but even as construction on the house began in its forest clearing, Aalto made changes. This is testament to how his blending of the old and new — into what has been called a painterly collage — can accept changes, given the organic nature of his modernism.
The first glimpses of the house are of a white box in the forest, but the layering of various pieces seen from a closer look violates any simple reading. First is the wood box projecting from the white walls (housing Harry's library and the living room); then there are the canted windows on the second floor; finally there is the asymmetrical and elongated entrance canopy sticking out from the white wall behind it.

Compare the front of Villa Mairea with the front of the Gropius House; both have canopies and spiral stairs, but Aalto's technique is relaxed where Gropius is rigorous. I'm always amazed at how successful Aalto's exteriors are given the great number of things going on.
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Along with Frank Lloyd Wright, Finnish architect Alvar Aalto stands out for being a modern architect with a highly personal style that blends the historical and the contemporary. But unlike Wright, who was born less than a decade after the end of the Civil War and did his early work in the same century, Aalto (1898–1976) started his career as modernism spread across Europe. The architect's first buildings followed Nordic classicism, but he quickly moved on to functionalism, Scandinavia's version of European modernism. As quickly as that shift occurred, Aalto ditched the rigor of functionalism and developed his own idiosyncratic version of modern architecture that found inspiration in history and the Finnish landscape.

While Villa Mairea is not the first project Aalto designed in this vein, it is the first such residence for a client (his own house came in 1936), and it has become one of the masterpieces of 20th-century residential architecture. Its qualities are not immediately apparent, since the design does not have a clear order, like other modern houses, nor the stylistic cues of traditional buildings. But Aalto's emphasis on experience, mood and metaphor results in a house whose rich rewards should become apparent upon closer inspection.

Both the architect and the client saw the house as an experiment in realizing ideas that could be applied to mass housing, a preoccupation with many architects in the decades between the World Wars. Aalto felt that mass housing lacked the individual touches that make a house enriching rather than sterile and impersonal. In this vein the house is even more modern than other houses with that label, given that he strove for function (the basis for early modernist buildings) over style and ideology.

Villa Mairea at a Glance
Year built: 1939
Architect: Alvar Aalto
Location: Noormarkku, Finland
Visiting info:Must inquire about tours in advance

More: 10 Must-Know Modern Homes

The villa Mairea is a country house, built by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto in Noormarkku, Finland between 1937 and 1940 for the couple Harry and Maire Gullichsen, who asked him to consider as an “experimental house”.

Villa Mairea technical information

After all, nature is a symbol of freedom. Sometimes nature actually gives rise to and maintains the idea of freedom. If we base our technical plans primarily on nature we have a chance to ensure that the course of development is once again in a direction in which our everyday work and all it’s forms will increase freedom rather than decrease it.

– Alvar Aalto 1

Villa Mairea Photographs

Villa Mairea description

Villa Mairea is a villa, guest-house, and rural retreat designed and built by the Finnish modernist architect Alvar Aalto for Harry and Maire Gullichsen in Noormarkku, Finland.

The building was constructed in 1938–1939. The Gullichsens were a wealthy couple and members of the Ahlström family. They told Aalto that he should regard it as ‘an experimental house’. Aalto seems to have treated the house as an opportunity to bring together all the themes that had been preoccupying him in his work to that point but had not been able to include them in actual buildings.

The plan of the villa takes Mairea L-shaped fond Aalto, but slightly modified. It is a plan that automatically gives a semi-private area on the side, and a more public or more receiving another space. The lawn and pool are located in the hollow of L, with a range of rooms oriented in this direction. The horizontal and door overhang in the overall composition meet the flat expanses of the site, and the curves of the pool lines embrace the topography of the surrounding forest.

In contrast to these devices give some softness in the lines, the main façade, it a more rigid and formal appearance. There’s even a canopy that is repeated in the garden with a pergola incorporating the vocabulary of the assembly, with studs, lath and fasteners. The interiors of the villa Mairea subtly play with wood, stone and bricks. The spaces have dimensions varied, ranging from very generous spaces virtually the cabin.

Although the revised plan followed the existing foundations, the transformation achieved a compression and coherence in the spatial organization which had been almost entirely lacking in the ‘Proto-Mairea’. The entrance opens into a small top-lobby, from which another door straight ahead leads into an open hall positioned four steps below the main level. One enters on axis with the dining table beyond, but the axiality is undermined by the asymmetry of a screen of wooden poles and a free-standing, angled wall which together define an informal ante-room between the living room and dining room.

The angle of the low wall is set from the corner of the white-plastered fireplace diagonally opposite, which becomes the natural centre of attention as one ascends the step into the living room. Similar diagonal relationships are established between Harry Gullichsen’s private library/study and the ‘winter garden’ (which Maire used for flower arranging and from which a stair leads directly up to her studio), and between the main staircase and open sun-lit part of the living room into which eyes are drawn as you emerge from behind the vertical poles which screen the stairs.

Meaningful buildings arise from tradtion and they constitute and continue tradition. […] No architect worthy of his craft works alone; he works with the entire history of architecture ‘in his bones.

– TS Eliot 2

Villa Mairea Plans

Villa Mairea Gallery

  1. Richard Western, Alvar Aalto, Phaidon Press 1995, p 98
  2. TS Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ Selected Essays, Faber & Faber (London) 1948,

Cite this article: "Villa Mairea / Alvar Aalto," in ArchEyes, August 30, 2016,


1941ÅKE E:SON LINDMANAlvar AaltoFinnish ArchitectureHousesModernismScandinavian HousesWoodland Houses

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