Aino Aalto's Enduring Contribution to 20th Century Architecture and Nordic Classicism
Editor's Note: In celebration of Women's History Month, the ICAA has invited several member practitioners to write about leading women in architecture and the related fields who have influenced and inspired the design world in a significant way. The fourth installment of this series was written by Whitley Esteban, Managing Director at Roman and Williams Buildings and Interiors in New York City. Esteban received her Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Notre Dame.
Aalto – a name not completely synonymous with classical architecture, but a name and a body of work inextricably influenced by and in dialogue with it. And Aalto – a name whose eponymity belongs not to one person, but to two.
Aino Marsio-Aalto and Alvar Aalto were partners in life and in work. With her instrumental influence, the earlier years of the Aaltos’ work sit elegantly at the intersection of Nordic Classicism and early Functionalism still rooted in a deep sense of place. The work itself reflects an understanding and appreciation for principles of lasting utility and beauty, best codified in what we call classical architecture.
Aino was born in Finland in 1894 at a time when the vast majority of architects were men. At the time she entered architectural studies at the Helsinki University of Technology, it is estimated that only 10 women had graduated from programs of architecture within Finland. Soon after graduating, Aino Marsio went to work for the studio of Alvar Aalto. Alvar and Aino were married in late 1924, and soon thereafter embarked on their honeymoon throughout Italy. These travels would have a profound impact on their work and philosophies about the built environment. Despite their later Modernist trajectory and a more purist association with their approach – a humanist perspective is consistent throughout their work, referring pointedly to these travels and studies in idiomatic building traditions.
The Aaltos were contemporaries and contacts of Gunnar Asplund and Sven Markelius, both of Sweden. Nordic Classicism, one prevailing regional mode at the turn of the 20th Century, was characterized by reference to both vernacular and neoclassical precedent, and much of the Aalto’s work during this period falls comfortably into this categorization. The Aaltos’ early work and that of Nordic Classicism on the whole represents a sophisticated interlude between Jugendstil (referred to in Finland as National Romantic style) and Functionalism (which would quickly lay the groundwork for Modernism as we know it).
Over the course of her career Aino became known as a talented draftsman for the office of Alvar Aalto Architecture and Monumental Art, oftentimes translating Alvar’s sketches into technical drawings. Noted for her focused and humble way of working, she was no doubt a pioneering woman in the field of architecture, responsible for significant portions of the firm’s architectural work, and author of the interiors and furniture designs of nearly the entire Aalto portfolio. In particular, Aino had a primary design role in Villa Flora and Villa Mairea, both depicted below. Towards the end of her life Aino also served as Artistic Director and Managing Director of Artek, the furniture company started by the Aaltos and their Villa Mairea patrons in 1935, which she led until her untimely death in 1949.
Alvar Aalto’s contributions to the canon of 20th Century architecture, interiors, and furniture design continued for nearly 30 years after her death. The body of work attributed to Aalto continued to champion an idiomatic expression of the built environment, the elevation of the mundane and of the humane, and a harmonious relationship between innovation and tradition. A pioneering woman in the field of architecture, the legacy of Aalto today bears strongly the mark of Aino Aalto’s hand.