The Aaltos at Villa Mairea: A More Human Light

The Aaltos at Villa Mairea: A More Human Light

Villa Mairea by Åke Eson Lindman  external view low res

In the 1930s, Alvar and Aino Aalto evolved a radical new approach to architecture, one which emerged fully fledged at an iconic site of pre-war modernism – Villa Mairea in Noormarkku, Western Finland.

Designed for one of Artek’s founders, Maire Gullichsen, and her family, Villa Mairea departed from the clean, crisp aesthetic so strongly associated with the modernist house. Here, Alvar Aalto introduced organic forms and natural materials, drawing on traditional Finnish and Japanese design.

Villa Mairea by Åke Eson Lindman  staircase low res
Villa Mairea is famous for its open-plan ground floor, in which living spaces flow into one another. The “forest” of rattan-wrapped columns and timber poles, reminiscent of bamboo, creates a dappled light, echoing the pine trees outside.

In the 1920s, modernist architects harnessed lighting as a practical means to divide small open-plan flats into dining, living and work zones. At Villa Mairea, its role was very different – shadow mattered as much as light, and atmosphere as much as utility. The inventive shapes and varied illumination of the Aaltos’ fittings – compelling sculptural objects in their own right – moved away from the geometric forms and even light of their Bauhaus equivalents.

Villa Mairea by Åke Eson Lindman  living room
The rich atmospheric light of Villa Mairea was almost entirely new to the modernist language. In daytime, sun is filtered through curtains, blinds and planting; during the long winter nights, scattered lamps create havens for reading, socializing and relaxing.

In its interior, and its lighting, Villa Mairea looked forward to the 1950s and ’60s, offering intimacy, homeliness and ease. In place of the rigid modernism that still prevailed at the time, the Aalto´s aspired to “a more human built environment”, an ideal they were already achieving in their furniture designs.

In transferring this strategy to lighting, the Aaltos proved that a painterly collage of electric lamps could enrich domestic spaces, making them both liveable and welcoming. Through an embrace of the extraordinary diversity of light found in nature, an architecture “suggestive of natural organic life” could be realised – in short, a more human architecture, and a more human light.

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