A Visit to Studio Aalto, Helsinki
When in Helsinki…. you can take a trip out to the islands, sweat in the sauna or… visit Studio Aalto! The entrance fee is fairly steep, so you may ask yourself: Is it worth visiting Studio Aalto? I think it is, and here is a little impression of my tour at Studio Aalto.
I only used Helsinki as the destination for a cheap flight and hop-off point for an overnight ferry cruise to St Petersburg.
Since then (but before the COVID-19 travel restrictions), you could also visit St Petersburg without a visa for up to seven days of you arrived and departed St Petersburg by air, so the ferry trip for visa-free St Petersburg may no longer be necessary. However… I liked the old school ferry trip with its spartan but comfortable cabins, two and a half days in St Petersburg and aside trip to beautiful Tallinn tacked on.
Helsinki is considerably more expensive than St. Petersburg or Tallinn, and I admit I did not do too much in Helsinki other than visit Studio Aalto, shop at Marimekko Outlet and drink lots of coffee.
Alvar Aalto was a finnish architect and designer whose style can be described as “Nordic Classicism” for his early work to International Modernist Style. Active between 1921 and until his death in 1976, with some of his designs realised posthumously, him and his architectural firm built private residences, churches, public buildings, hosptials and a huge range of modern furniture, many of which you are probably familiar with.
Getting to Studio Aalto and other practicalities
Greater Helsinki has an excellent public transport network, and map apps work really well here. I went from the Railway Station (Lassipalatsi Tram stop to the left side of the station as you face the station entrance) using a direct tram (No. 4 or No 10) to the Tiilimäki Tram Stop. It takes at least 30 minutes. If you miss it, don’t worry – let the tram take you to the ultimate stop at the seaside, then it loops back and get off on the way back.
Then take a 5-minute uphill walk to the house. It is not signposted very clearly. All houses in the area look modernist one way or another. The address is Tiilimäki 20, a flat white building behind a white wall, and there is a small plaque.
There is an excellent vegetarian cafe with very reasonable prices compared to other Helsinki eateries at the corner with Munkinniemen Road – just downhill towards the Alvar Aalto Residence, on the corner with the larger street called “Veggie-Vegetarian Food and Cafe”.
What is Studio Aalto?
Studio Aalto was the business premises of Alvar Aalto from 1955 onward. Aalto and his associates previously worked out of his private residence (now Aalto House) but due to rising number of commissions and employees, his private house soon became to small. So he purchased a plot near his house and designed his architect studio and business office, surrounded by a nice garden. He practised there until his death in 1976. The studio continued to practice as an architect practice, led by his wife Elissa, until her death in 1994. Ten years earlier it has already been incorporated into the Alvar Aalto Foundation, who to this death not only oversees his houses and museums, but Alvar Aaltos architectoral project and their restoration world wide.
Studio Aalto Exterior and Style
The building is a simple white loosely “L” shaped building with a slightly tilted roof. It is typical for many 1950’s buildings. But this one is hugging an amphitheatre-shaped garden. It is built into a slope and essentially has two levels, one being partially subterranean, the other one getting lots of natural light.
To be honest, it looks rather nondescript from the outside.
At the entrance level. The fancy garage look did not appeal to me, and had I not seen other Aalto buildings, I might have given it a miss. To the right is the large window front providing lots of natural light to the communal drafting room.
Waiting for the next tour and walking round the back. The brick and white paint combo doesn’t take kindly to the elements but the shape starts to look much more interesting.
Studio Aalto Tour
The entry fee is currently 2o Euro and includes a tour as long as some free time to spend in the house. Groups are limited, but tours are done nearly every hour but at limited tomes. I went on the off chance in late September and there was a decent size group for our tour. It may be safer pre-booking tickets online at their online shop.
When I arrived, there were also some expectant Japanese. Aalto and Modern Architecture, and Finland as a whole are very popular with Japanese. I really haven’t figured out yet why. And likewise, people in Finland really love Japanese culture. They admire each others architecture, that’s for sure. So it came as no surprise that our tour guide and the person selling us tickets happily chatted away in Japanese.
Basement and Ground floor
The ground floor is mainly occupied by the ticket office, offices and a small shop. We were rounded up in the entry hall and asked to take off our shoes, then were given a little intro to the studio and its purpose before led into the partially subterranean kitchen and Dining Room. The Aaltos employed a full-time cook and service staff to cook fresh meals for everyone daily.
The room is an odd wedge shape. Despite being partly subterranean, natural light floods in. The communal tables are original. Alvar Aalto had his regular chair at the far end of the room, allowing him to oversee the dining room.
We were pointed at another Aalto design characteristic – the indirect lighting, here done simply by hanging canvas under the lights. A simple but very effective method! Everyhting is simple and functional. What I really like about this museum is that you can sit on pretty much all the furniture. The pieces are original and really stood the test of time. The kitchen cupboards open from both sides, buy the way!
The Office Floor
These are the steps leading to the first floor is very much preserved from the days it was an architects practice. The painted brick theme continues for most of the inside of the house. It is somewhat remniscent of 1960’s student housing to me, not my favourite theme, but it’s getting better.
The staircase opens onto the large open plan office, lit from two sides, where to this day employees of the foundation still work. Less brick, more light. Part of the open place architects office – where the employees and associates worked – is a museum. But you see in the back the modern office implements, and over half of the office are actual workstations for the Aalto Foundation.
Windows on opposing sides let a lot of natural light in. Love the slightly tilted roof, too.
The front half of the office is decked out like a drafting office, all with original furnishings. And indeed, it is a museum piece, or have you seen a working office so tidy? There are also some models with a bit of explanation dotted around the office.
Coming off the small but open corridor is an interesting little meeting room/library. It is lit by indirect lighting from above, really highlighting the small glass showcase/ This now houses pictures and models of the Library of Viipuri/Vyborg (now part of Russia). This was used for clients presentations before the practice was turned into a museum.
Another perspective of the meeting room. It is small, but comfortably can sit at least eight people.
And then, back into the corridor…
into a long, light-flooded corridor…
The Atelier of Alvar Aalto at Studio Aalto
We were led into the spiritual heart of the house! The atelier and office of Alvar Aalto.
It is preserved almost truthfully from his active days, with lots of prototypes and product standing or lying around. What struck me is that there is no big fixed desk, but rather a few larger tables with light chairs that can all be moved around.
And all these pieces of furniture are there to be used! So if you ever wanted to sit on a rare (and very expensive) original “Paimio” chair, you can! They are surprisingly comfortable, even though there are made completely out of wood.
Alvar Aalto Furniture designs
Not only was Alvar Aalto a prolific architect, he also liked to supply interiors with his buildings! He founded a furniture company in 1935 soon after he started practising as an architect. The company, Artek, still exists. It is now owned by Vitra, a Swiss maker of design furniture. Expect to pay at least 180 Euro for a simple three-legged birch stool, but… they have an excellent reputation for quality. And, lets say, many cheaper furniture companies have been “inspired” by his design. Just look up “Frosta” stool which is yours for less than 15 Euro.
But the perfect souvenir would perhaps be the “Aalto” vase! It is made by iittala and is a design icon. Try to get a vintage one, as iittala (now owned by Fiskars) not always produces on Finland but in third “low wage” countries, although they say all glassware is still produced at the iittala glassworks in Finland.
This was definitely the best room, and highlight of the visit! And to conclude our tour, our guide gave us some “free time” to roam the building and touch everything – or something like that. I emerged back into the beautiful autumn day, satisfied, and having learned a little more about iconic modernist design. The tour is a perfect balance between learning and fun, and I highly recommend it.
Other sites run by the Alvar Aalto Foundation
The Alvar Aalto foundation also administers the residence of Alvar Aalto, a ten-minute downhill walk away.
If you are a boiled in the wool modern architecture/Alvar Aalto fan, you can visit the Alvar Aalto Museum and the Muuratsalo Experimental House in Juvaskyla, about 280km from Helsinki.
The Small Print
I travelled to Helsinki in September 2019 as part of a week-long Helsinki-St. Petersburg-Tallinn-Helsinki round trip. I organised and paid for all travel from my personal funds. This post was written in May 2020, while there are still restrictions in place. Please check for up-to-date immigration and opening hours and only travel if it is considered safe. This post does not contain affiliate links. If you wish to contribute (all affiliate income will be donated to animal rescues and shelters for at least the months April, May and June 2020), please consider visiting my travel book post. Thank you. For further information on my affiliate marketing, please refer to the Terms and Conditions of this website.