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In the footsteps of Aalto

"Säynätsalo – The Tahiti of Lake Päijänne", Alvar Aalto

A short history of the company Tavolo Bianco

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Säynätsalo and Alvar Aalto

Long before the planning of the Säynätsalo Town Hall, this island region was very familiar to Alvar Aalto. Having spent his childhood and youth in Jyväskylä, Säynätsalo was etched in his mind as a dear childhood landscape. Back then Säynätsalo was a young settlement where mainly factory workers lived. The Parviainen sawmill had been established on the island in 1897. Later it expanded into a plywood factory and the ownership was transferred to the Enso-Gutzeit company. The factory in many ways dominated the island's public life.

Alvar Aalto founded his first architecture office in Jyväskylä in 1923. During the 1920s he designed a plan for a retirement home in Säynätsalo. In the end, however, the retirement home was built according to Wivi Lönn's drawings and was named the Walter Parviainen retirement home. Soon after Aalto's family had to move to Turku for work, and after Paimio Sanatorium was completed, the Aaltos moved to Helsinki.

Alvar Aalto did not participate in the design of Säynätsalo again before the early 1940s, this time designing the site plan at the request of the factory management. Aalto's schemes included a causeway to the mainland. Upon its completion, it was the first road connecting Säynätsalo to the mainland. Among the unrealised plans was, for example, a large triangular courtyard in the center of Säynätsalo, Piazza Triangolare, which would have reached from the site of the current Town Hall all the way to the factory.

Planning of the Town Hall

In 1949 Alvar Aalto got the opportunity to return to Säynätsalo once more when Hilmer Brommels, the director of the factory, invited him to participate in an architectural competition regarding the construction of the future Town Hall. Aino Aalto's death in the January of that year was a big blow to Alvar, but despite his grief, he took on the challenge. Two other Finnish architects participated in the competition, Veikko Raitinen and Seppo Hytönen, but Aalto's proposal won the competition. Aalto named his proposal "Curia" - the name refers to the meeting place of the ancient Roman senators, where decisions were made about the common issues of the republic.

As a whole, the Town Hall resembles a castle-like building, which is built as if on the slopes of a hill. The building encloses a peaceful central courtyard, which Aalto called the piazza, the center of the city. The elevated piazza was created by pouring in the leftover soil from the excavations of the foundations. Therefore, there are no structures under the piazza. Although the Town Hall appears large when seen from far away, the scale of the building suddenly changes when entering the courtyard. Viewed from the elevated piazza the building surprisingly looks only one floor high and close to the humane scale, and the business premises on the ground floor disappear from view. The idea was to create a central square built on a humane scale where a peaceful, monastic environment could be created. Aalto himself stated about the enclosed courtyard: "...in some mysterious way it emphasizes the social instinct. In government buildings and town halls, the courtyard has preserved its primal significance from the days of ancient Crete, Greece, and Rome through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance."

The primary material in the building is red brick, which is a dominating feature both inside and outside. Aalto had already tried out the possibilities of red brick in the Baker House, one of the student dormitories at Boston’s MIT University, which he had designed a couple of years earlier. The design of the Town Hall initiated the red brick era of Aalto’s work; for the next decade, he designed a whole series of red brick buildings, such as the National Pensions Institute, Muuratsalo Experimental House, the House of Culture in Helsinki and both the Otaniemi and Seminaarinmäki campuses. In the Säynätsalo Town Hall, as in other buildings later, an effort was made to create a handcrafted and lively surface from the brick by using all of the burnt and damaged material and laying the bricks unevenly on the wall. It is even said that some of the brick loads were dumped directly onto the ground from the truck to break up the surface of the brick and achieve the desired rough appearance. The bricks were obtained from the Lappila brick factory, and Aalto himself influenced the choice of the factory.

Around the piazza, Aalto designed a bright corridor with large windows, which let in a lot of natural light and open up a view of the green courtyard. Abundant sunshine and large windows emphasise the public nature of the building. Openness and clarity are also essential features of Nordic democracy, therefore these features were highlighted in the Town Hall which was a building primarily for democratic decision-making. Aalto himself thought: "...dark corridors in an administration building [in its main parts] cannot and must not be used." Offices and meeting rooms were planned for the corridor. The municipal executive board met in the room designed for them in the northern corner of the Town Hall. Aalto wanted large windows also in the meeting room to have a view into nature and fill the room with natural light.

As a counterpoint to the brightness of the lower floors, Aalto designed a high and dark temple-like council hall at the highest point of the building for the municipal council meetings. In a way, the council’s meeting room is the heart of the whole building, the core of democracy, where decision-making occurs. Most of the municipal council meetings were public events for everyone to join, so the route was designed to be clear for the people of the community to easily find their way into the important area - the red brick material on the floor leads the public to walk up the stairs. The movement of the light was carefully considered in the council chamber. The natural light coming from the windows is filtered and directed through the slats to different parts of the room, and the lamps in the hall also project light into every corner through the opening behind the lamp. Thus, the light across the room is even, and the corners are not too dark. The bright sunlight from the south stays in the corridors and does not enter the council chamber, as the sliding door is closed during the meetings. On sunny days, beams of light are formed in the corridors, which move around according to the time of day. The pine wood structures of the council hall's ceiling are also remarkable. The structures got the name "butterflies" because of their wing-like shapes.

In Säynätsalo Town Hall, as in most other Aalto buildings, the interior solutions and unique furniture was also designed for the building by Aalto and his workers together. Alvar Aalto himself designed almost all the lamps. In addition to him, the most important interior designer was Maija Heikinheimo, whose design work includes, for example, the seats of the meeting room downstairs and the interior of the council hall. Later, Heikinheimo worked as CEO and artistic director of Artek.

Art acquisitions

Outside in the piazza, next to the fountain, there is a bronze statue called The Dancer. Wäinö Aaltonen created a plaster version of the statue in 1928, and a larger bronze statue was cast in 1950. This cubist work was donated to the Town Hall by the Enso-Gutzeit factory. The original plaster sculpture is known as Salome. Over the years the local people themselves gave the statue the name The Suffering Taxpayer.

The meeting room of the municipal executive board was originally not supposed to have paintings, but in 1952 the municipality of Säynätsalo received a painting called Peace. The work's arrival in Säynätsalo has to do with collecting signatures for the Stockholm appeal. In 1950, during the early years of the Cold War, the World Peace Council issued an international appeal for the global prohibition of nuclear weapons. This petition also circulated in Finland, and Suomen Rauhanpuolustajat ry awarded the Peace painting to the most active municipality partaking in the spreading of the petition. Säynätsalo received the painting, as 89% of the locals signed the petition. For the first decades, the painting was located in Lehtisaari school until it was moved to the meeting room in the 1970s.

Decorating the council hall upstairs with art was an essential goal for Alvar Aalto. A window was planned in the right corner of the room, which was covered with wooden slats so that the natural light is directed to illuminate the adjacent artwork. Thus, a frame was created which gives constant light to the painting. Fernand Léger, a well-known French painter and Alvar Aalto’s personal friend, was excited to create something for an Aalto building and painted the artwork in the council hall next to the window. However, when the town councillors saw Léger's abstract work, the reception was mixed, and not everyone liked the painting. The original painting was allowed to remain there as it was mistakenly believed to have been received as a gift from Léger. However, after Léger’s death the council received a letter from France inquiring about a payment for the painting. The price was 200 000 Finnish Marks, and the council was not interested in paying this amount. In the end, Alvar Aalto claimed the painting for himself and took it into Tiilimäki to his studio. Today, a photocopy of Léger's work adorns the window seat of the council chamber, as the original one never returned to Säynätsalo. The current owner of the original oil painting is unknown, but it is estimated to be worth around five million euros.

Aalto also designed a place for a Picasso sculpture in the council hall. The project was cancelled early, but the niche designed for the small sculpture can still be found in the council chamber on the wall next to the sliding door.

The timeline of the municipal hall

The opening ceremony of the newly built Town Hall was held on August 24, 1952, after which the Town Hall was in active use. At that time, the ground floor was full of business premises: for example, a flower shop, a barber shop, a sports equipment store and a pharmacy. Later, a municipal doctor and a dentist also worked in the building. Initially, a bank was located on the site of the current café. Some of the Town Hall employees got their own apartments in the housing part located in the west wing of the building.

Over the years, all kinds of changes took place inside the building. The building served as a town hall until 1993, and during the approximately forty years of use, the municipal residents used and changed the building according to their needs. In the 1970s, stairs were added to the east wing of the building, which connected the upper office floor to the lower business space. Initially, the library was only located on the upper floor of the current library building. In the early 1980s the library was expanded as the shops on the ground floor moved away. The Town Hall was no longer used after the 1990s, and the building was protected alongside the forests around it. Despite some of the changes that had been made to the Town Hall over the years, the building was in mostly perfect original state at that time, both in terms of its exterior and its interior.

Repairs were made to the building in 1994-98. The repairs were mostly focused on renovating the leaking roof, which had already leaked in the previous decades. HVAC solutions were also renewed, and the previously added office staircase was removed. During the repairs the focus was on the original use of the building and the solutions were made following the original style.

After the 1990s, the building slowly began to lose its original purpose. The municipality of Säynätsalo was merged with the city Jyväskylä in 1993, and the Town Hall was no longer used in the same way as before. The offices and business premises were gradually moved elsewhere, and the council hall and the executive board meeting room were no longer used much. Although there was no longer a municipal council, a district council still assembled at the Town Hall (from 2001 onwards, a district board), but that too ceased to exist in 2008.

Tavolo Bianco moved to the Town Hall in 2016, and the building has gained new life since then. Today, the Town Hall hosts guided tours, accommodates guests, rents meeting rooms, and maintains art galleries and other activities. Säynätsalo Town Hall Café & Bakery operates on the site of the former bank on the ground floor of the Town Hall, and the antiquarian bookseller Scriptorium is located next to the café. The library is still Säynätsalo's local library, open every weekday, and often visited by Aalto tourists either before or after seeing the Town Hall itself.

Text: Janne Niemelä 2023, student, University of Jyväskylä, Department of History and Ethnology