The surprising topicality of the Paimio Sanatorium by Alvar and Aino Aalto

Nestled in the woods of southern Finland, the sanatorium stands as one of the major works of the XX century, materializing a crucial concept of care in the contemporary debate on the built environment..

Paimio Sanatorium, a major work by Alvar and Aino Aalto, masters of 20th century Finnish architecture, celebrated its 90th anniversary last year. It still looks good, great actually, for its age for many reasons. It remained in uninterrupted use until the early 2000s, initially serving as a sanatorium and later as a general hospital. The transition began in the 1960s, when exposure to sunlight and clean air were completely replaced by antibiotics as treatments for tuberculosis. The building underwent several adjustments and expansions, predominantly overseen by Aalto's firm, first under the leadership of Alvar until his passing in 1976 and then under his second wife Elissa until 1994. Afterwards, the few necessary alterations have been entrusted to the local firm of LPR Architects, maintaining the approach of its esteemed predecessors.

© Paimio Sanatorium Foundation

Advancements in medical standards, devices, and practices entailed many necessary updates to the sanatorium's equipment and spaces; however, a substantial portion of the original surfaces, finishes, and furnishings remains intact to this day. Therefore, unlike other key-architectures of the Modern Movement, notably Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye in Poissy, Paimio has never fallen into disrepair and can still boast a remarkable degree of “originality.” This is no small achievement for an almost centenarian building and underscores the importance of the management and preservation efforts now overseen by the Paimio Sanatorium Foundation, established in 2020.

Why it is so important

Why is the Paimio Sanatorium, nestled in the woods of southern Finland, unanimously considered a major work of twentieth-century architecture? There are many reasons. First, the Aaltos conceived it as a modern architecture manifesto, introducing innovative solutions previously unseen in the Nordic country. Contrary to traditional local houses in the nearby villages featuring a wood or brick beam-pillar structure, they utilized concrete. They envisioned this design as a collection of pure volumes, forgoing, for example, the steeply pitched roofs typical of cold and snowy climates. Stripping away friezes and decorations, they covered the building with a simple, very smooth white plaster, and accentuated a few selected details with bright colors, such as window frames and curtains. In addition to these solutions, standard approaches among European modernists of the time, the Aaltos implemented less obvious strategies and devices derived from their unique and personal “humanistic” vision of architecture.

Paimio Sanatorium (1929-33), patient room. Photo Gustaf Welin © Alvar Aalto Foundation

A model architecture

The specific purpose of the building, a place of care for a vulnerable community, inspired a series of adjustments aimed at the well-being of the patients: the body of the building were rotated and the windows enlarged to maximize exposure to the sun; in the wards, the base units of the entire complex, the muted colors of the walls and the precise positioning of the light points ensured diffuse and glare-free illumination for the bedridden residents; the sound-absorbing wall coverings and the specially designed teardrop-shaped washbasins dampened the noise in the densely populated space; the furniture, in particular the Paimio armchair, crafted from wood and rather than the characteristic Bauhaus tubular steel.

Here, the Rationalist principles imported from the mainland seamlessly blended with the Aaltos’ "organic" approach, presenting an alternative modernity to Le Corbusier’s mechanism, Mies’s Neoclassicism, and Gropius’s standardization. With the Paimio Sanatorium, Finnish architecture stopped learning from the mainland and proposed an exportable model to the world. With the Paimio Sanatorium, an exquisitely first local phase of the Aaltos’ career ended, propelling them into international visibility, which translated into important and lucrative work abroad.

Photo: Ola Kolehmainen © Paimio Sanatorium Foundation

A new life for the Paimio Sanatorium

2023 was a turning point for the Paimio Sanatorium as it hosted the first edition of the international Spirit of Paimio conference, curated by architect Joseph Grima and Mirkku Kullberg, CEO of the Paimio Sanatorium Foundation. This, intended to become an annual event, is part of a broader, long-term program aiming to transform the sanatorium into an open space for an ongoing reflection on issues embodied by its architecture: the concept of "care," first and foremost, manifesting in various forms – as care for people, care for human’s works, care for the environment. These issues constitute crucial aspects of the contemporary discourse on the built environment and its evolutions, with Aalto’s pioneering research serving as an indelible historical precedent, now aged yet surprisingly pertinent.

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