The Paimio Sanatorium is considered to be one of Alvar Aalto’s most important works. The functionalist building was built as a tuberculosis sanatorium. It is situated in the middle of a beautiful pine forest and is an impressive site up to this day.
AN ARCHITECTURE COMPETITION for the Paimio Sanatorium was arranged in 1928-1929 and Alvar Aalto’s functionalist design won. The construction of the hospital area began in 1930, and the complex comprising several buildings was finished three years later.
The hospital was built onto the highest point of a pine forest in Paimio, Finland. In addition to the main building, the buildings include the senior physician’s house, row houses, the morgue known as the Rose Cellar, garages and other technical spaces. More row houses for nurses and a new heating plant were built later.
Alvar Aalto designed the Paimio Sanatorium according to the principles of functionalism. The foremost purpose of the building and its decor was to help the tuberculosis patients to recover.
As tuberculosis is transmitted by bacteria, it was important that all the surfaces were easy to clean and the spaces could be easily aired. No sharp edges, unnecessary ornaments, or shelves that gather dust were used. The indoor surface materials were durable against wear and washing; rubber flooring, linoleum, ceramic slates and shiny painted surfaces.
No sharp edges, unnecessary ornaments, or shelves that gather dust were used in the interior.
There was no pharmacological treatment for tuberculosis, and the most important form of treatment was to improve the general condition of the patients. They were isolated from the community to prevent the contagious disease from spreading. The fresh air of the pine forest was thought to ease the symptoms, and this is one of the reasons for the sanatorium’s somewhat remote location.
Before vaccinations and antibiotics were invented, the cures for tuberculosis included good hygiene, clean air, and light therapy.
Alvar Aalto placed the hospital’s various functions into their own wings so that the patients could enjoy sunlight throughout the day. On the top floor he designed a roof terrace that spreads throughout the entire wing and faces south. The patients rested there lying down. Originally, each floor of the patient wing had an open, terrace-like dormitory.
The patients, whose condition allowed it, were encouraged to make walking trips into the sanatorium’s surroundings and along the serpentine path in the south yard. There were several fountains along the walkway that spread along the length of the yard. The path no longer exists.
The Paimio Sanatorium features an array of colours, and Alvar Aalto has said to be very particular about the shades. Artist Eino Kauria (1903-1997) took part in the color planning for the sanatorium. He prepared two almost identical color designs for the main building, one of which is on display at the Alvar Aalto museum in Jyväskylä, and the other is at the Paimio Sanatorium.
The plans clearly show especially the colors used in the ceilings of the patient rooms. It was hoped that the colors would soothe the patients. The A-wing floors are painted with many different colors even today. There are not much left of the original colors of the B-wing, since it has been renovated and is now used for a different purpose.
Alvar Aalto wrote about the colors in the patient rooms: “The walls are light and the ceilings darker. This makes the general tone more peaceful from the perspective of a lying-down patient. The general lighting point of the room is above the patient’s head at the interface of the wall and ceiling, which means that it is outside the angle of vision of a lying-down patient.”
Alvar Aalto also designed the light fixtures and furniture of the sanatorium together with his wife Aino Aalto. Most of the furniture was manufactured by Otto Korhonen’s furniture and construction work factory. The light fixtures indoors were manufactured by the Oy Taito Ab artistic forge led by designer Paavo Tynell.
Alvar Aalto also designed the light fixtures and furniture of the sanatorium together with his wife Aino Aalto.
Most of the furniture and light fixtures ended up in serial production, and Artek still manufactures some articles up to this day. One of the most iconic articles is the Paimio armchair. The shape of the chair’s back was intended to help the patient’s breathing. In 2014, Artek launched Aalto’s chair number 69 in the Paimio colors; the yellow comes from the floors, the green from the walls, the turquoise from the stair railings and walls, and the orange, white and black from the furniture.
Over the years, the Paimio Sanatorium has been renovated and modernized and there are not many original surfaces left. However, the sanatorium is still known for the rich color schemes of Aalto and Kauria.
Aalto thought the shade of yellow was a wrong choice.
The iconic yellow floor in the lobby and staircase is a good example. The story goes that Aalto had regrets about the shade, but the floor materials had already been ordered and they were installed as such. Even today, the yellow floor is a detail full of energy, which extends from the downstairs lobby up through the staircase and all the way to the top floor.
At the end of the 1950s, the development of vaccines and medicines led to a decline in tuberculosis cases and the sanatorium was no longer needed for its original purpose. Tuberculosis sanatoriums were modified into hospitals in Finland and elsewhere in Europe. This was also the case with the Paimio Sanatorium.
Today, the upper floors of the sanatorium’s patient wing are completely empty.
Since 2014, after the sanatorium no longer functioned as a hospital, the Mannerheim League for Child Welfare’s Rehabilitation Fund for Children and the Youth has operated in the premises. However, the upper floors of the sanatorium’s patient wing are completely empty.
The Finnish National Board of Antiquities has defined the Paimio Sanatorium as a nationally important built cultural environment. Its value has been recognized also internationally: The Alvar Aalto Foundation has made a conservation management plan for the sanatorium and the Getty Fund from the United States provided in 2014 a grant for the charting of the main building’s original colors.
The Paimio Sanatorium
• Situated in Paimio, c. 30 kilometers from Turku
• Designed by architect Alvar Aalto (1898-1976)
• Completed in 1933
• Aino Aalto (1894-1949) took part in the designing process
• Was a tuberculosis sanatorium until the 1960s
Visiting the Paimio Sanatorium
Guided tours inside the Paimio Sanatorium are arranged by Karoliina Vitikainen from Magni Mundi.
Text: Mikko Vaija Pictures: Suvi Kesäläinen Portrait: Herbert Matter
Elina Riksman, ”Paimio Sanatorium Colour Research 2015”. Alvar Aalto Foundation, ”Paimio Sanatorium Conservation Management Plan 2016”. Marianna Heikinheimo, ”Architechture and Technology, Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium”. Alvar Aalto, ”Paimio 1929–1933”.