Alvar Aalto and the colors of the Paimio Sanatorium

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 in Paimio, Finland, and is an impressive site up to this day.

The Paimio Sanatorium by Alvar Aalto
Alvar Aalto designed the Paimio Sanatorium according to the principles of functionalism.

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.

Aino and Alvar Aalto
Aino and Alvar Aalto in the 1940s.
The main entrance to the Paimio Sanatorium
Left; the hospital’s B-wing and dining room, center; the main entrance and lobby, right; the A-wing patient rooms.
The lobby of the Paimio Sanatorium
The curved reception desk in the lobby is from 1958. The original desk was lower and light could freely enter the lobby space.

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.

The Paimio Sanatorium by Alvar Aalto
There were open dormitories at the end of the A-wing floors. They were since changed into office rooms.

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 roof terrace of the Paimio Sanatorium
The patients rested lying down at the roof terrace several times a day – even in the winter.

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.

Eino Kauria's color scheme for the Paimio Sanatorium
Eino Kauria’s color plan clearly shows the shades used in the A-wing (at the bottom) patient room ceilings. The two orange dots present the lamps in the yard. The B-wing colors are no longer the original ones.
The Paimio Sanatorium by Alvar Aalto
Different color palettes in the A-wing floors. The doors of the patient rooms were of varnished veneer. They have been changed for wider models. The corridor is nearly 100 meters long.
The Paimio Sanatorium by Alvar Aalto
Aalto paid attention to detail. According to the functional principle, the entire building had to be one healing element.

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.

The library of the Paimio Sanatorium
The former library on the second floor still has original colors that were returned during the renovation in 2000.
The Paimio Sanatorium by Alvar Aalto
Light enters the library through the large window. The furniture and light fixtures of the sanatorium were designed by Aino and Alvar Aalto. The furniture was both practical and aesthetic.
The Paimio chair by Alvar Aalto
Alvar Aalto designed the Pikku Paimio (Little Paimio) armchair for the sanatorium. There are only a few original chairs left. A part of the furniture was sold at auctions in the 1970s at ridiculously low prices and their value was understood only later.

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.

The yellow staircase of the Paimio Sanatorium
The yellow floor of the main building lobby and staircase has been renovated several times. The original material was yellow rubber, which is only left in the cleaning cabinet on the fourth floor.

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.

The reading room of the Paimio Sanatorium
The relaxation room was separated from the dining room by sliding doors. Nowadays, there is a fixed wall between the spaces. The grand fireplace was one of Aalto’s design failures. The chimney does not properly lead the smoke out and the fireplace was never used.
The cafeteria of the Paimio Sanatorium
In the cafeteria the ceiling rises almost up to six meters. There are heating radiators in the lower part. Originally, the furniture was painted black. The light passes through the window wall’s orange and turquoise marquees.
The Paimio Sanatorium by Alvar Aalto
The mosaic concrete in the staircases located at the ends of the A-wing is one of the few original surfaces that still exist.

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.

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 by Alvar Aalto

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

The Paimio Sanatorium is open for visitors. See more information about guided tours on the Paimio Sanatorium website.

View also:

Alvar Aalto’s designs >
Aino Aalto’s designs >

Text: Mikko Vaija Pictures: Suvi Kesäläinen Portrait: Herbert Matter

Sources: 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”.

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