Alvar Aalto’s legacy lives strong in Wolfsburg, Germany

Numerous buildings testify to Alvar Aalto’s intensive design activity outside of Finland. Of the six buildings which he completed in Germany, three are to be found in the city of Wolfsburg: the Alvar-Aalto-Kulturhaus and two churches, Heilig-Geist-Kirche and Stephanuskirche.

Alvar-Aalto-Kulturhaus, Wolfsburg, auditorium
The roof of the auditorium of the Wolfsburg cultural center is characterized by organic shapes typical of Alvar Aalto.

AS RECENTLY AS 1938, the town of Wolfsburg was founded to house the Volkswagen headquarters and its workers. The large automaker brought wealth to Wolfsburg, located 200 km west from Berlin, encouraging ambitious commissions for public buildings. In the post-war years, top architects including international stars were invited to design cultural buildings, churches and leisure spaces for the growing city. Alvar Aalto was one of them.

Alvar-Aalto-Kulturhaus, Wolfsburg
The main facade of the cultural center is irregular. All windows are placed on street level, while sturdy columns carry the windowless marble-plated top part.

Alvar-Aalto-Kulturhaus, 1962

The most ambitious of Aalto’s three commissions was the Alvar-Aalto-Kulturhaus. The decision to commission Aalto with the planning and construction of a cultural center took place on July 1st, 1958, coinciding precisely with the 20th anniversary of the city. The brief went beyond the functional: the building needed to fulfill emotional expectations associated with building an identity for the young city. Aalto was given free rein to develop his project; confidence extended to increases of budget and time frame.

Alvar Aalto was given free rein to develop his project; confidence extended to increases of budget and time frame.

The cultural center opened in 1962 to huge acclaim. “An architectural masterpiece”, claimed the Hamburger Abendblatt newspaper, and the Süddeutsche Zeitung rated the marble, copper, wood and white-brick building as “a partly whimsical, sometimes breathtakingly beautiful labyrinth”.

Three mutually enriching cultural institutions came together under one roof: a library, adult education college and youth recreation center. Aalto managed to give each institution its unique spatial character and atmosphere while allowing them to merge as part of a whole in a generously arranged space.

Alvar-Aalto-Kulturhaus, Wolfsburg
Inside the center, many of the materials used are familiar from other buildings by Aalto: wood, copper, tiles, and marble.
Alvar Aalto
In addition to his native Finland, Alvar Aalto (1898–1976) designed buildings around Europe as well as in the United States. Wolfsburg, a city of around 120 000 inhabitants, houses as many as three buildings by Aalto.
Alvar-Aalto-Kulturhaus, Wolfsburg, library
The Wolfsburg library has plenty of natural light coming through the windows on the ceiling. The library is still in use.

Externally, the different functions are expressed through distinct forms and materiality. On the main front of the building, facing the Town Hall square, 24 copper-clad columns raise five windowless marble honeycombs into the air. Reminiscent of a giant fan, these interlocking, irregular hexagons of different heights and decreasing in size, culminate into the smooth side facade of the white-plastered studio and craft galleys of the youth home. This part of the building also hovers over thin columns with ribbed copper cladding.

The south, with its jagged structure, houses the library with a recessed courtyard. The roofscape is conceived as a fifth facade, the center of the upper floor forming the three-sided enclosed terrace.

Alvar Aalto did not hold back his urge for artistic details. He played with scale and exaggerated dimensions.

Aalto did not hold back his urge for artistic details: he planted a massive rock reef of copper sheet and frosted glass panes on the dance terrace of the youth center, he paved part of the roof with glossy blue tiles, and over the library's portholes he attached lamps in the form of stylized copper bells. He played with scale by giving an open fireplace imposing exaggerated dimensions.

Alvar-Aalto-Kulturhaus, Wolfsburg, detail
In addition to natural light, the cultural center is lit with impressive lamps decorated with brass details.
Alvar-Aalto-Kulturhaus, Wolfsburg
Aalto designed all of the building’s details down to the bronze door handles. The rod-shaped tiles are very typical of Aalto: he also used them in the Finlandia Hall and Rautatalo buildings located in Helsinki, Finland.

He clad two gates with black handbag leather and the auditorium doors with black-gloss horsehair fabric. Foyers and corridors were clad in cobalt blue and white porcelain elements, the walls embellished with hammered copper sheets. Even the bronze door handles of the toilets were Aalto's own designs. Aalto‘s furniture for Artek can be seen throughout the building: Table 86 and Chair 611 in the Bistro, and leather fan stools model X601 in the library.

The concept of mixing different functions under one roof proves its efficiency to this day, although the uses have changed and adapted to current needs. Of the three original uses, only the library has remained. Currently, the Architecture Forum of the city of Wolfsburg resides in the building. The lecture halls on the upper level are regularly used for events, and in 2001, a bistro was set up in the southern lobby.

Alvar-Aalto-Kulturhaus, Porschestraße 51, Wolfsburg

Alvar Aalto’s designs

Stool 60
A331 pendant light
Aalto vase
Chair 69
Chair 611
Bench 153B
Wall lamp A330S
Armchair 41
Alvar Aalto, Heilig-Geist-Kirche, Wolfsburg
In addition to the Church of the Holy Spirit, the building houses a bell tower, a community and staff house as well as a kindergarten.

Heilig-Geist-Kirche, 1962

In addition to the cultural center, Aalto designed two church and community center complexes in Wolfsburg. The Heilig-Geist-Kirche (Church of the Holy Spirit), was built between 1959 and 1962, almost concurrently with the cultural center, with the addition of a kindergarten some years later. The evangelical community center consisting of a church, bell tower, community and staff house and kindergarten is located on the southern slope of the Kliesberg mountain.

Alvar Aalto, Heilig-Geist-Kirche, Wolfsburg
The most stunning architectural feature in the church is the wood on the ceiling, which also has an acoustic function.
Alvar Aalto, Heilig-Geist-Kirche, Wolfsburg
Across the altar, large windows let in plenty of light.

The church and parish hall are organized in such a way to form a square, dominated by the free-standing, 32-meter-high bell tower. The backbone of the community center is the elongated structure of the pastor's dwellings and, to the west, the church and nursery school with its fan-shaped floor plan opening to the south. The interior of the church is sculpted by the dynamic and dramatically curved timber ceiling.

The interior of the church is sculpted by the dramatically curved timber ceiling.

Numerous eclectic windows and skylights provide abundant daylight. Together with the specially designed organ cladding and meticulous construction details, a unique spatial impression is created.

• Heilig-Geist-Kirche, Röntgenstraße 81, Wolfsburg

Alvar Aalto, Stephanuskirche, Wolfsburg
Church of St. Stephen was completed in 1968. The minimalist facade is covered with Carrara marble.

Stephanuskirche, 1968

In 1963, works began on the Stephanuskirche (Church of St. Stephen), a Protestant community center located in the Detmerode district. Less ambitious than the Heilig-Geist-Kirche, here the dominant exterior feature is the freestanding bell tower with nine concrete pillars. All structures forming the community center are kept in plain white, with the facade of the church covered with white natural stone slabs.

Alvar Aalto, Stephanuskirche, Wolfsburg
The light coming in from the windows accentuates the wavy shapes of the walls.
Alvar Aalto, Stephanuskirche, Wolfsburg
The church has no pews. The ceiling is covered with circular wooden acoustic reflectors.

The interior of the church was mostly kept simple. Artistic expression focused on the ceiling, where large cup-shaped wooden reflectors are suspended to ensure good acoustics. In addition to the church, there is a chapel in the basement. Connected directly to the church building is the orthogonally structured community area.

• Stephanuskirche, Detmeroder Markt 6, Wolfsburg

See also:

All Alvar Aalto's designs >
Alvar Aalto and the colors of the Paimio Sanatorium >

Text: Silvia Filippelli Images: Yasu Kojima and Artek

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