Säynätsalo Town Hall is a masterpiece that represents Alvar Aalto’s more humanistic design

Säynätsalo Town Hall was built in the early 1950s to serve as a town hall for a municipal of only 3,000 residents. Today, the building is open to visitors and offers guest rooms for an overnight stay. Take a tour around the town hall together with Design Stories!

Säynätsalo Town Hall exterior
Alvar Aalto designed the Säynätsalo Town Hall, emphasizing the nature around it. The council chamber towers proudly above the rest of the building. The wing on the right is a library.

SÄYNÄTSALO TOWN HALL in Central Finland has been called the most beautiful building designed by architect Alvar Aalto (1898–1976). The strengths of the building lie in its humane scale, subtle spatial design, natural materials and the way the building lets nature and light in.

Vines at Säynätsalo Town Hall
The vines covering the walls give the atrium a cozier look.
Tanssijatar sculpture by Wäinö Aaltonen
In the middle of the atrium, there is a small fountain accompanied by the Tanssijatar sculpture (1950) by Wäinö Aaltonen.
Artek Aalto floor lamp A805, polished brass
On the wall of the entrance hall, there is a plaque commemorating a firewood-making campaign won by women living in Säynätsalo during the war years. It is accompanied by Artek's A805 floor lamp and 45 chairs.

The design project for the Säynätsalo Town Hall commenced in 1948 when Säynätsalo, a municipal of about 3,000 residents located in an island in Lake Päijänne, started to consider the construction of a town hall. The island community had become a separate municipality twenty years earlier, but it did not have a town hall of its own.

The aim was to build a town hall that was not only an official building but also a local center featuring a library, pharmacy, bank, apartments and a few stores, among others. In an architectural design competition organized in 1949, to which two other architects were invited in addition to Alvar Aalto, the candidates were asked to design a streamlined three-story building with separate floors for different functions.

Säynätsalo Town Hall
The municipal offices are accessed through a bright corridor where one wall consists of windows.
Säynätsalo Town Hall
House plants give the corridor of the municipal offices a cozier look. The brick sill was designed to hide the radiators along the window wall.
Säynätsalo Town Hall
In Säynätsalo Town Hall, the surrounding nature is constantly present also inside the building. Aalto provided views over the verdant courtyard, for example.

Aalto, however, came up with different solution in his proposal Curia. Instead of a simple high-rise, he designed a building around an atrium with spaces divided into four wings. He placed the business premises on the first floor, with access directly from the surrounding yard areas. Aalto exceptionally elevated the atrium to the level of the second floor. The municipal offices were designed around this cozy yard area.

Säynätsalo Town Hall combines natural materials, closeness to nature and Alvar Aalto’s subtle spatial design.

The most monumental section of the building was the chamber of the municipal council, with a floor-to-ceiling height of up to 17 meters. The height emphasized the dignity of the space and gave the entire building an impressive look.

“The town hall in Siena, Italy, the most famous and beautiful town hall in the world, hosts a council chamber with a floor-to-ceiling height of 16 meters. I suggest that we build a room where the ceiling soars to 17 meters,” commented Aalto. According to Aalto, better decisions were made in a tall room.

Säynätsalo Town Hall
Aalto wanted the brick surfaces of the building to look as vibrant as possible, so he chose different kinds of bricks for them. A brick staircase leading from the entrance hall to the council chamber.
Säynätsalo Town Hall
Säynätsalo Town Hall is a “total work of art”, and its every detail has been designed to fit the whole. Handrail of the staircase leading to the council chamber.
Säynätsalo Town Hall
Clear-lined elements and natural materials create a calm atmosphere. In addition to red brick, Finnish pine has been used in the building.
Säynätsalo Town Hall handle
The handles of the interior doors feature beautiful leather braiding.

Aalto designed Säynätsalo Town Hall in a completely different way compared to his previous works. He started to move away from functionalism, which focused on efficiency, rationality and simplicity. Aalto provided Säynätsalo Town Hall with a new kind of warmth and liveliness.

A new kind of warmth and liveliness came to Aalto’s architecture with the design of Säynätsalo Town Hall.

This new approach is reflected in the way the building lets the nature in. Each window in the building provides a carefully selected view of the surrounding nature or the sheltered courtyard. The scale of the building was also humane. The spaces were varied, and the materials came from nature: red bricks, wood, copper and stone.

After designing Säynätsalo Town Hall, Aalto continued designing buildings with the same, more humanistic approach. Other significant buildings that Aalto designed during his “red-brick period” in the 1950s include University of Jyväskylä (1951–1955) and Hall of Culture (1952–1958) and National Pensions Institute (1953–1956) in Helsinki.

Säynätsalo Town Hall
The chamber of the municipal council, which is located on the third floor, is the most imposing room in the building. The high-ceiling room is completely made of red brick.
Artek Aalto pendant lamp A110 "Hand Grenade", black
The atmosphere in the council chamber is solemn. The light coming from the large window is subtly guided in different directions with the aid of wooden slats. The A110 pendant lamps hanging from the ceiling are designed by Aalto.
Säynätsalo Town Hall
The ceiling of the council chamber is supported by innovative butterfly-like trusses designed by Aalto.

When designing Säynätsalo Town Hall, Aalto was assisted by a young architect, Elsa Mäkiniemi (later Elissa Aalto, 1922–1994), who had been hired for the studio the same year. The relationship between Aalto, who had become a widower in 1949, and his assistant deepened during the design of Säynätsalo Town Hall, and the couple got married at the end of 1952. Perhaps something of that new, hopeful phase in Aalto’s life is also reflected in the building.

In the interior design, Aalto was assisted by Maija Heikinheimo (1908–1963), who had been working at Artek. In addition to the building itself, Aalto designed details for the interior. Furniture, lamps and other objects were designed specifically for the building. Perhaps that is why Säynätsalo Town Hall forms an exceptionally uniform and harmonious whole, due to which it has become one of the hallmarks of modern architecture.

Säynätsalo Town Hall
Säynätsalo Town Hall was built to serve as the town hall of a small island community. It was officially opened in 1952, and the municipal offices were used for their original purpose until 1993.

Today, Säynätsalo is part of Jyväskylä, and the town hall is no longer used for its original purpose. In the summer, the building is open to visitors, and the guest rooms can be booked for an overnight stay all year round.

Säynätsalo Town Hall is open in September 2021 on Mon, Wed, Fri 11 am – 5 pm; Sat 11 am – 3 pm. From October to April the Town Hall is open only by prior arrangement. Accommodation is open year-round. More information www.tavolobianco.com.

See also:

All designs by Alvar Aalto >

Text: Anna-Kaisa Huusko Images: Niclas Mäkelä

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