Alvar Aalto’s controversial Sugar Cube opens its doors to the public

Enso-Gutzeit’s head office was a total work of art for Alvar Aalto, whose office designed every detail of the building from the interior to furniture and lighting. Also known as the Sugar Cube, the building is one of Aalto’s most controversial works and still evokes strong emotions. During Helsinki Design Week, anyone can finally explore it.

The exterior of Alvar Aalto's Sugar Cube in Helsinki
A minimalist grid covers the facades of the Enso-Gutzeit headquarters. The surface material is Italian Carrara marble. According to Aalto, the building’s height and window openings mimic the architecture of the Empire palaces of the Market Square.

COMPLETED IN 1962, the headquarters of Enso-Gutzeit, a Finnish forest industry company today known as Stora Enso, is a cube-like building standing right next to the Helsinki Market Square. When the sun peeks through the clouds, it gives the building’s Carrara marble facades a pure white glow.

Built in Helsinki’s prime location, the massive building is defined by its strict and simple architectural forms, boosted only by the evenly placed window openings, which are positioned deeper than the wall. The top floor is smaller than the rest of the building and thus creates a spacious rooftop terrace, making a small exception to the minimalist geometry.

The exterior of Alvar Aalto's Sugar Cube in Helsinki
Alvar Aalto’s office architecture in the 1960s was characterized by clean, dice-like forms and minimalist facades.
Alvar Aalto
Alvar Aalto (1898–1976) in his office in the 1960s. Image Alvar Aalto Foundation.

When designing Enso-Gutzeits headquarters in 1959–1962, architect Alvar Aalto (1898–1976) left behind the earthy, organic architecture of the 1940s and 1950s, turning into a more minimalist and modernist direction.

Aalto wanted to create a palazzo with a similar feel to old Italian palaces. He adapted the buildings roofline and window openings to match the 19th-century Empire-era buildings bordering the Market Square. When viewed from the sea, the headquarters blend into the silhouette of Helsinki and, according to Aalto, glow among the old houses like a beautifully polished diamond.

Interior of Alvar Aalto's Sugar Cube in Helsinki
The cabinet room on the top floor has a padded, leather-covered room divider. The furniture was designed for the building.
Undulating slatted walls by Alvar Aalto
Undulating slatted walls, very typical to Aalto, can also be found in Enson-Gutzeit’s headquarters. The wooden surfaces bring warmth to the interior.
Alvar Aalto luminaire in the 1960s Sugar Cube in Helsinki
Aalto also designed the luminaires for the building.

Even though Aaltos thoughts about the building were quite high-spirited and eloquent, Enso-Gutzeits headquarters received a mixed – or even cold – reception from the locals.

An old decorative 19th-century stone house, the Norrmén house by the architect Theodor Höijer, had been demolished to pave way for the Sugar Cube – this was seen as an example of the power of money and emotionless modern architecture, which ruthlessly swept away a piece of the city’s history. According to critics, the building simply didn’t fit into this environment.

But was the criticism justified? The best way to tell is to visit the building and explore the interior by yourself. The Sugar Cube surprises its visitors.

Original chairs and tables by Alvar Aalto
Original furnishings have been preserved on the uppermost floors, which were designed for the management team. These spaces were considerably more luxurious than the other premises.
A detail of vintage Alvar Aalto chairs
Aalto had the ability to create spaces that were finished down to the smallest details, even in a monolithic office building.

When viewed from the outside, the headquarters might look like a cubic block of marble boosting the authority of the forest industry, but the atmosphere inside is notably warmer and more humane.

Alvar Aalto created a significantly warmer and more humane atmosphere inside the headquarters.

The impression is created, above all, by the interior materials. Being in the headquarters of a forest industry company, a lot of wood has naturally been used in the interior. You can find gracefully patinated wooden surfaces on the walls, and wood has also been used in doors, ceiling and wall slats, window frames and sills as well as room dividers. Organic, undulating wooden walls – typical to Aalto – can also be found.

A dramatic skylight and Alvar Aalto furniture and lamps
Formerly used by the company’s management, this fifth-floor lobby has a skylight that creates a dramatic, almost devout, and church-like atmosphere in the room. The rug was designed by Greta Skogster for this space.
A brass detail in a staircase railing
A beautiful detail on the staircase railing. The six-story office building consists of approximately 6,500 square meters of space.
A slatted ceiling by Alvar Aalto
The ceiling of the former boardroom has interesting, wave-like slats.
Wooden grids in Alvar Aalto's architecture
Directing light and the eye using grids is a recurring theme in Aalto’s buildings. Light played a central role in his architecture.

Today, original spaces designed by Aalto are left only on the three uppermost floors of the 6,500 square meter office building. They were originally intended for the management team – common to the hierarchical work culture of the time, these spaces were designed to be considerably more luxurious than the other premises.

Original furnishings have been preserved on the uppermost floors, which were designed for the management team.

Nevertheless, the spaces show that Aalto’s team had the skill to design office interiors in which both furniture and smaller details such as door handles, stairs, windowsills, and lamps formed a balanced, unified whole.

Artek  Aalto pendant A331 "Beehive"
The staff restaurant is located on the top floor of the building. From the light-filled room, you can access the roof terrace, which has a direct view of Helsinki’s top sights. On the ceiling, A331 lamps by Alvar Aalto.
Vintage Artek chairs and tables
Slatted surfaces have been widely used in the partitions, walls, and ceilings of the building. During the Helsinki Design Week, Artek's Winebar operates in the former staff restaurant. The Winebar was designed and furnished by exhibition architect Lauri Johansson in collaboration with Antti Tevajärvi of Artek 2nd Cycle.

A tour through the building helps to see this rather anonymous building in a slightly different light. Maybe the house is not quite as rigid and geometric as its silhouette.

In addition to the Aalto architecture, it offers new perspectives on Helsinki’s top locations: you can admire one of the finest views of the city in the direction of the Presidential Palace, Market Square, Uspenski Cathedral, and South Harbour from Sugar Cube’s windows and roof terrace.

The large roof terrace offers stunning views of the center of Helsinki. Image Helsinki Design Week.

The Sugar Cube and Helsinki Design Week

The Sugar Cube is open to visitors during Helsinki Design Week, 1–10 September 2022 on guided tours. During the event, the former staff restaurant on the 6th floor houses Artek’s Winebar and discussions, and Kuurna’s pop-up restaurant operates in the upper floor cabinets. Address: Kanavaranta 1, Helsinki, Finland.

• Read also: Helsinki Design Week 2022 is here – see our tips on where to go! >

See also:

All designs by Alvar Aalto >

Text: Anna-Kaisa Huusko Images: Niclas Mäkelä

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