The Muuratsalo Experimental House functioned both as a summer residence of Alvar and Elissa Aalto and a test site for architectural elements. The Experimental House, located in Central Finland, gave Alvar Aalto the opportunity to play with construction materials and test new kinds of structural solutions.
THE EXPERIMENTAL HOUSE IS ACCESSED via a winding path in a pine forest. At the end of the path, the building rests on a rocky shore of Lake Päijänne, slightly undulating with the terrain. The part of the building that reaches the greatest height is the main section, which is made of bricks and plastered white. Next to it, there is a lower wooden wing that contains sleeping space for guests.
On the lake side of the snow-white building, the atmosphere is completely different: there is a sheltered atrium made entirely of red brick. The wall surface in the atrium is divided into fifty sections, and in each of them, the bricks and tiles are laid in a different manner. The walls have functioned as a test site for different brick types and ways of laying bricks as well as combinations of red brick and ceramic tiles. There are also similar test sections on the floor of the atrium.
The walls have functioned as a test site for different brick types. The atrium looks like a masonry lesson or Alvar Aalto’s test laboratory.
All in all, the atrium looks like a masonry lesson or test laboratory. No wonder that this holiday home designed by architect Alvar Aalto (1898–1976) bears the name of Experimental House.
“The group of buildings in Muuratsalo is intended to serve as both a peaceful architect’s studio and an experimental center suitable for carrying out the experiments that are not yet ready for other environments. It is also to be a place where the proximity to nature provides inspiration for shapes and structures alike,” commented Alvar Aalto in the Finnish Arkkitehti magazine in 1952.
The architect couple Alvar and Elissa Aalto (1922–1994) hade the Experimental House built as their summer residence during 1952–1954. They acquired the plot when working on the nowadays world-famous Säynätsalo Town Hall and supervising its construction. Thus, it is only natural that these two buildings have a great deal in common in terms of spirit and materials – just on a different scale.
Alvar and Elissa found the place for their holiday home in the neighboring island of Muuratsalo, located only about five kilometers from the Säynätsalo Town Hall. Alvar Aalto, who had grown up in the Päijänne region in Central Finland, took a liking to the rugged scenery in Muuratsalo. The carefully selected plot had its own sheltered natural harbor for a boat and views over the large Lake Päijänne. Even the bell tower of Muurame Church, one of Aalto’s early works (1926–1929), could be seen on the opposite shore.
When designing the Experimental House, Alvar Aalto avoided all the structures traditionally used in Finnish holiday homes and rural buildings. Instead, he designed a modern brick-built summer home that is more likely to remind you of a piazza in a small Italian village or the ruins of a house dating back to Ancient Rome.
The Experimental House lacks all the rustic nostalgia typical of Finnish summer cottages.
The Experimental House lacks all the rustic nostalgia typical of Finnish summer cottages. Despite this, the building seems to be in balance with the surrounding nature and landscape.
The interior of the house looks simple, fresh and modern. Most of the furniture in the house is designed by Aalto and manufactured by Artek. There is also custom-made furniture designed by interior architect Maija Heikinheimo (1908–1963), who worked at Artek’s drawing office.
Most of the 120 square meters in the summer home are in the main section with a slanted ceiling, which is a combined living room, dining area and workspace. To the highest point of the main space, Aalto designed a loft where he could innovate and paint in the summer.
The bedrooms, on the other hand, are so small that they resemble boat cabins. They do not have room for much more than beds.
The most important space is outside. The sheltered, room-like atrium is the heart of the place. That is where Elissa and Alvar spent time when the weather was good, sitting by the fire pit in the middle of the atrium come evening.
The most important space is outside. The sheltered, room-like atrium is the heart of the Experimental House.
“The most dominating feature of the entire group of buildings is the fire in the middle of the atrium, the key to the coziness, just like a slow-burning log fire in the middle of a campsite, with the fire and the reflections from the walls of snow providing the people with a pleasant – almost mystical – sense of warmth.”
The group of buildings also includes a lakeside log sauna, grayed by weather. Of all the buildings on the plot, it is the most traditional.
However, Aalto would not have been true to himself if he had not also tested new ideas when designing the smoke sauna. He provided the sauna with a shed roof and a fan-shaped floor plan. The form was created by laying the logs in the same direction. Laying the thicker ends of the logs on top of each other automatically gave the building a shed roof.
To Alvar and Elissa, the Experimental House became an important and dear getaway place, where they spent a month every summer. It was a place for forgetting all titles, tight everyday clothes and just relaxing and spending leisurely summer days. They spent their holidays swimming, painting and enjoying the company of their guests, often with a glass of wine. Many world-famous architects, who were part of Aalto’s wide circle of friends, spent summer days at the Experimental House.
The Muuratsalo Experimental House can be explored in the summer on a guided tour organized by the Alvar Aalto Museum.
Text: Anna-Kaisa Huusko Images: Niclas Mäkelä