The Ahlström Family and the Noormarkku Ironworks
Antti Ahlström purchased the Noormarkku Ironworks in 1870. The ironworks had been established in 1806 by Baron Carl Constantin de Carnall who built a bar iron shop by the Makkarakoski rapids on the river Noormarkunjoki and its peak years of production awaited until after Antti Ahlström made improvements. In 1896 an electric power plant was built and it is still in operation today. In the 1920s the primary operation of the bar iron shop was terminated, but work in the building continued in the form of small hand-forged products. Later, in the years 1961–1977, the building was used by Noormarkku Handcrafts established by Maire Gullichsen.
Antti built a sawmill in Noormarkku in 1875. Ahlström also expanded rapidly to several locations, when Antti bought e.g. the ironworks of Leineperi, Kauttua and Strömfors. In spite of the depression that started in the 1870s, the last decades of the 19th century saw Ahlström grow into a flourishing Finnish sawmill business, partly owing to the deregulation of sawmill industry and the ensuing powerful growth of the field.
Anna Ahlström, Antti´s first wife, died in 1870, and a year later Antti married Eva Holmström (1848–1920). They built a family house (Isotalo) in the ironworks area in Noormarkku in 1881, designed by the architect Evert Lagerspetz. Antti established a Finnish primary school in Noormarkku in 1874, and from 1903 a refuge was maintained with support from the company’s sick and poor fund. Eva Ahlström’s donations made it possible to build a hospital in Noormarkku in 1912.
After Antti Ahlström’s death in 1896, the company was directed by Eva until 1907, when it was incorporated. During the leadership of Walter Ahlström (1875–1931), the eldest son of the family of seven children, the company became Finland’s biggest industrial enterprise in paper, metal and glass industries. Walter married Hildur “Lilli” Newander (1877–1939), who came from a family living in Pori, and they also built a house (Havulinna) on the company’s land, designed by G. A. Lindberg and completed in 1901. It was the childhood home of Maire and her siblings Erkki, Antti and Irma.
They had another home in Pihlava, Pori. This villa, Honkala, situated by a bay at the mouth of the river Kokemäenjoki, had been built by Maire’s maternal grandfather Johan Newander for his wife Hildegard and his daughter Lilli in 1882. Walter Ahlström bought the villa and donated it to his wife.
Honkala had special meaning for Maire, for it was the place of her birth and of the summers she described as the happiest in her childhood. After her mother died, Maire tended to the house and garden with great love all her age, and finally she died in Honkala in 1990 in the same room in which she had been born.
Walter built company headquarters designed by Emil Fabritius in 1916, and adjacent to it, two houses for office staff, Villa Ett (‘villa one’) and Villa Två (‘villa two’). The company bought the Noormarkku Club in 1919 and constructed four more office staff houses around it. Thus housing areas for workers and office staff, bordered by the river, were formed in the ironworks village, for in the late 19th century housing had been built for the families of the smiths working in the bar iron shop. There were two other workers’ housing areas a little further away from the centre. The housing benefit contributed to the development of a close-knit social community.
Walter and Lilli Ahlström engaged in work for the public good in the same way as Walter’s parents. They established a fund for child welfare, later transferred to Maire Gullichsen’s name.
By Walter’s decision, the Ahlström Company helped to rebuild Noormarkku Church, which was destroyed in the Finnish Civil War (1918–1919). In 1931–1933 a stone church designed by Armas Lindgren was built in place of the old wooden church. In her memoirs, Maire Gullichsen describes the ironworks village of her childhood as follows:
“In the early 20th century a placid, patriarchal atmosphere prevailed in Noormarkku… The company headquarters originally occupied the present library of the Isotalo house. It was situated in a beautiful place, the windows overlooking the river that flowed slowly below and glistened between the whitewashed trunks of the apple garden…Noormarkku before the fateful world war and the following revolution was like an idyll shadowed by a thundercloud, a happy world now lost.”
After Walter Ahlström’s death in 1931, his daughter Maire’s husband Harry Gullichsen became CEO in the company and they had the chance to build a home in the ironworks village, just as the previous generations had done. The construction of Villa Mairea continued the story of a family who loved architecture. Up until today the A. Ahlström Kiinteistöt Oy has kept its registered office in the ironworks village in Noormarkku, and the cultural heritage of the Ahlström family has been preserved in the form of a historical milieu.
Juhani Pallasmaa: Fusion of utopia and tradition
The executed design for Villa Mairea was a refinement of a series of projects which had evolved around a few basic ideas: a courtyard differentiated from the natural pine forest of the site, a cluster of residential spaces connected with a more domestic service, bedroom and sauna wing, the social and private aspects of the house, the articulation of living spaces and the integration of art exhibits with residential functions. The architectural style of the preceding projects follows the standard line of the Modern Movement whereas the final design turns into a very personal credo and, as it were, a mocking criticism of the narrowness and orthodoxy of the prevalent modernist manner.
The foundation work had already begun at the site on the basis of a design dated early 1938 when Aalto, dissatisfied with the design, suddenly and hurriedly produced a new project which he persuaded his clients to accept regardless of the embarrassingly late phase. At last the design seemed to satisfy Aalto’s aspirations for the articulation of the various functions of living and the integration of art collections with the pattern of daily life. While the earlier projects had provided separate rooms for various residential functions, the final design is based on the concept of a continuous 250 square metre living space which accommodates all the collective functions of the house as well as the owner’s art collections. The undivided living space of the luxury villa had returned back to the idea of undifferentiated living space of the traditional Finnish peasant house. At the same time Aalto had shaken all modernist precedents off his shoulders and reached a scheme which was relaxed and open enough to incorporate all his variations, improvisations and whims.
Whereas the idea of continuous space of modern architecture had usually been purely an ideal of architectural space, the spatial character of Villa Mairea seems to have pantheistic and metaphorical overtones – Aalto’s flowing space is associated with the limitless space of nature, which is turned into specific localities only through human experience. The building is bound with the notion of nature on many levels: the use of natural materials and textures, forms suggestive of natural processes and rhythms as well as explicit metaphors of nature.
The abundance of motifs, rhythms, textures and materials is astonishing. The composition is developed in a painterly manner rather than an architectural elaboration of tectonic ideas. In his description Aalto makes an explicit comment on the relation of painting and his architectural approach: “The special form concept associated to the architecture of this building is included in the deliberate connection attempted here to modern painting.”
Aalto keeps adding motifs and textures as a painter works on patches of local colour, light and shadow. The whole is not integrated by a commanding architectural idea. The conglomeration of ideas, moods and associations is rather held together by a sensuous feeling in the way that the multitude of elements in a painting are integrated by a consistent light. The design is a deliberate collage which amalgamates standard imagery of the Modern Movement, personal inventions and suggestions of anonymous vernacular tradition. Instead of worshiping “the spirit of the time”, Villa Mairea is oriented simultaneously towards the future and the past and due to this dual time focus achieves an assuring foothold in history. The collage principle of Aalto allows the shameless fusion of contradictory elements, images of modernity and the peasant past, continental avant-garde and primordial constructions, primitive simplicity and extreme sophistication of details.
The collision of the twentieth century utopia and the peasant past epitomizes the contemporary cultural situation in Finland at large. Finland was transforming from a rural agrarian and craft society to an urbanized industrial nation. The cultural avant-garde was passionately oriented towards continental modernity, which was regarded as a symbol of progress. The reason why modernity was accepted in Finland with surprisingly little resistance was the dual meaning of the style: modernity symbolized both an exciting and optimistic future and a safe return back to the aesthetics of peasant simplicity, the ideals of “noble poverty”.
The collage technique is visible in a multitude of juxtapositions. Through the vertical screen of tall pine trees the entrance view introduces the white-washed outline of a modernist building with a stereotype white-painted staircase spiraling to the roof terrace. At a closer range, however, this image is turned into a rustic entrance canopy which with its unbarked spruce poles and asymmetrical structure gives an impression of a haphazard shelter. Towards the left hand corner even the image of a single house begins to break down in the juxtaposition of white-washed stone volumes and wood-faced surfaces, fragments of protruding concrete beams and wood lattices.
On the courtyard side the mandatory sliding glass wall of modernity (which altogether has been opened only a couple of times) is juxtaposed with a primitive stone fireplace and stair leading up to the lower roof terrace. The flat roof of the main building, a standard modernist gesture, is contrasted with the turf roof of the sauna wing, and the white-painted ocean-liner handrails at the top of the roof, with the irregular balustrade of the lower roof terrace compiled of slender tree trunks in a manner reminiscent of traditional farm fences. The stone wall delineating the sauna terrace has an exaggerated thickness which echoes the stone walls surrounding old churchyards. Although the courtyard space as a whole is rather symbolically enclosed the primitive strength of this stone wall achieves a calming sense of protection.
A particular aspect of the collage approach is the distinct Japanese atmosphere, which is evident in the combinations of materials and refinement of details, the juxtaposition of regular and irregular rhythms, the bound columns, etc. A number of facts and recollections confirm Aalto’s interest in Japanese architecture at that time. In a lecture (Rationalism and Man) held in 1935 he had spoken very enthusiastically about the Japanese virtuosity of creating variety within limited materials and forms. In the mid-1940s he was a personal friend of the Ambassador of Japan in Finland and he was one of the founding members of the Finnish Japanese Society.
His assistant in the Mairea project, the Swiss-born architect Paul Bernoulli has recalled that in hose times Aalto used to appear in the office dressed in a kimono. He also recalls that Aalto brought a book on traditional Japanese houses to the office to be consulted in designing the sliding door to the garden room and the main entrance. In an early sketch of the main stair the vertical poles are made of bamboo, another Japanese impression. The decorative connections of the wooden poles in the final design obviously derive from images of bamboo textures.
In Aalto’s own words “an attempt has been made to avoid artificial architectural rhythm in the building” (Arkkitehti, Finnish Architectural Review 1939). To Aalto the notion of “artificial” seems to imply mechanically tectonic and one-dimensional logic. The rhythmic arrangements of the Villa have the character of the irregular rhythms of nature. In addition to their organic associations the irregular intervals of units create s strong continuity from one space or situation to the next. The vertical poles in the main space suggest virtual surfaces which flow through the actual architectural spaces. Aalto blurs the distinction between various spatial units, the indoors and the outdoors and even of architectural hierarchies by treating decorative poles and structural columns as elements of the same rhythmic progression.
The building is thoroughly composed and regardless of the numerous surprises and incongruities the whole is firmly held together by a coherent atmosphere. The whole is reflected in its parts: the folding mass of the atelier and the skew entrance canopy anticipate the freely rhythmic arrangement of the interior space. In a later article (Muuratsalo. Arkkitehti 1953) Aalto wrote about the “mentality of play” as an important element in design in our calculating and utilitarian age: “Only when the structural parts of the building, the forms derived from them through logic and our empirical knowledge are embellished by what we call the art of play, are we on the right track. Technology and economy have always to be combined with the charm that enriches life.”
Villa Mairea stands out as Aalto’s most passionate legacy of poetic inspiration, personal dedication and the art of play. It is frequently listed as one of the most important one-family houses of the 20th century along with the Villa Savoye (Poissy 1929) of Le Corbusier, the Tugendhat House (Brno 1930) by Mies van der Rohe, the Glass House (Paris 1932) by Pierre Chareau and Bernard Bijvoet and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kaufmann House (Bear Run, PA 1939). It is remarkable that these masterpieces of modern residential design were all conceived within a single decade of enthusiasm and optimism.
Abridgement of the article Villa Mairea- Fusion of Utopia and Tradition, published in Yukio Futagawa, ed: GA: Alvar Aalto: Villa Mairea, Noormarkku, Finland, 1937−1939. A.D.A. Edita, Tokyo 1985
Art Collection at Villa Mairea
Photo: Rauno Träskelin
he formation of the art collection at Villa Mairea was strongly influenced by Maire Gullichsen’s active work in bringing international art to Finland. On her initiative Artek organised significant foreign art exhibitions as early as the 1930s. These included the exhibition of French art at the Taidehalli Helsinki in 1939, which took a lot of work but was very successful.
Maire Gullichsen opined that if such extensive exhibitions were to be organised recurrently, an association would be needed to support the work, and the Contemporary Art Society was established the same year. This society as well as Galerie Artek , founded in 1949, made it easier to organise art exhibitions. Thus people could continue to enjoy high-quality exhibitions in Finland, featuring, for instance, Max Ernst, Jean Arp and Marino Marini.
Many of the works in Maire Gullichsen’s collection of modern art ended up in her possession through the exhibitions of the Contemporary Art Society and Galerie Artek. It was often a question of necessity, for there were costs involved in exhibitions and in order to cover these, works had to be sold. This kind of sponsorship was typical of Maire Gullichsen. She was primarily interested in increasing the public’s knowledge of art, not so much in expanding her own collection.
Her purchases always involved feeling; she did not buy works that she did not like. She knew many of the artists whose works she bought, and many of them were her friends.
Works by Finnish artist friends were also bought because Maire wanted to support them financially and encourage them to carry on.
Since her collecting was based on personal preferences it was not very systematic. Her modern art collection includes several veritable masterpieces, but she also overlooked many chances to acquire remarkable works through her wide network.
At Villa Mairea one can mainly see works by foreign artists, and those on display are alternated. The collection of Finnish art was donated by Maire Gullichsen in 1971 to a foundation carrying her name, established for an art museum later set up in Pori.
The art collection of the Mairea Foundation includes works by Léger, Picasso, Braque and Modigliani, among others. Works of art are an essential part of Villa Mairea, where an exceptionally intimate relationship prevails between art and habitation. In the design phase, a scheme depicting a separate gallery wing persisted for a long time. In the final design, however, art has been integrated into the everyday environment. What is unique is that so many artists featuring in the collection were the collector’s personal acquaintances.
Through the works of art and the related stories the mental cultural heritage left by the owners of the house can be still sensed at Mairea today.
This bibliography includes literature dealing with Villa Mairea and Maire Gullichsen, as well as surveys on modern international and Finnish architecture and books whose subject matter is linked with Maire Gullichsen’s life’s work.
For a comprehensive bibliography on Alvar and Aino Aalto, see: www.alvaraalto.fi
Alvar Aalto´s one-family houses: paradises for ordinary people. Alvar Aalto Houses - Timeless Expressions. Lahti, Markku. Archtitecture and Urbanism, no. 5 supplement, May 1985.
Formes finlandaises à la Villa Mairea. Bernier, R. L´Oeil, no. 98, February 1963, s. 70-79. (French)
Image in Form. Villa Mairea as a Cubist Collage. Pallasmaa, Juhani. Studio International 200, no. 1018, 1987, s. 42-47.
La Villa Mairea de Alvar Aalto 1937-1939. Rios, Ismael Garcia. Arquitectura (Madrid), no. 309 1997, s. 16-21,0119-121. (Spanish)
Mairea. Maire ja Harry Gullichsenin yksityistalo, Noormarkku. Aalto, Alvar ja Aino. Arkkitehti, 9/1939, s. 134-137. (Finnish)
Mairea, une villa de l´architecte finlandais. Art and Decoration, no. 18/1950, s. 9-12. (French)
"Suomalainen saaristomaisema on kuin surrealistinen sommitelma." Nils-Gustav Hahl kriitikkona ja kansainvälisenä idealistina. Kaunisharju, Kirsi. Julkaisussa: Kirjoituksia taiteesta. 3, Modernisteja ja taiteilijakriitikoita. Toim. Lindgren Liisa, Paloposki Hanna-Leena, Heikka, Elina. Valtion taidemuseo, kuvataiteen keskusarkisto, Helsinki 2001. (Finnish)
Villa Mairea, Gullichsen, Kristian. Living architecture. no. 15/1997, s. 48-63.
Villa Mairea. Koppel, Nils. Arkitekten, no. 7/1940, s. 93-99. (Swedish)
Villa Mairea - en trädgård i furuskogen. Rosenbröijer, Maj-Lis. Havenkunst, no. 4/1967, s. 62-67. (Swedish)
Villa Mairea 1937-1939, Noormarkku. Arquitectura Viva Monografias 66, July-August 1997, s. 46-55.
DOCOMOMO, International working party for documentation and conservation of buildings, sites and neighbourhoods: www.docomomo-fi.com, www.docomomo.com
Iconic Houses Foundation iconichouses.org
The City of Pori: www.pori.fi
Pori Art Museum: www.poriartmuseum.fi
Architectural Society: www.rakennustaiteenseura.fi