The colours of Alvar Aalto

Text by Anniina Koivu. Photography by Bryan Saragosa.
Hanging on the wall of the information area of the Paimio Sanatorium in Turku, Finland, a framed painting catches visitors’ eyes. With its multi-coloured patches, laid out in a large, open V-shape, the painting looks like a work of abstract art. Closer examination, however, reveals that this is, in fact, the floor plan of the sanatorium – and represents a colour map of the original tones used in different parts of the hospital.

A color model for Paimio Sanatorium interiors by decorative artist Eino Kauria. Photo: Maija Holma, Alvar Aalto Museum. 2016
Built for the treatment of tuberculosis in southwest Finland, the Paimio sanatorium was developed in the Modernist tradition by Alvar Aalto. Every detail of the rational building was designed in response to a need – with the goal of creating a space that would be a comprehensive place of healing. The sanatorium’s furniture and furnishings were designed specifically for the architectural spaces they inhabited. Every chromatic element was chosen with care.  

In the 1930s, before an antibiotic cure for tuberculosis was found, fresh air and sunlight were considered the best treatments to beat the devious illness. Hence, the sanatorium was full of light-flooded spaces. Patient rooms were connected to the landscape through large, vertical windows facing south. A roof terrace looking out over the tops of pine trees was furnished for outdoor sunbathing, with plenty of fresh air.

But it was not just the architectural spaces that targeted the illness: Each piece of furniture was also conceived of with the special needs of the sick in mind. Most famously, the low wooden Paimio chair was designed as seating for tuberculosis patients – the chair was comfortable and hygienic, without looking like a sterile hospital chair.

Moreover, Aalto grasped the potential of colours to play a “medical role” in the healing process. With this in mind, he applied them deliberately throughout the building.

When the Paimio Sanatorium opened in 1932, the centre was among the world’s top facilities for tuberculosis treatment. The building itself instantly became an icon of functionalist architecture, and catapulted young architect Alvar Aalto to international fame.

The framed ground-floor colour map – of which there is only one other copy preserved at the Aalto Museum in Jyväskylä – was prepared at the end of the construction, as a record of the building’s colour scheme.

It was painted by the artist Eino Kauria, who was commissioned by Aalto to work at the building site. Kauria was in charge of the paint work and coordinated the colours. Kauria stuck closely to Aalto’s powerful vision when it came to colours. In a 1986 interview, Kauria recalled how determined Aalto was about his colour choices and how richly coloured the hospital building really turned out to be.

Strong yellow rubber flooring in the staircase of the central wing and corridors created an additional feeling of brightness and sunlight. (On dark winter nights, the bright corridors made the building glow like a lamp). Red pipes denoted heating elements. Different blues – from sky blue to light mint and petrol – were used to create a soothing atmosphere in common spaces throughout the building. Tones of warm gravel and darker greys were set alongside ochre orange, brick red or light mustard yellow. The ceilings of patient rooms were painted in soft tones of dark green, to create a calming effect on those who were confined to bed rest.

Sadly, today, the colour map is only a record of the past. Very few of the twenty-odd colours in which the building was originally painted are left. After the sanatorium stopped being used as a tuberculosis treatment centre, most of the walls were whitewashed.

However, recently, Kauria’s colour map provided the starting point for an extensive colour research project. In 2015, with partial funding from the Getty Foundation as a part of its “Keeping it Modern” initiative, a group of researchers from the Alvar Aalto Foundation mapped the original colours used on the sanatorium site. The results are part of a Conservation Management Plan providing protection measures and long-term care strategies that will safeguard the building into the future.

Thanks to this research, one thing is clear: colour was crucial to Aalto’s vision, and his original palette was anything but minimal.

Can Aalto’s rational use of colours, as manifested in the tuberculosis centre, be found again in his glass work? Was he as pragmatic in the design of the decorative Savoy vase as he was in his use of colours as tools of well-being for architecture?

“Absolutely,” answers long time designer of Iittala Harri Koskinen and laughs. “Aalto approached the question of colour of the first series of his vase from 1936 very pragmatically.

Conceived of, initially, for a glass competition organised by the Iittala glasworks, Aalto’s vase first stood out for the enigmatic code name he used for it on his competition entry: ‘Eskimo Girl’s leather pants’. The proposed vase’s sinuous, asymmetric shape was new, and it caught the jury’s eye. Though technically challenging to produce, the proposal won. The first series of vases was produced in five colours: sky (or azure) blue, sea green and smoke, brown and clear. The colors are lovely. But why did Aalto choose them?

The answer is a practical one. In the first quarter of the 20th cenutry, the main glass industry was based on the production of small-sized tableware, and industrial storage wares. “Aalto chose to work with the colours that were available,” Koskinen explains. Green and brown glass was plentiful, thanks to their important functional aspects. “Because of their light-blocking characteristics, green and amber bottles, jars and containers are still used for food or pharmaceutical packaging. Aalto’s vase was originally blown from the same kind of basic glass as these everyday products. It’s that simple.”

Dr. Mikko Aromaa, a glass chemist at Iittala, gives further explanation. “The colour of a glass piece depends on the purity and fineness of the raw material. Iittala used to melt local sand, which tends to be coarser, with more iron impurities. Back then, people accepted impurities in the glass and were not bothered by colour fluctuations.” Rather, consumers focused on function. Glass objects had to be robust, serve their purpose, and be rather small in size – to match people’s new small-scale homes in cities. Decorative aspects were, at the time, secondary. “So, standard glass tended to be green, brown or blue. Even clear glass was never perfectly clear, but came with a tint of green or blue,” Aromaa continues.

New glass colours were only introduced on a larger scale after WWII, when customers started to show more interest in decorative items. According to Aromaa, this was the time when the search for perfectly clear glass likely started as well. “Purity and brightness of clear glass became an issue, as did exact colouring. Glass factories began to compensate for the inherent, tinted colour of glass by using complementary colours as additives.
From the 1950s onwards, the Aalto collection added three new colours: cobalt blue, ruby red and opal glass.

“Today, it is theoretically possible for glass be any colour at all.” Yet, not all colours are used since legislation bans harmful ingredients. Take, for example, cadmium-based colours of the 1950s ruby red Aalto vases. “These cannot be produced anymore, as production was determined to be too harmful to the workers,” says Aromaa. The ban also includes uranium glass, which glowed with UV light, like Jim Carrey’s green mask. Iittala anticipated the coming EU ban on cadmium, and started investigating alternative recipes for ruby red. Today, they use copper to achieve their vibrant, rich cranberry red glass. Having become somewhat a trademark of the brand with the red “i”, red glass continues to demand the most highly skilled glass blowers. “When the blower starts in the morning, he does not know what colour he’ll end up with. Some are darker, brighter, slightly more orange or brownish. That’s just what red glass is about,” Aromaa pauses and smiles. “And then there is some trickery, which is our closest guarded secret.”

With so much potential variety – there are 71 active colours in Iittala’s current collection – the Aalto vase “only” comes in eleven tones.

“True, anything might be possible, but any colour addition to the Aalto vase needs to be carefully considered,” says Koskinen. The original intentions of the author have to be respected and safeguarded. To this end, the Aalto Foundation is involved in any new release.

Even if no record of Alvar Aalto’s own words on colours have been preserved, he always made his general approach to design explicit. This general approach, we can assume, also holds for colour.
In Aalto’s world, the purpose of architecture “is to bring the material world into harmony with human life.”
Aalto’s world is a place in which the doorhandle is considered “the handshake of a building” –one that opens into a space of multisensory experiences. Here, materials must serve people emotionally, both in their purity, and in the beautiful patina they gain with time.
To this description we can add that colours should also be used to improve a person’s well-being. Even a small, decorative vase can pleasantly radiate, and thus contribute to the overall, intimate atmosphere of a space – be it a private living room or a public hospital.