Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto was born 3 February 1898 in Kuortane, South Ostrobothnia. At the age of five, he moved with his family to Jyväskylä. He took his matriculation from Jyväskylä Lyceum in 1916 and moved to Helsinki to study architecture. Aalto fought in the side of the White Army in the Finnish Civil War in 1918, as many of his fellow students of the Institute of Technology.
Alvar Aalto received the diploma of architecture at the Institute of Technology in 1921. He moved to Jyväskylä in 1923 and established his own office. In 1924 he hired architect Aino Marsio to work in his office. The same year Aalto and Marsio (Aino Marsio-Aalto) got married. Daughter Johanna “Hanni” was born in 1925 and son Hamilkar in 1928.
In 1927 Aino and Alvar won their first architectural competitions, Southwest Finland Agricultural Cooperative Building in Turku and Viipuri Library in Southern Karelia. During the development of the Southwest Finland Agricultural Cooperative Building, the Aalto family moved to Turku. In 1929 the Aaltos won the architectural competition of Paimio Sanatorium. Paimio Sanatorium, completed in 1932, was the international breakthrough for the Aaltos.
The Aaltos moved from Turku to Helsinki in 1933 and in 1936 the Aalto House, a total work of art was completed. The same year they founded Artek together with Maire Gullichsen and Nils-Gustav Hahl. The collaborative work of the Aaltos’ was divided so that Alvar Aalto was in charge of the Aalto office and Aino Marsio-Aalto was in charge of the Artek’s designs.
Alvar Aalto was the Chairman of the Association of Finnish Architects the years 1943–1958 and professor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology the years 1946–1948. His collaborative partner and wife Aino Marsio-Aalto died in 1949 at the age of 54. Later that same year, architect Elsa Kaisa “Elissa” Mäkiniemi started to work in the Aalto office. Alvar Aalto married Elissa Mäkiniemi (Elissa Aalto) in 1952.
Alvar Aalto was appointed as the member of the Finnish Academy in 1955. He was even the President of the Finnish Academy the years 1963–1968. Alvar Aalto died on 11 May 1976 in Helsinki.
Alvar Aalto is recognized today as one of the great masters of modern architecture. During his long career, the work of the Aalto office embraced almost all key public institutions – town halls, theatres, churches, libraries and universities – as well as standardized housing and private homes. Alvar Aalto’s career can be divided into the co-practice period with Aino Marsio-Aalto (1924–1949) and the co-practice period with Elissa Aalto (1949–1976). After Alvar Aalto’s death in 1976, Elissa Aalto became the director of the Aalto office and the chairperson of Artek. The Aalto office was run down after her death in 1994.
The Aaltos’ architecture can be seen distinctively Finnish. It is marked by a warm humanity and strong individuality. The buildings derive their special aesthetic character from their dynamic relationship with their special surroundings, their human scale, superbly executed details, unique treatment of materials and ingenious use of lighting. However, the Aaltos’ architecture is not the exclusive property of Finland: it forms part of a common cultural heritage of European and worldwide significance.
Through the innovations in form and line that were born in his furniture designs, the Aalto’s name has also become important in the history of design. In fact, the Aaltos first achieved fame in Continental Europe as furniture designers, and only later as architects.