Chestnut Park Real Estate Ltd, Brokerage
1300 Yonge Street, Suite 100 Toronto, Ontario M4T 1X3

Alvar Aalto: Principles of Functionalism

As the events of COVID-19 unfold, we have been hearing that we are in uncharted territory and are going through unprecedented societal change. We are all making changes to our daily lives to help stop the spread of the disease. Though this seems new to many of us, over the past century there have been various examples of contagious disease outbreaks that required self-isolation and increased sanitation that, interestingly, have played a role in architecture and design. Tuberculosis used to be a life-threatening contagious disease because antibiotics for treatment were not made until the mid 1900s. Before antibiotics, the measures to cure the disease were thought to be fresh air, bed rest, light therapy and diet. Sanatoriums were built as a place for patients to be treated and heal, removed from society due to its highly contagious nature. 

Alvar Aalto designed the Paimio Sanatorium in Paimio, Finland and this was a key work in establishing his international significance as an architect. Aalto followed the principles of functionalism to design the Paimio Sanatorium as it was intended to be a healing element through its architecture, contents and details.  

Design for the building began in 1928, construction started in 1930, and the building was completed in 1933. Since tuberculosis is transmitted by bacteria, all surfaces were designed to be easy to clean and the spaces could be easily aired. There were no sharp edges, unnecessary decorations or shelves that would gather dust or bacteria. The interior materials and surfaces were also chosen to be durable and easy to wash. The flooring was rubber, ceramic slates were used throughout the building and it had various shiny painted surfaces. The lobby desk was curved with no edges and shiny so it too was easy to clean. The large windows allowed for maximum light through the lobby area. 

The site of the project was chosen for its remote sandy terrain in the middle of a pine forest that was deemed to be a “healthy” location.  Patients came to the sanatorium to be isolated from the community to prevent the disease from spreading. They were encouraged to promote healing by taking long walks in the fresh air on fountain-studded paths around the property. 

Patients’ rooms were decorated and painted with healing in mind and were rich in colour. The light walls and darker ceilings were intended to be peaceful for individuals who would be lying down for much of the time. The door handles and wash basins were all designed in collaboration with doctors to promote health and well-being of the patients. The patients’ rooms, sun balconies, common areas, maintenance and technical spaces were each in their own wings. Patient rooms and social areas were oriented directly south to maximize the favourable light. 

The furniture was made using natural materials such as wood, rather than steel, in accordance with the functional principles. One furniture piece designed for the sanatorium was the Pikku Paimio chair. The Paimio was one of the most recognizable furniture pieces of the era, and its back was intended to assist the patient in breathing.


The Paimio Chair             

Once antibiotics became available in the mid 1900s the sanatorium gradually converted into a general hospital.  Some major changes have been made but the key characteristics of the architecture and furniture remain. However, since 2014 the hospital functions have been moved to other sites, and new uses are being investigated for the building, with preservation of the architecture and its contents as important factors to decisions about the future of the building. 

Given the current COVID-19 pandemic we are rethinking both how we live and what protection we require to prevent transmission of this disease. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how functional design elements such as the ones used at the Paimio Sanatorium will be integrated into the future planning of hospitals, public spaces, offices and homes to ensure our health and safety.

Be well my friends!

Helen Braithwaite* and Michelle Phillips, Real Estate Representatives

Chestnut Park Real Estate Ltd.

*Chairman’s Award 2017-2019