View from the southwest
Written and Photographed by Scott M B Gustafson
In the late 1960s the Catholic Benedictine community at Mt. Angel Abbey in northern Oregon invited Alvar Aalto to design a library for their seminary campus. Throughout his career Aalto designed several libraries, university buildings and churches. To my knowledge, the building at Mt. Angel is the only occasion where all three programs overlap. Describing the function of a library, Aalto said “Reading a book involves both culturally and physically a strange kind of concentration; the duty of architecture is to eliminate all disturbing elements.” One could say that for the act of prayer a church should also function as a similar filter against distractions.
Alvar Aalto was educated in architecture prior to the widespread use of electric lighting and the graceful use of daylight in the buildings he designed is proof of his mastery. This library is not as far north as many of Aalto’s other buildings in Finland, France or Germany but Oregon is known for its overcast skies and dim lighting conditions. The library features many small circular skylights and a large north facing curved light monitor over the central core of the reading room. The stacks fan out from the central point and individual study carrels line the curving northern perimeter. Even lighting rules the space and the eye is never tired by extreme contrast.
Far ahead of his time, Aalto incorporated emerging scientific knowledge about the brain and human perception into this designs. Sarah Williams Goldhagen has written brilliantly on this under-acknowledged aspect of Aalto’s practice. The modern movement tended to view the world through a reductionist, mechanical lens. This limited view reduced the nuances of reality into discrete and simplified categories which under-valued the rich tapestry of human cultural experience. According to Goldhagen “Modernist architects needed to expand their definition of rationalism. They needed to analyze, he wrote, “more of the qualities” intrinsic to the architecture they designed. Comparing the array of human needs architecture accommodates to hues on a color spectrum, Aalto contended that architects needed to consider not only architecture’s “visible” colors—program, economy, technology, hygiene, site—but also its invisible “ultraviolet band.” There only the “purely human questions” lurk. Buildings should serve everyday needs.”
While it seems obvious that buildings should serve the people who use them, our day to day experience with buildings of all types shows that often times they fail to do so. The work of masters like Alvar Aalto inspires our continuous research into Aesthetics in order to always put the pleasure of occupant as the central goal for all of our design decisions.
It is up from little things that we should build up a harmonious world for people. – Alvar Aalto
A welcoming invitation to the hand
A wooden screen to conceal the restrooms and the coat rack
It is wood, the natural material, which is closest to man, both biologically and also as the environment of original forms of culture. – Alvar Aalto
The semicircular light monitor
The most difficult problems for architecture occur in the attempt to create forms which are based on real human values. – Alvar Aalto
Main Level Plan
South Elevation and Building Section
The plan, elevation and section drawings were scanned from Peter Reed’s book “Alvar Aalto: Between Humanism and Materialism.”
Click here to see full resolution versions of these photos plus others from the trip.
For a detailed study on the daylight techniques used in this building, see Nathan Good’s essay from Environmental Design and Construction Magazine.
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