Though officially named the Paimio Sanatorium, this iconic piece of architecture is often referred to as the Aalto Sanatorium because of the well-known name who designed it. Alvar Aalto designed the Paimio Sanatorium for patients with tuberculosis. He was granted the commission after winning the architectural competition for the project in 1929, and the building was completed just four years later. It received immediate praise from architectural critics in Finland and beyond, as well as appreciation from the public for its new modernist take on design.
Aalto not only designed the functionalist building itself, but all of the design components in it along with his wife and fellow architect, Aino Aalto. Much of the furniture designed for the Paimio is still manufactured by Artek, most notably the “Paimio chair.” Also called the “Scroll chair,” the laid-back angle and ventilation slats were intended to help tuberculosis patients breathe more easily. The laminated birch was an uncommon material for furniture at the time, and Aalto patented a unique way of bending this wood.
All of the furnishings of the Aalto Sanatorium were designed with the patients in mind. Because the illness is transmitted by bacteria, easily cleaned surfaces like linoleum were used and there was plenty of air flow and natural light in the spaces. True to Finnish design, the furnishings were designed to be free from decoration that would gather dust and needed to be durable and functional rather than decorative.
Despite no bells and whistles in the decor, the Paimio Sanatorium has a clean and attractive aesthetic. Alvar Aalto was very careful in choosing the soothing shades used, and enlisted help from artist Eino Kauria in the color planning. Regarding the colors used in the patient rooms, Alvar Aalto wrote: “The walls are light and the ceilings darker. This makes the general tone more peaceful from the perspective of a lying-down patient. The general lighting point of the room is above the patient’s head at the interface of the wall and ceiling, which means that it is outside the angle of vision of a lying-down patient.” The Paimio color palette inspired the launch of the Chair 69 in the yellow of the floors, the green of the walls, the turquoise of the stair railings, and the orange, white, and black from various furniture pieces.
The location of the Aalto Sanatorium was also an important factor for the health of the inhabitants. It was thought that fresh air would ease the symptoms of the disease, so it’s situated among a pine forest in a somewhat remote location of Paimio, Finland. Like most Finns, the Aaltos found that natural materials and nature itself is important for all types of healing. Because there was no known cure for tuberculosis, the isolated patients were meant to be made comfortable and treated with good hygiene, clean air, and light therapy. Those who were well enough were encouraged to walk the beautiful grounds complete with fountains, or enjoy the rooftop terrace with spectacular views form the highest point of the Finnish forest.
Thanks to the development of vaccines and medicine, the Aalto Sanatorium was no longer needed for its original purpose at the end of the 1950’s. It was then used as a general hospital and after 2014, functioned as a private rehabilitation center for children. In 2018, the Paimio Sanatorium was listed for sale, but the bidding was extended by the owner once the preservation of the building was called into question. The Finnish National Board of Antiquities has defined the Paimio Sanatorium as a nationally important built cultural environment. Its value has been recognized also internationally: The Alvar Aalto Foundation has made a conservation management plan for the sanatorium and the Getty Fund from the United States provided in 2014 a grant for the charting of the main building’s original colors.