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Finland: Aalto & Others - 20th-century architecture & design

Journey through Finland surveying the works of Alvar Aalto, ‘the poet of International Modernism’.

See also major buildings by other twentieth-century Finnish architects and look at other areas of design and art. 

Led by Professor Harry Charrington who worked in Aalto’s office and is author of the award-winning Alvar Aalto: the Mark of the Hand.

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01 - 09 Jul 2021 £3,490 Book this tour

  • Helsinki, Finlandia Hall, photograph ©
    Helsinki, Finlandia Hall, photograph ©
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Design is as associated with Finland as bacon with eggs. It is extraordinary what impact such a small country – which only gained independence in 1917 – has had on the look of things in the 20th century.

Finland was a late starter. From its time at the periphery of European civilisation and in the following period as a remote part of the Swedish empire, there is not much to show other than vernacular domestic architecture and castles. Only in 1812, when the territory became a Russian grand duchy, did Helsinki acquire a spacious and monumental Neo-Classical centre to rank among the most impressive.

Really interesting art and architecture begins in the later 19th century with National Romanticism, a manifestation of aspiration towards national self-determination. The music of Sibelius is well enough known, but the architecture of Eliel Saarinen deserves much wider acclaim, and the brilliant, haunting paintings of Albert Edelfelt and Akseli Gallén-Kallela will come as a revelation.

These are not isolated figures, for the turn of the century was a highly productive time. But one name stands out: Alvar Aalto. Revered by architects around the world, it is not inconceivable that he will come to be regarded as the greatest architect of our era. His designs differ radically from mainstream mid-20th-century modernist architecture in that they are imbued with humanity and an organic beauty. His employment of curved forms and concern with colour and texture provide a spectrum of beauties forbidden to hard-line modernists, and his buildings have a strong sense of place, exemplified by widespread use of that very un-modern but quintessentially Finnish material, wood. Aalto is the poet of International Modernism.

Some of the twentieth century’s finest furniture, glass, ceramics and textiles have been created in Finland, much of it inspired by the principles that imbued Aalto’s work.

Day 1

Helsinki. Fly at c. 10.30am (Finnair) from London Heathrow to Helsinki. Begin with a walk through the Neo-Classical heart of the city: Senate Square, the domed cathedral and the colourful Market Square by the old harbour. First of four nights in Helsinki.


Day 2

Helsinki, Seurasaari. Morning walk including the Art Nouveau Katajanokka district, Saarinen’s Railway Station (1919) and Aalto’s Rautatalo office building (Iron House; 1951–5). The Ateneum, Finland’s foremost art museum, houses a collection of brilliant National Romantic pictures. Afternoon visit to the National Pensions Institute (Aalto, 1952–6), considered by many members of the Aalto atelier to be its finest construction, followed by a guided tour of Aalto’s Finlandia Hall (1961–75). The final visit of the day is to the impressive Oodi Library (ALA Architects, 2018), a striking wood-clad structure that reconceives the public library for the 21st century. Overnight Helsinki.


Day 3

Otaniemi, Helsinki. Begin at Aalto’s Technical University in Helsinki’s Otaniemi area. Continue to The Aalto House, the family home and office, completed in 1936. On the coast at Seurasaari the open-air museum shows the whole history of Finnish vernacular building. Kiasma holds Finland’s main contemporary art collection in a building by Steven Holl (2000). Dinner in the Savoy Restaurant designed by Aalto. Overnight Helsinki.


Day 4

Tuusula, Helsinki. In the morning visit Tuusula Lake with its turn of the century villa for Sibelius as well as the Kokkonen Villa by Aalto. Afternoon boat trip to Suomenlinna, a cluster of islands off Helsinki converted into a massive fortress in the 18th century, now with several museums. Overnight Helsinki.


Day 5

Säynätsalo, Muuratsalo, Jyväskylä. Drive north into the increasingly scenic Finnish Lakeland. See Aalto’s town hall at Säynätsalo (1952), perhaps his greatest synthesis of a vision of European civic life and the immediacy of the Finnish forest landscape. At nearby Muuratsalo, his summer house (also 1952) is beautifully set in woodland on the shores of a lake. Overnight Jyväskylä.


Day 6

Jyväskylä, Petäjävesi, Seinäjoki. Aalto went to school in Jyväskylä and set up his first independent practice here. Representative of his early, ‘pre-functionalist’ buildings is the Worker’s Club (1923–5), his first important commission. The Teachers’ Training College (1952–7, now university), is one of the finest manifestations of his ‘red’ period, with warm-hued bricks. Visit the Alvar Aalto Museum with a display of Aalto’s life and works. See the UNESCO-listed wooden church by Leppanen in Petäjävesi. Overnight Seinäjoki.


Day 7

Seinäjoki, Noormarkku, Turku. Seinäjoki has a striking complex by Alvar Aalto (1960–8): the Cross of the Plains church that dominates the townscape, parish hall, town hall-cum-theatre, clad in dark blue tiles, and library. In the afternoon a special arrangement to see the Villa Mairea (1939) in Noormarkku, the most beautiful of Aalto’s private houses. First of two nights in Turku.


Day 8

Turku, Paimio. Morning walk through Turku, Finland’s oldest city, including the market square and mediaeval cathedral. Visit to the cemetery by Aalto’s contemporary Erik Bryggman. In Paimio is Aalto’s Sanatorium (1929–33), a classic of modern architecture for which he designed widely-imitated timber furniture. Overnight Turku.


Day 9

Hvitträsk, Helsinki. Drive to Hvitträsk, Saarinen’s home and studio built in 1903, with pretty gardens overlooking a lake. Continue to Helsinki airport and fly to Heathrow, arriving at c. 6.00pm.

Image of Henry Charrington

Professor Harry Charrington

Architect and Head of the Department of Architecture at the University of Westminster. He read Architecture at Cambridge, where he was the founding editor of Scroope: Cambridge Architectural Journal, and subsequently combined academia and practice in both England and Finland. He has a particular interest in the history of modernism. He obtained his PhD from the LSE on Alvar Aalto and has published widely on his work. His book Alvar Aalto: the Mark of the Hand won the RIBA President’s Award for Research 2012.

Price, per person

Two sharing: £3,490 or £3,280 without flights. Single occupancy: £3,980 or £3,770 without flights.


Price – Aalto & others and Danish Art & Design combined

In 2020 only. Two sharing: £7,690 or £7,330 without flights. Single occupancy: £8,940 or £8,580 without flights. This includes 1 extra night at the hotel in Helsinki, flight from Helsinki to Copenhagen (Finnair) and airport transfers. These arrangements are pre-booked but unescorted.



Flights (economy class) with Finnair (aircraft: Airbus 320); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts; 6 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.



Hotel Haven, Helsinki: smart, boutique hotel close to the harbour. Boutique Hotel Yöpuu, Jyväskylä: small, friendly, traditional. Sokos Hotel Vaakuna, Seinäjoki: simple, bland, but well-located. Radisson Blu Marina Palace Hotel, Turku: comfortable hotel overlooking the river. All hotels have a local 4-star rating.


How strenuous?

There is quite a lot of walking on this tour and three hotel changes. It should not be undertaken by anyone who has difficulty with everyday walking. Average distance by coach per day: 76 miles.

Are you fit enough to join the tour?


Group size

Between 12 and 22 participants.


Travel advice

Before booking, please refer to the FCDO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting.

‘The lecturer was a supremely good tour leader: he imparted his intimate and extensive knowledge of all the buildings and of life in Finland in a most enjoyable manner, and was always considerate and interested in everyone in the group.’

 ‘The itinerary is extremely well planned with a good balance of visits and locations. I enjoyed every minute of this tour.’