Review of The Religious Architecture of Alvar, Aino and Elisa Aalto by Sophie Singler

Research output: Contribution to specialist publicationBook/Film/Article review

Abstract / Description of output

The contribution of the modernist architects Alvar, Aino and Elissa Aalto have been well documented in many books over the years, and their legacy lives on in the numerous buildings designed by Studio Aalto throughout the world. However, one aspect of their diverse oeuvre yet to be fully explored in its own right, is their religious architecture, both in Finland, and also Italy and Germany. What Sofia Singler has done in this book, is to delve deeply into the process and design solutions of this particular aspect of the Aalto’s work, examining the background behind these buildings.

This book has evolved from her recent PhD thesis, and as such is extremely comprehensive in its research and exploration. It is a combination or archive research and first-hand experience of the churches themselves. Singler takes the reader through nine stages of background and historical research to really contextualise the eras in which these buildings were created. Studio Aalto engaged with ecclesiastical design from its foundation in 1921 when Alvar, and his first wife Aino undertook number of church renovation and restoration projects in the 1920’s and 30’s, along with design competitions for new churches. After Aino’s death in 1949, the practice reengaged with the design of churches, cemeteries and parish centres both in and beyond Finland until Alvar’s death in 1976. His second wife Elissa continued the practice until her death in 1994, during which time she oversaw the completion of the remaining churches.

This book gives a comprehensive chronology of these ecclesiastical buildings, but more importantly it explores and explains the process of design through an in-depth investigation into the iconic Church of the Three Crosses in Imatra, Finland. Singler considers not just the bureaucracy behind this work, but explores the drivers for the design. All but one of the completed ecclesiastical projects came as a direct commission from the parishes, and her archive research, including correspondence with the clergy involved, gives an excellent insight into this process. As she notes, the dialogue between religious figures and architects became mutually meaningful for both, and for Alvar in particular supported his genuine desire to engage with individuals who’s thinking and expertise challenged and enriched his own.

Whilst the focus of this book is religious architecture, it will be of relevance to people interested in not just the Aalto’s but modernism in general. There is a lot of excellent information within the books 272 pages. Singler’s division of chapters is also clever, allowing the reader the choice to read from cover to cover, or to delve into specific elements such as the factors affecting church design in Finland in general and also the role and input of the clergy into the commissioning of new churches. Her access to the Alvar Aalto Museum archives has resulted in the inclusion of some previously unseen drawings and images. The book is written in a very clear and engaging way, resulting in the reader gaining knowledge not just about the ecclesiastical buildings, but the Aalto’s design process in general. Singler has also sensitively and clearly ensured that Aino and Elissa’s voices are heard and their importance in the practice not overlooked.

This is more than a book about religious architecture, it’s a clear explanation of how one of the most famous modernist practices created public buildings that exceeded the aspirations of the parishes for which they were designed, thereby making the buildings accessible to all. The church in Imatra is in need of repair, and like many internationally important pieces of architecture, needs to be properly supported and understood to ensure its ongoing survival. Hopefully this book will bring it to more people’s attention, and help with the ongoing fundraising to save this key building for future generations.

Original languageEnglish
Specialist publicationRIAS Quarterly
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2024


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