AALTO – Aino Alvar Elissa The Human Dimension of Design

“True architecture,” Alvar Aalto once wrote, “exists only where the human being stands in the center”. For Aalto – and his two partners in life and architecture, Aino Marsio and Elsa Mäkiniemi (she will change her name to Elissa after marrying Alvar Aalto) – this statement was more than a passing comment. It was a manifesto for a life’s work and the start of a search for an entirely new understanding of architecture that was to leave an indelible mark on Europe and the world.

Founded in Finland in 1923, the Aalto office was born into a time of accelerated and turbulent change. Alvar’s first wife, Aino, also an architect, was foundational to the studio’s design philosophy in its early years, participating in the realisation of major projects – such as the Paimio Sanatorium – which pioneered a human-centric approach to design. Following her untimely passing in 1949, Alvar wed Elissa in 1952; thus started a new and fertile period of creative collaboration in the studio, characterised by levels of international attention unprecedented in Finnish architectural history.

Photo: Ramak Fazel
Photo: Ramak Fazel

AALTO – Aino Alvar Elissa – The Human Dimension of Design is the first major retrospective of Aalto in Italy since the 1960s. This exhibition presents a selection of eleven projects, spanning five decades, that underscore the Aalto office’s unwavering dedication to placing the human experience at the epicenter of architectural and design considerations. This practice is a thread that unifies projects wildly divergent in scale - from worker’s clubs to town halls and from single-family dwellings to entire housing complexes. Throughout them all, the Aaltos articulate a singular understanding of the Modern Movement as a practice of design harmonized with a deep-rooted commitment to the well-being of the individual and a symbiotic relationship with the natural world.

Photo: Ramak Fazel

Augmenting this narrative are five additional segments that offer a comprehensive exploration into specific facets of Studio Aalto’s oeuvre beyond architecture, encompassing their work in glass, fabrics, lighting, children’s furnishings, and the pioneering design company Artek – an enterprise conceived by the Aaltos that astutely tapped into the vast potentialities of mass production in furniture.

Photo: Ramak Fazel
Photo: Ramak Fazel

The selection of architectural and design artifacts presented – and accompanied by a contemporary photographic survey by Ramak Fazel – are a testament to the Aalto’s passion for architecture centered around people.

“To make architecture more human means better architecture”. - Alvar Aalto

Photo: Ramak Fazel
Photo: Ramak Fazel
Photo: Ramak Fazel

/ The Trio


In this exhibition we look at the Aaltos afresh, starting by considering them as a trio rather than an individual. To talk about Alvar Aalto, one of the most creative minds of the twentieth century, we must not talk about a singular hero, but about a group. In fact, his genius lies not only in having created a brilliant approach to architecture from a compositional, creative, and human point of view but also in having founded a studio that has promoted talents, primarily his two wives.

Alvar Aalto is one of the best-known names in architecture and design and brings with him a wealth of preconceptions, expectations, and images that this exhibition partly aims to revisit. First among these, is the idea that he operated individually.

Photo: Herbert Matter. Aino and Alvar Aalto - Courtesy Of The Department Of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries
Photo: Eva ja Pertti Ingervo. Elissa and Alvar Aalto in the 1960s. © Alvar Aalto Foundation.

AALTO – Aino Alvar Elissa. It seems obvious but until now no exhibition on Aalto had ever mentioned the two women in the title. It is a significant gesture, now more than ever.

/ The Human Dimension of Design


Human-centric is the common thread, that links Aaltos’ different projects and fields of research: from workers’ clubs to town halls, from single-family homes to housing estates, from objects and furniture designed for everyday life to works with glass, textiles, lighting, and children’s furniture.

After the name of the three, the title of the exhibition speaks of the "human dimension of the project". This refers to two central aspects in the Aaltos' work: the strong combination of person/nature and the political aspect of their works. They gave attention to social groups, such as the working class, the elderly, and the sick, who are usually not considered in the design of large architectural works. Works such as the Paimio Sanatorium, the social center for the workers of Jyväskylä, or the social houses for the workers of the cellulose factory in Sunila are all projects with a strong social character, confirming their involvement and interest in the human dimension.

Photo: Ramak Fazel
Photo: Ramak Fazel

/ Exhibition Design


Working on this exhibition has been an exciting opportunity to continue our ongoing research into how exhibitions can be materially less wasteful. The exhibition was designed not to produce waste, with dry-assembled bricks which at the end of the exhibition will be returned to the producers to be used in future constructions.

The exhibition design drew inspiration from The Experimental House on the island of Muuratsalo - Elissa and Alvar Aalto’s self-designed atelier and summer residence. The house was constructed out of bricks left over from the studio’s various projects. It was, in many ways, a device for experiencing and appreciating nature. The brick facade of the house became an archive catalog of different bricks and tiles available at the time.

In the exhibition design, pedestals of dry-assembled bricks are stacked as pedestals to display the works of the Aalto Studio. The exhibition also includes an accessible itinerary that presents tactile models and drawings in relief, the result of a co-design carried out in collaboration with deaf and visually impaired people.

Photo: Elissa Aalto. Alvar Aalto paints the patio ceramics - Aalto Experimental house in Muuratsalo, Finland, 1952-1954. - The Alvar Aalto Foundation
Photo: Ramak Fazel
Photo: Ramak Fazel
Photo: Ramak Fazel

/ The Pool of Villa Mairea


Villa Mairea, designed by Alvar and Aino Aalto for Harry and Maire Gullichsen in Noormarkku, Finland, was built in 1939. The Aaltos took advantage of this commission - and the client’s open-mindedness - to explore various themes that were to influence their work for many years, making Villa Mairea one of the most significant private commissions in the studio’s career. Among the various prototypical innovations introduced into the scheme was their unusual design for the swimming pool.

Reminiscent in its form of one of the many lakes scattered throughout the Finnish forest, it is widely credited as the first kidney-shaped pool, a typology that was in later years to become synonymous with Californian modernism. It is widely believed that during the late 1970s and early 1980s, widespread droughts across California compelled homeowners to conserve water; kidney pools, left empty across the state, presented ideal conditions for the development of skateboarding and its complex tricks because of their curved corners and rounded pool edges.

We designed the skeleton of the pool structure to serve as the entryway, a portal into the exhibition. The structure was held together with clamps - to be easily dismantled and reused in the future. The pool set-up was done by Benfenati Allestimenti in collaboration with Miocugino – Officina d’ingegno.

Villa Mairea, Alvar Aalto. Noormarkku, Finlandia, 1938-1939. The Alvar Aalto Foundation
Photo: Ramak Fazel
Photo: Ramak Fazel

/ FPO (For Position Only) - by Ramak Fazel


Ramak Fazel was commissioned to conduct a photographic survey of the life in and around the buildings included in this exhibition. Traveling between Finland, Italy, and the USA, Ramak documented the accumulation of narratives that day-to-day life superimposes upon the visionary functionality and elegance of Aalto’s projects.

The title of the project, For Position Only, refers precisely to the process that images undergo every day when they “travel” from the photographer’s camera, to the screen, to the editorial office of a magazine, to the printer’s laboratory, full of notes and questions. Throughout the preparation of this exhibition, this process of annotation gradually infiltrated the entire curatorial process, taking over the entire graphic design scheme around which the exhibition is structured.

Photo: Ramak Fazel
Photo: Ramak Fazel
Photo: Ramak Fazel
Photo: Ramak Fazel

/ Hide and Seek in Architecture

© Musacchio, Pasqualini & Fucilla _ MUSA, courtesy Fondazione MAXXI

Hide and Seek in Architecture is a video game created for the exhibition and designed by Space Caviar to transport the player inside an Aalto project, inspired primarily by the Experimental House in Muuratsalo, in which the studio’s most iconic spatial and formal elements coexist. An immersive experience in Meta’s Quest VR environment, Hide and Seek in Architecture offers players the possibility to explore every nook and cranny of the famed structure, appreciating the Aalto’s architectural brilliance while indulging in the timeless fun of hide and seek or treasure hunt. While scuttling about seeking hidden peers or finding the perfect hiding spot, players also absorb details about Studio Aalto’s design principles, their love for organic forms, and how the natural environment influenced their work.

The videogame was acquired in the Digital Design section of MAXXI’s New Design Collection.

Play it here on Roblox!

Hide and Seek in Architecture - Space Caviar
Hide and Seek in Architecture - Space Caviar

Installation Views

Photo: Ramak Fazel
Photo: Ramak Fazel
Photo: Ramak Fazel
Photo: Ramak Fazel
Photo: Ramak Fazel
Photo: Ramak Fazel
Photo: Ramak Fazel
Photo: Ramak Fazel
Photo: Ramak Fazel


14/12 2023 - 26/05 2023
MAXXI - National Museum of 21st Century Art - Rome, Italy

Exhibition Curator:
Space Caviar (Joseph Grima, Sofia Pia Belenky, Lorenzo Bondavalli, Nils Öh, Barbara Doroszuk, Elena Zannetou)

Exhibition Design:
Space Caviar

Videogame concept and programming “Hide and Seek in Architecture”:
Space Caviar
in collaboration with Meta

MAXXI Architecture and Contemporary Design Director:
Lorenza Baroncelli

Photographic project “FPO (For Position Only)”:
Ramak Fazel

Graphic design:
Ramak Fazel
with Maziyar Pahlevan and Sasha Portis

Research and coordination:
Flavia Parisi
Giulia Sof

General coordination:
Alessandra Spagnoli

Scientific consultant:
Elena Tinacci

Research and curatorial assistance:
Andrea Di Nezio

Exhibition set - up:
Tagi 2000 srl

Brick supply:
Terreal Italia s.r.l
Wienerberger S.p.a.

Pool set-up:
Benfenati Allestimenti
in collaboration with
Miocugino – Officina d’ingegno

Plants supply:
Vivai Mari

Accessibility project:
Sofia Bilotta
Silvia Garzilli
Flavia Bagni
Zaina Seraf

Research support:
Timo Riekko (Alvar Aalto Foundation)

The exhibition was realized with the generous collaboration of Alvar Aalto Foundation:
Tommi Lindh (CEO)
Timo Riekko (Chief Curator, Drawings Archives)
Mari Murtoniemi (Chief Curator, Exhibitions)
Marjo Holma (Curator, Photograph Archives and Library)
Paimio Sanatorium Foundation - Mirkku Kullberg (CEO)
Lotta Mujo (Head of Stakeholders & Fundraising)