Paimio Sanatorium (a medical instrument)

Paimio is a rural municipality in South West Finland. Nestled in an area of pine forest to the north is Paimio Sanatorium, a large building complex designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. Paimio was used for the treatment of Tuberculosis patients from its opening in 1933 to the early 1960s when it was converted into a general hospital. The building continues to be used and has functioned as a private rehabilitation center for children since 2014.

Aalto designed the sanatorium according to the principle of functionalism. Referring to the building as a ‘medical instrument’, Aalto sought to create a coherent entity for the treatment and recuperation of patients. Comprised of a series of linked wings, each with a different purpose, from communal areas including workshops, a library and canteen to clinical spaces of patient bedrooms and consultation rooms, the layout was intended to minimise any disruption to patients as well as contain the potential spread of disease.

The largest wing of the design housed the patient wards. Accommodating 145 patient rooms over seven floors the wing is a tall, slender structure of glass and concrete. Built on a south-south-west orientation, the building layout enabled morning sunlight to penetrate the patient rooms whilst simultaneously restricting the admission of the sun during Finland’s long summer evenings. The consideration of sunlight further informed the design of the sun terraces found on each floor. Accessible via patient bedrooms, the terraces allowed for patients to be moved into the fresh air and sunlight whilst remaining in their beds. An additional sun deck on the roof of the building was designed for patients who were strong enough to walk, accommodating up to 120 individuals.

Tiina Rajala, CC BY-SA 4.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

Aalto paid particular attention to the design of bedrooms throughout the patient wing. Holding two individuals, the rooms were calm, intimate, light-filled spaces befitting a period of convalescence. The rooms contained a wash basin and cupboard for each patient. The basins were fixed to the wall at an angle of 45˚, such precision was chosen to minimize the noise of running water into the basin bowl. Positioned at an angle the ‘silent basin’ ensured one patient would not disturb the other whilst washing. Individual storage cupboards beside each bed were fixed to the wall and raised off the floor to enable ease of cleaning underneath. The windows were set flush to the ceiling to provide the deepest possible penetration of daylight. At the base of the window, the floor was curved up, a detail that provided better light reflection and facilitated an ease of cleaning. With the windows extending to the floor patients had a view of the surrounding forest and sanatorium gardens whilst lying in bed. Heating panels in the rooms were ceiling-mounted so as to be located at the greatest possible distance from the bed bound patients, ensuring an even warmth throughout the room. One wall in each bedroom was further lined in an insulation material to soften the acoustics of the space. Painted in a muted tone the colour palette and lighting of the rooms was carefully considered to facilitate an environment conducive to recovery. As 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.

Suvi Kesäläinen photograph from https://www.finnishdesignshop....

Every detail of the interior design from door handles to lighting to furniture was custom-developed by Aalto, working in close collaboration with his wife, Aino. The most celebrated product of their collaboration is Armchair 41 or more commonly named “Paimio” chair, designed for use in the communal areas of the sanatorium. The chair is still produced by Artek, the furniture company founded in 1935 by the Aaltos with Maire Gullichsen and Nils-Gustav Hahl. Artek’s aim was “to sell furniture and to promote a modern culture of living by exhibitions and other educational means.”

Inspired by Marcel Breuer’s tubular steel Wassily Chair of 1927-28, Aalto’s version harnessed new technology of bent plywood to create a snaking sculptural form. Aalto’s choice of wood was further informed by the material’s naturally insulating properties, important for patients that would be sitting in the chair for long periods of time. The curved angle of the seat and back were further intended to aid patients breathing.

From the angled seat of a chair, to a silent washbasin and muted tones of a painted ceiling, every aspect of the design of the building and interiors at Paimio was considered. The building was highly acclaimed in the architectural community, giving the Aaltos, and Finnish architecture an international profile.

Armchair 41, Paimio sanatorium patient lounge, Gustaf Welin, Alvar Aalto Museum.

Aalto remained closely involved with additions and alterations to the Paimio Sanatorium building throughout his life.