Architecture

Modernizing the Sacrum? The Church of the Three Crosses by Alvar Aalto

Joanna Kaszubowska 7 March 2024 min Read

When we hear the word “church” the image it evokes is typically either a striking, tall gothic structure or an opulent baroque façade and gold-dripping interior. A modernist church is not our first association, even though many of us have had ample opportunities to interact with modernist or even post-modernist churches in our lives. However, modernist churches can be breathtaking as well, as proven by this design by Alvar Aalto. Let’s dive into its history!

The dissonance is understandable when you think of the institution behind these buildings; the church whether catholic or protestant is not in the avant-garde of progress. More often than not, it vehemently upholds tradition and only sometimes tries to play catch-up with the rapidly changing world. Yet, in Europe since the Second World War, many modernist churches have been built. The Church of the Three Crosses in Imatra, Finland designed by Alvar Aalto is one of them.

The Architect

Alvar Aalto (1898–1976) was a Finnish architect whose innovative designs and humanistic approach left an enduring mark on modern architecture. Drawing inspiration from nature, Finnish vernacular architecture, and Scandinavian design principles, Aalto developed a unique style that seamlessly blended functionality with aesthetics. His early works are in the Nordic Classicism style, but he quickly shifted to the International Style Modernism. In turn, he eventually used this as a springboard to his own more organic interpretation of the style.

His deep understanding of materials and craftsmanship is evident in iconic works such as the Paimio Sanatorium and the Villa Mairea, where he employed natural materials like wood and brick to create warm, inviting spaces that harmonized with their surroundings. Aalto was a firm advocate of the Gesamtkunstwerk (a total work of art) principle. He firmly embedded it in his practice, together with his first wife Aino Aalto. Furthermore, this approach resulted in his venturing beyond architecture into furniture design and sculpture.

Alvar Aalto churches: Alvar Aalto, Villa Mairea, 1938-1939, Noormarkku, Finland. Photograph by Ninara via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Alvar Aalto, Villa Mairea, 1938-1939, Noormarkku, Finland. Photograph by Ninara via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Alvar Aalto was also a pioneer in urban planning, advocating for holistic, human-centric design principles that prioritized the needs and experiences of the people who would inhabit his buildings. While religious architecture was not the main focus of his work, he did venture into this area as well, and with spectacular results, as we’re about to see.

Alvar Aalto churches: Alvar Aalto, Church of the Three Crosses (Vuoksenniska Church), 1958, Imatra, Finland. GoSaimaa.

Alvar Aalto, Church of the Three Crosses (Vuoksenniska Church), 1958, Imatra, Finland. GoSaimaa.

The Religious Architecture of Alvar, Aino and Elissa Aalto by Sofia Singler

Before we explore The Church of the Three Crosses, I want to draw your attention to a book that is an in-depth analysis of Aalto’s religious architecture: The Religious Architecture of Alvar, Aino and Elissa Aalto by Sofia Singler. The author leaves no stone unturned, bringing us a wealth of information about the design process, sources of inspiration, as well as the social and philosophical dynamic in which Aalto operated. 

Her work makes us look at Aalto’s churches from many different angles. We learn about his relations with his clients and to what extent they were able to influence the design. However, what is even more interesting is the broad context of the times; of Europe rebuilding after the war, of Finland reinforcing its national identity, and of the church that is trying to face modernity head-on. We get to understand the interplay between industry, city planning, and the role that the church wanted to claim in modern society, and how it all influenced what, how, and when churches were being designed and built. 

While it is an academic text and not always the most approachable, if you want to deepen your knowledge about Aalto’s religious architecture, look no further. If however, you are not convinced, this short lecture by the author may be the nudge you need.

Alvar Aalto churches: Alvar Aalto, Church of the Three Crosses (Vuoksenniska Church), 1958, Imatra, Finland. Discovering Finland.

Alvar Aalto, Church of the Three Crosses (Vuoksenniska Church), 1958, Imatra, Finland. Discovering Finland.

The Church of the Three Crosses

Finland ceded 9% of its territory after the Winter War with the Soviet Union ended in 1940. As the exchange was happening, many people as well as industries had to move in line with the new border. One such company was the state-owned forestry company Enso-Gutzeit, naturally operating in the heavily forested area of Karelia (parts of which Finland ceded). The company decided to move to what remained of three municipalities (Imatrankoski, Tainionkoski, and Vuoksenniska) now on the border with the Soviet Union, and to merge them into a new one, Imatra. 

The move was so heavily driven by the industry that notifying the authorities that Alvar Aalto was designing the urban plan of the new municipality was almost an afterthought. The church quickly got involved, given that there were previously three parishes and the idea of merging them was met with strong opposition from the locals. Enso-Gutzeit agreed to donate the plot for a new church but reserved the right to pick the architect. It is not surprising that it was Aalto, who has been given a free choice of the plot where he’d like to build the church.

When designing Imatra, Aalto wanted to create a forest town where industry and the forest it is based on merge, creating a balanced environment. The myth of Karelian forests was not without influence as well. Also, when you think of it, a forest town can only have a forest church. That is exactly what Aalto did. He selected a plot with a small clearing, surrounded by the forest and decided not to fell any of the trees, but instead to fit the design into the existing space.

Alvar Aalto churches: Alvar Aalto, Church of the Three Crosses (Vuoksenniska Church), 1958, Imatra, Finland. Outdooractive.

Alvar Aalto, Church of the Three Crosses (Vuoksenniska Church), 1958, Imatra, Finland. Outdooractive.

This may lead you to think that his design gently merged into the landscape, or that the interior and exterior would seamlessly blend. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Church of the Three Crosses respects its surroundings while standing firmly apart. Although a lot of light penetrates the interior, it remains turned inwards and does not offer free views to the surrounding forest. The result is a luminous yet separate sacred space.

Alvar Aalto churches: Alvar Aalto, Interior of the Church of the Three Crosses (Vuoksenniska Church), 1958, Imatra, Finland. Lake Saimaa.

Alvar Aalto, Interior of the Church of the Three Crosses (Vuoksenniska Church), 1958, Imatra, Finland. Lake Saimaa.

The space and how it is used became the object of contention between the architect and the church. At the time, the Lutheran church focused on being closer to the common people; on being humble rather than opulent, on being approachable rather than hierarchical. This shift was neither something Aalto agreed with nor wanted to accommodate in his design. He perceived the church as an institution that provides stability by guarding tradition in our ever-changing world. The church as a building should reflect this and be a sign of its special role. This why in The Church of the Three Crosses we see a long nave, leading us towards the sacred space of the altar, but also making it less approachable. This is also why, instead of designing a humble church, Aalto turned towards monumental forms. 

That said, architecture is always a compromise between the architect’s vision and the expectations of the investors. So, while Aalto refused to design a parish center (such additional secular spaces became very common at the time), he did enable an optional secular space by dividing the nave with movable walls, allowing it to separate it into three parts. While it may seem as if Aalto leaned on this, he used the walls’ support to accentuate monumentality. In that, he created an option to use part of the church for secular activities but has not made it exactly easy.

Alvar Aalto churches: Alvar Aalto, Interior of the Church of the Three Crosses (Vuoksenniska Church), 1958, Imatra, Finland. Docomomo.

Alvar Aalto, Interior of the Church of the Three Crosses (Vuoksenniska Church), 1958, Imatra, Finland. Docomomo.

As you can expect in a Church of the Three Crosses, the motif of trinity is something that repeats throughout the design. Starting with the nave unfolding in three vast shell-like spaces, all the way to the three crosses in the altar space instead of the traditional one. You will see it also in the bell tower, as well as the church’s skylights. Aalto was very consistent in this.

Alvar Aalto churches: Model of the Church of the Three Crosses (Vuoksenniska Church), 1958, Imatra, Finland. Pinterest.

Model of the Church of the Three Crosses (Vuoksenniska Church), 1958, Imatra, Finland. Pinterest.

While The Church of the Three Crosses may seem strikingly modern, in its preservation of hierarchy and the special status of the sacred space it is also very traditional.

Other Churches by Alvar Aalto

Sofia Singler in her book mentions several other churches designed by Aalto. She compares his approach to those other designs with The Church of the Three Crosses. In the below gallery, you can compare them yourselves.

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