Sustainable Cities™

Paimio: Healing power in sustainable architecture

Alvar Aalto’s sanatorium in Paimio, Finland, is one of the first architectural examples of modern industry confronting the careful consideration of the natural environment and its processes. Built in 1929, the building uses the efficient and economically logical industrial methods of the time but also abides by an intuitive logic regarding the importance of the natural environment and its crucial role in the natural process of healing.

Paimio Sanatorium omgivet af den finske skov, foto af, 29 nov 2008, Flickr Creative Commons

When Alvar Aalto designed his sanatorium in 1929, he didn't know about carbon emissions or global warming or the scientifically-supported health benefits of sustainable built environments. He only had knowledge of what was economically logical in his industrial society, what little facts the field of medicine had uncovered at the time and, notably, his intuition. Yet these factors led him to produce a building with many characteristics that, by today's standards, would be considered sustainable.

Aalto laid out his hospital in a branch plan with the two main patient wings reaching out along a North-South axis. In this way, the building was maximally exposed to both the morning and afternoon sun. He also used a steel structural frame to make these wings very tall and thin with expansive windows along their sides. He had none of the scientific evidence that we have today showing that sunlight and views of the outdoors can dramatically increase recovery times. For example, he did not know that such light exposure has been shown to decrease an average stay at a mental asylum from 13 to 4 days. He also did not know that maximising the building's sun exposure would reduce carbon emissions by minimising the need for artificial lighting and heating.

Paimio Sanatorium roof sunning balcony. Photo by davoxt, Flickr Creative Commons

Another two notable characteristics of Aalto's hospital are the many sunning balconies throughout it and the natural Finnish forests just beyond them. Again, Aalto could not have known that leaving the forests would preserve the biodiversity of the area and result in the absorption of more carbon than a lawn or garden. Nor did he know that decreasing the patients' time inside would decrease carbon emissions by lessening the use of indoor electric lighting. Nevertheless, he designed his building with these features.

Many of the characteristics of Aalto's sanatorium that are sustainable or are in line with present-day health studies can be contributed to the standard medical diagnoses of the time. Often, these diagnoses recommended rest with occasional exercise in a place with clean air and sunshine, and relied a bit more on intuition than on hard scientific data. Aalto admitted his reliance on such intuition when referred to his hospital as a 'medical instrument' that would help patients heal through contact with nature. However, with ideas such as this, Aalto revealed an important characteristic of sustainable buildings: such architecture often abides by an intuitive logic about what makes building users healthy and happy in addition to adhering to scientific studies about the natural environment.

Sustainable architecture isn't new

Aalto's sanatorium, which was constructed in the modernist era early 20th century, is a testament to the parallels between the buildings of this older time period and present-day sustainable architecture. It illustrates that such architecture preserves many of the concepts that this older period valued: functionality, efficiency, fascination with industry and technology-driven economies. It causes us to raise the question of whether our present movement is just modernism with more consideration of the surrounding natural environment.

At the very least, we realise that sustainable architecture is nothing new. Humanity has been building sustainable structures for almost 8,000 years and there is at least as much to learn from our past strategies as there is to discover in our new and developing technologies.


Last updated Tuesday, January 21, 2014