Aalto utopia in Portland's backyard

Apr 23, 2010

When I was in college, I went on a field trip to the Mount Angel Abbey Library, which is about 30 miles south of Portland.  That trip was my first exposure to the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, who many consider to be the father of modern architecture and design.  The library at Mount Angel is just one of two buildings in North America that was designed by Aalto, and, yesterday, I went back to the building to bask again in its brilliance. 

Libraries were some of Aalto's favorite buildings to design.  He sought to create the perfect lighting conditions for reading.  In the Mount Angel Abbey Library,  there are semi-circular windows at the top of the building to harness natural light.  The light is bounced around the open interior space by white walls.  When asked why the building didn't have more windows taking advantage of the valley view, he responded "I have designed a place of study, not a lounge."

Aalto made an exception to add a few large windows in the Periodical Reading Room, which is my favorite part of the library.  I love how the bright, filtered light contrasts the black Aalto furniture.  The look is dramatic but very inviting and peaceful at the same time. 

Periodical Reading Room

In addition to its significant architectural design, the library has one of the largest collections of furniture designed by Aalto.  The shelving, desks, tables, chairs, and light fixtures were all designed by him.  And although 40 years have passed since the opening of the library, the furniture is still in remarkable shape.  I saw this sweet (and unused!) console sitting on the floor and was tempted to snatch it for my own home.  Alas, I figured stealing from monks would mean a lifetime of penance. 


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