Villa Mairea: the Alvar Aalto pool that changed skate history

June 20, 2022 | Skateboarding
Villa Mairea: designed by Alvar and Aino Aalto and completed in August 1939 in Noormarkku | Photo: alvaraalto.fi

Aino and Alvar Aalto designed Villa Maire in Noormarkku, Finland, one of the world's most beautiful and famous homes. But skateboarders are mostly interested in the house's swimming pool.

Samu Karvonen, 27, stands at the bottom of an empty swimming pool and looks around appraisingly.

"Interesting. Challenging and diverse."

He doesn't have swimming in mind but skateboarding.

Karvonen is a professional skater who has ridden in swimming pools in Europe and the United States.

Now he is in Noormarku, which is currently part of Pori.

It's the beginning of December. Although the early winter has been snowless, there is a five-centimeter layer of ice at the bottom of the pool.

Karvonen slides along the ice with his shoes from the shallow part of the pool to its deepest part. He has a skateboard under his arm.

"What excuse would you use to get this melted?" he ponders.

The interest is understandable.

There are almost no similar, kidney-shaped, round-bottom pools in Finland. That's why you have to take advantage of every opportunity.

Skating in Villa Maire's pool would also be unique in terms of cultural history.

It might be the pool that changed skateboarding history.

Villa Mairea was completed in 1939. Alvar and Aino Aalto designed the house, yard, and interior for their friends Harry and Maire Gullichsen.

For the architects themselves, the house was a pleasant project where they could try new things. Such was the backyard swimming pool, for example.

Until then, swimming pools had been traditional rectangles, but there are no corners in Villa Maire's pool.

Seen from above, the borderline of the basin formed a pattern resembling the shape of a kidney. The bottom was round and divided into two parts: a deep end and a shallow end.

The Iconic California Swimming Pool Design

Nine years later, in 1948, Jean and Dewey Donnell's private home, the Donnell House, was completed in Sonoma, California.

It got a lot of column space in magazines, and the style of the house was widely copied. One of the most copied things was the house's swimming pool, which became a symbol of the modern Californian lifestyle.

The swimming pool of Donnell House strongly reminds us of the Villa Maire pool, which was completed almost ten years earlier.

As seen from above, the sides of the pool are almost the same shape, and the bottom of the Donnel House pool is also round.

Does it sound strange? Maybe not.

The landscape architect Thomas Church, an old acquaintance of Alvar Aalto, was responsible for the Donnell House Garden Plan.

He had already made his first trip to Finland in 1937 with his wife Betsy and the architect William Wurster.

The Aaltos introduced the American guests to Helsinki and took them on a trip to the Paimio Sanatorium and the Sunila pulp mills.

The architects later also met in the United States.

Church's style was said to have changed after meeting Alvar Aalto: symmetry and angularity were replaced by irregular round shapes.

And how does skating relate to all of this? In 1975, the state of California experienced an unprecedented drought.

Restaurants offered water only on request and, in some places, people ate from disposable dishes.

An unwashed car was a source of pride. A brick was embedded in the toilet's water tank to reduce water consumption.

In such conditions, the swimming pools inspired by Donnell House were not suitable to be filled.

However, they soon found a new use when skaters found the pools as their playground.

Until now, skateboarding was mostly a substitute for surfing, a pastime enjoyed when the waves weren't crashing onto the beach.

That's why the sport was initially called sidewalk surfing.

The range of tricks was limited, and the skateboard was considered an idle toy like a yo-yo or a hula hoop.

In empty swimming pools, however, the sport developed to a new level.

The curved bottom pool was like a concrete wave. It enabled movements that could not be done on the pavement or asphalt hills.

At first, it was a competition to see who could ride their board the highest, but the skaters soon started doing different airs and jumping over the pool's edge.

Skating became a faster, more dangerous, and more popular sport.

A few years later, Skateboarder Magazine was already the best-selling magazine of the 7-Eleven store chain, and skateboarders appeared in Hollywood movies and TV series.

Tricks invented in empty swimming pools in California in the 1970s are still being performed 40 years later.

Similar concrete pools are still being built in skateparks - the prototype of which may be found in Villa Mairea.

Does the honor belong to Aalto? Was the concrete wave that became popular among skaters copied from him? Some believe so.

Villa Mairea: there are almost no similar, kidney-shaped, round-bottom pools in Finland | Photo: alvaraalto.fi

The Donnell House Connection

One of them is landscape architect Janne Saario, a long-time skateboarder who has designed several skate parks in Finland and abroad.

For example, the Zoo skatepark in Helsinki was designed by Saario.

Most recently, parks have been ordered from him in Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Varberg in Sweden.

Saario himself has drawn several skateable pools.

Such can be found, for example, in the Vuosaari skate park, which was completed in the summer of 2013.

He first saw Villa Maire's swimming pool on a school field trip.

"I thought it was a joke; it's really a skate pool. I was hoping that a board had come along," he recalls.

Afterward, Saario learned more about the subject, found a connection with Thomas Church, and ended up considering the Aalto pool as a model for the Donnell House swimming pool.

"It's a pretty direct copy."

As proof, Saario digs out a book about landscape architecture from the bookshelf in his study, which refers to Church and Aalto's friendship and how Church's style changed under Aalto's influence.

The friendship of architects is also referred to in several other literary sources. For example, it is said that Church and his wife even acted as dealers of Aalto's furniture and glassware in their home country.

Saario still does not regard the possible loan as a plagiarism scandal.

"Art has always borrowed and been inspired by the work of others."

He also wants to emphasize that the subject is not fatally serious.

"It's more of a humorous discussion. I've personally told American park builders in a bar that 'skating was invented in Finland, by the way.' So it's a good warm-up for a chat."

Villa Mairea: on of Alvar Aalto's most iconic works in Finland | Photo: alvaraalto.fi

Free Form

Having studied the career of Alvar Aalto, architect Juhani Pallasmaa estimates that he has visited Villa Mairea "at least a hundred times."

He is also a long-time family friend of the Gullichsens.

Pallasmaa sits in the conference room of his Tehtaankatu workspace and opens the book he wrote, "Alvar Aalto: Villa Mairea" (1998), on the table.

Next to the photos taken from the house, the book includes examples of the art of Max Ernst, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, and Jean Arp.

All of them feature circular shapes, just like the pool at Villa Maire.

According to Pallasmaa, Aalto did not invent a free-form language by himself in the first place - but rather copied it from the world of art for use in architecture.

"If you used that Arpin sculpture as a mold, it would be pretty much one with Maire's pool," he says, pointing to a picture showing a pale stone block.

Pallasmaa believes that Thomas Church could also have gotten the idea for the art in his pool.

According to him, the collective interest of architects at that time was directed toward free form, which was then applied in different places.

The theory is supported by an interview given by Lawrence Halprin in 1978.

Halprin was a subordinate of Thomas Church, who was practically responsible for designing the swimming pool at Donnell House.

In the interview, he talks about how the arts of painting and sculpture influenced him and Church during the design process of Donnell House.

The names are the same as for Aalto: Joan Miró, Picasso, Arp.

Besides, many others fished with the same baits.

The Japanese Isamu Noguchi had already designed a free-form, two-seat pool in 1935, which was never built.

In Brazil, the architects Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer drew some kind of concrete drawings around the same time.

Their fellow countryman, the landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx, made free-form yard plans.

However, the Finnish Alvar Aalto was at the forefront of this phenomenon.

"He was unusually prone to absorbing influences and a genius in applying them and bringing them to a really great end result," Pallasmaa says.

Skating Villa Mairea's swimming pool might never have taken place.

But now Samu Karvonen is in the pool and taking pictures of it with his phone. He sends one to a friend. Just then, the phone rings.

"I'm here. I am, I am!" he yells into the phone.

The discussion continues with the evaluation of the details of the pool. After the call ends, Karvonen laughs.

"He said he'll cut off my head if I do this without him."

A skateboarder friend staying in Helsinki can't believe that Karvonen has made it to the skateboarder's wish pool.

But the pool is frozen.

And we are very, very careful about the use of Villa Mairea, which is owned by the Gullichsen family company Ahlström.

The family representative has given skateboarder Samu Karvonen an exception for this matter.

Karvonen can carefully feel the characteristics of the pool with his board, but the surface must not be damaged.

No Skateboarding at Villa Mairea

Attempts have been made to use the pool for riding in the past.

It is said that foreign skate magazines would be interested in publishing the photos taken there on their pages.

So far, however, the permission has not been granted.

Harry and Maire Gullichsen respected the architects' vision so much that they did not modify their home and its world-renowned beauty without asking the opinion of experts in the field.

When Maire Gullichsen once wanted to watch the French television channel France 5, for which a parabolic antenna was needed, she asked Pallasmaa his opinion.

Aino and Alvar Aalto were both already dead by then. Maire Gullichsen lived in the house alone.

"I was of the opinion that, of course, a person must be able to watch France 5 in his own house. If there had been parabolic antennas in the past, Alvar would have put them there. There must be a certain tolerance in every house."

Would it be possible to skate in the pool of Villa Maire one day?

"Maybe someone could try it," architect Pallasmaa concludes.


Original Article Published in HS Teema Magazine | January 2014

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