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Have you ever heard of the Paimio Sanatorium in Southwest Finland?

I didn’t know about it until I heard sustainable architecture guru Robin Guenther mention in in one of her talks a few years ago.

Robin was pointing out that for the past 50-60 years, we’ve mostly been designing our hospitals to keep natural air and light out. The opposite is true of Paimio, which was designed by renown Finnish architect Alvar Aalto almost 90 years ago.

Like many things, what’s old is new again.

Help Patients Recover

Built to treat people with tuberculosis when the only known cures were good hygiene, clean air, and light therapy, Paimio is located in the middle of a pine forest about 19 miles from Turku (if you know Finland).

The purpose of its design, according to a very well-written article published on the Finnish Design Shop’s website, was to help patients recover. Since tuberculosis is spread by bacteria, isolating them in a sanatorium in a forest seemed to be a good strategy back in the 1930s.

Aalto put a roof terrace on the building. Patient rooms and corridors had windows that could open.

The original patient wings had open, terrace-like dormitories. A walking path for patients wound around the building. There was access to natural light everywhere.

And color.

Aalto believed that color could soothe patients and I bet that his scheme was different than anything ever seen before in a hospital. And perhaps since.

For example, a bright yellow floor greeted patients and visitors in the main lobby. Patient room walls and ceilings were also painted different colors, with walls being lighter than ceilings because Aalto thought that was more calming for patients who were lying down.

First Healthcare Furniture Designers

The other amazing thing about the Paimio Sanatorium is that Aalto and his first wife Aino designed all the furniture and fixtures. Which I think probably makes them the first known healthcare furniture designers.

The shape of  the famous Paimio Armchair Aalto designed for the hospital was intended to help patients breathe better. I never knew this. Made of bent plywood and laminated wood, he used materials that he thought were warmer and more human.

Form Follows Function

Everything about Paimio is a great example of how form follows function.  Or in the case of a hospital, how form follows desired outcomes.

Why weren’t more of Aalto’s design concepts incorporated into 20th century U.S. hospitals?

Perhaps it was because the Internet and social media didn’t exist until recently so not many know about Paimio.  It’s only been in the past 20 years or so that we’ve been slowly adding natural light, access to nature, color, and windows that open back into healthcare facilities.

I don’t think Aalto ever designed another hospital after Paimio, which a lot of people believe is one of his most important works. But he went on to design many other significant buildings, furniture, and art glass pieces. He died in 1976 at age 78.

Reading about Paimio Sanatorium and seeing pictures of it makes me want to visit. Since 2014, it’s been operating as a private rehabilitation center for children, but it is open to the public for tours.

Air/road trip to Finland, anyone?

Photo credit:  Suvi Kesalinen, from Finnish Design Shop’s website.

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Suzanne

4 days ago

Very interesting article. I would love to visit Paimio!

Marc Schweitzer

4 days ago

Put the Vidarklinnen on your tour in Jarna, Sweden. Was a fantastic implementation of Rudolf Steiner’s philosophy of. anthroposophy for healing (also basis of Waldorf education). Not sure if it’s been maintained though. Is a holistic clinic.

Sara Marberry

4 days ago

Ah yes. Forgot about that one!

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Sara Marberry, EDAC, is a healthcare design knowledge expert, thought catalyst, and strategic marketing and business development consultant. The author/editor of three books, Sara writes and speaks frequently about industry trends and evidence-based design. She can be reached at [email protected].

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