Villa Skeppet, a Building and a Home
What is it like to live in a house designed by Alvar Aalto? Sanna Tegel examines Christine and Göran Schildt’s home in Tammisaari.
When Alvar Aalto, in 1968, proposed to Göran Schildt – Aalto’s friend and the author of his biography – and to Schildt’s wife Christine that he would design a home for them, Aalto said he would make it “so phenomenal that you will move back to Finland”. When I worked on my master’s thesis in 2017, I met Christine Schildt, who had recently moved out of the house. She laughed and told me that Aalto didn’t succeed. Villa Skeppet, which was amongst Aalto’s late works, was completed in Ekenäs in 1970, and it served as a home for the Schildts only a few weeks at a time, as they lived most of the time in Greece.
Villa Skeppet is a compact but imposing author’s home. The home is divided into presentable lounge and work spaces reflecting the owner’s interests, and into more simple private premises. I got an opportunity to study the building on the spot for the first time in its history, when the Christine and Göran Schildt Foundation offered the building to me as the theme of my master’s thesis. There have not been many publications on Villa Skeppet. It has been occupied by the original resident until recently, and it will open to the public now that Christine Schildt has moved away.
Even though Aalto is known as an advocate for humanistic architecture, his architecture has not been studied much from the perspective of psychology. Environmental psychological theories and research data provide the means for describing Villa Skeppet as a home, assessing the success of Aalto’s design starting points that have been regarded as human-oriented, and examining the possible effects of Villa Skeppet’s architecture on the life in the building and, in particular, on a resident’s wellbeing. The research-based knowledge expands the scope of personal experiences and can open up viewpoints that don’t intuitively occur to architects.
An impressive, distant living room
The main element of Villa Skeppet is an imposing living room, with stairs from the entrance hall. This appealing space is ideal for socialising, sitting by the fireplace and watching through the window. When working in the building, I was impressed, time after time, by accessing the living room: when looking from the other parts of the building, the living room is chiefly invisible, and when ascending the stairs to it, you see an elevated space filled with light, offering an atmosphere that deviates from the other parts of the building. The living room is a separate world that rises above the other spaces in the building.
The impression of distance – due to the difference in level and the scarce views between the spaces – is partly caused by the way our brain processes sensory perceptions through our bodies: we know that accessing the space at the end of the stairs will require physical effort, which is why we see the space as more distant than it actually is. Walking to the living room does not feel as straightforward as moving between the other spaces in the building.
The architecture creates a special atmosphere in the living room but, on the other hand, it separates the space from the entity. The room layout does not allow a flexible use of the premises, such as dining in the living room, but the building supports various uses in a fairly unbalanced way. During the design process, architects cannot be sure of how residents will spend time at their homes. Unfortunately, the functions of the other rooms of Villa Skeppet do not have as pleasant architectural settings as socialising in the living room.
From the perspective of environmental psychology, the architecture of the living room doesn’t make use of all the positive affordances that are available. We like to go to places that are pleasant and do things that have been made easy for us. As we unintentionally aim at economical action and thinking, we often instinctively fail to choose operating methods that would be good for us in the long run. Consequently, the architecture in our living environment should push us towards healthy options. Research results in perceptual psychology refer to a phenomenon in which we more likely end up using things that we see than things that we do not see: consequently, the saying “out of sight, out of mind” can be understood in a very concrete way. The use of Villa Skeppet’s yard feels natural when looking to the yard from downstairs, where the door to the yard is within close reach. However, it does not feel natural to pop in to the yard from the living room. Natural environments have utterly positive effects on the human psyche and, at its best, the appealing living room could also be connected with the positive psychological effects of the yard’s natural features.
Mysterious spaces and pleasant shapes
Numerous environmental psychological theories analyse the qualities of environments that we experience as pleasant. Amongst the perceptions that are important in architectural design is how the pleasantness of spaces is connected to the amount of information they contain and its availability. We like spaces that are visually quite rich, and mysterious spaces in particular. They contain information that is available but not yet present. For example, the staircase that connects the living room and the high hall is a mysterious space: the living room, which is almost invisible from the entrance hall, becomes exposed step by step, continuing to reward the person who is ascending the stairs with new information. It is an ennobling experience. The subtle, diverse architecture of the interior spaces is visually rich and full of details, responding to people’s natural need to study their environment.
The pleasantness of spaces is also affected by the materials used as well as the atmospheres and images they convey. Research results speak for natural materials and even shapes found from the nature, such as curved shapes and symmetry. Consequently, the selection of materials characteristic of Alvar Aalto, including wooden surfaces and curved shapes, is, to a large extent, successful in the light of research data obtained in the field of environmental psychology.
However, the clinker floor, which was often used by Alvar Aalto in his designs, is not as unambiguous. The positive or negative sensations and associations caused by the surfaces are conveyed to you without touching: looking at a cold metal surface causes the same reaction in your brain as touching it, whereas the materials that you know are warm make you sense that the space is warmer than it actually is. Due to the clinker floor, the hall and the kitchen appear as spaces via which you walk from one warm space to another. Christine Schildt was a housewife and also spent time in the kitchen. Apparently, the carpets on the clinker floor made the space more pleasant to use.
The architecture of homes should facilitate both easy social activities and withdrawing from them – and even the hiding of one’s own activities. As in his other detached houses, Aalto also upheld the privacy of the interior spaces of Villa Skeppet. The building turns strongly inwards and opens to the yard on the ground level. Intuitively, the interior spaces feel safe and secure as they provide both privacy and wide views round the building. On the other hand, the architecture does not give any reason for residents to spend time in the semi-public space close to the building, which could lead to social encounters with neighbours. Social relationships are connected with the quality of life, and in the neighbourhood surrounding your home, they also lead you to experience your residential area and your home as a dearer thing, as well as safer and more secure. However, the feeling of sufficient privacy is required before residents become interested in the communality of their living environment.
How to live in an artwork?
We are allowed to search ourselves and to express ourselves via our homes. One’s desire and way of personalising one’s home is individual but, according to studies, residents who do not have any chance to modify their dwellings are less fond of them. According to studies, the affection to a dwelling or a place improves the quality of your life, as well as makes you feel happier, safer and more secure.
Göran Schildt was, to some extent, able to personalise his home in the design phase, during which he shaped the building together with Alvar Aalto. The interior design of Villa Skeppet can be characterised as strikingly individual, but the building itself has remained almost unaltered. This is understandable in the case of Villa Skeppet, an edifice by a world-class architect. The Schildts’ other home, Villa Kolkis in Greece, provides a fascinating point of reference: the vigorously shaped and personalised building looks unerringly like its owners. From the perspective of shaping one’s home, a well-known piece of architecture as a living environment raises questions regarding the relation between the resident’s mental wellbeing and the architectural culture. Can you live in an artwork? If self-expression is not possible via your home, can you find another channel for it?
Without living in the house, it is difficult to anticipate some things that come up when living in it for a long time, such as – why not spend all one’s spare time in the impressive living room? However, Christine Schildt told me that when she lived alone in the house, the living room was not homely in winter in particular, as it was too cold. This experience suggests that the architecture around us stops impressing us over the course of time and practical matters become more important. Even the most beautiful house can be insufficient as a home if it lacks a dimension that appeals to our natural needs and instincts. Environmental psychology provides a means for studying these experiences. It provides research data that can be used as a basis for design choices – instead of intuition – and can help to specify the objectives of architecture. ↙
Sanna Tegel (b. 1990), architect, is currently working on housing projects. Her master’s thesis Villa Skeppet rakennuksena ja kotina (Villa Skeppet as a building and as a home, Aalto University), was completed last year.