You could be forgiven for finding that the Finnish town of Jyvaskyla presents something of a pronunciation challenge. It's easier by far to make sense of the buildings created there by the great 20th-century architect and designer Alvar Aalto, for whom Jyvaskyla was home.
Good design is to the Finns what good food is to the Italians - an essential part of everyday life. Aalto was a key figure in establishing this philosophy in his homeland and throughout Scandinavia, and with Nordic design having become so popular, many of his architectural creations are drawing the visitors.
Examples of Aalto's work can be found across Finland, from Jyvaskyla, set in Finland's enormous and beautiful lake district to the capital, Helsinki, an architecture buff's dream town, stuffed with many of Aalto's finest works.
Deeply influenced by Bauhaus functionalism, Aalto's career lasted from 1917 until his death in 1976. He imbued the cold minimalism of Bauhaus with the warm natural tones of his homeland. But whereas a typical Bauhaus design used steel tubing, Aalto preferred wood and leather, creating sweeping lines filled with movement to juxtapose with the clinical styles of his Functionalist contemporaries.
As a designer, Aalto created a number of beautiful and iconic pieces, not least the celebrated Flower and Savoy vases, the Paimio chair, and the three-legged Aalto stool, which have all been in continuous production since their creation in the 1930s. His architectural works reflected his commitment to a humanistic agenda, creating light and airy spaces that allowed for human interaction. Aalto used a number of signature devices, such as covering metal hand-rails with leather so that nobody had to touch metal surfaces.
In Helsinki, it's possible to take in the best of Aalto in a day. Guided tours can be arranged at The Finlandia Hall (00 358 9 40241), at Mannerheimintie 13, a striking, angular, Modernist display, clad in sheets of white marble, on the edge of a lake in the heart of the city.
It was here that Aalto faced his greatest challenge when he was commissioned in the 1960s to design a futuristic city centre. In the end the Finlandia Hall was the only part of the grand plan that came to fruition, and its history has been troubled. The elitist attitude of its directors, and the money spent saving the white marble cladding - it's prone to falling off - has rendered Finlandia a bit of a white elephant. Aalto, the great pragmatist, would turn in his grave. (If you visit on a cold clear winter's day, walk across the frozen lake - double check that it's safe with locals - for the best photo-op.)
On the other side of the lake, on a small hill, stands the House of Culture (00 358 9 774 0270), at Sturenkatu 4, which was designed by Aalto in the 1950s. Originally the headquarters of the Finnish Communist Party, it is now home to various cultural organisations. The remarkable auditorium is sheltered by an arched roof.
More enduring is Aalto's wonderful National Pensions Institute (00 358 20 43411), at Nordenskioldinkatu 12, just off Mannerheimintie. Designed in the 1940s to house the apparatus of Finland's burgeoning welfare state, this building is classic Aalto. The exterior is red brick, while the inside is filled with marble, leather fittings, cylindrical tiles, Aalto furniture, and his famous tiered lamps. …