Aalto in Oregon: Mount Angel Abbey Library

Aalto in Oregon: Mount Angel Abbey Library

Alvar Aalto (1898 – 1976) was a Finnish architect celebrated for his innovative designs that deftly combine organic and rationalist elements. Considered one of the most notable modernist architects, Aalto left behind an undeniable legacy in the architectural world. While most of his iconic works are in Europe, he did contribute two buildings to the US.

Completed in 1948, Aalto’s design for the Baker House dormitory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge is the better known of the two. Less well known--but no less significant--is Aalto’s design for the library at Mount Angel Abbey, located in Mount Angel, Oregon about an hour south of Portland. This building is open to the public and well worth a visit.


Located on a Willamette Valley hilltop, Mount Angel Abbey was founded in 1882 by Benedictine monks from the Abbey of Engelberg in Switzerland. The library itself dates from the early 1960s. The three-story building is built into the side of a hill, with an unassuming facade of yellow brick.

Stepping inside the library, visitors experience an graceful interior that is flooded with natural light provided by wide bands of clerestory windows. Small windows at eye level provide framed views of the surrounding countryside. Curved wave-like forms—an Aalto signature—dominate the design and create a sense of spaciousness, flow, and movement. A mezzanine level provides additional visual interest while it thoughtfully maximizes the space.

Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Aalto believed in providing a highly integrated interior to his buildings. As such, most of the desks, chairs, tables, cabinets, shelves, light fixtures, hardware and textiles are Aalto designed. Together they comprise one of the largest collections of Aalto furniture and fittings in North America.

White enameled metal, blonde wood slats, natural brass accents, and a predominance of black & white combine to make the design scheme unmistakably Nordic. Even if you are unfamiliar with Aalto's architecture, you may recognize the furniture, which has been widely imitated. Aalto's 1937 vase design for Iittala glassworks is another iconic design, so famous it has appeared on a Finnish postage stamp.

If you want to make a day of architectural tourism, you can add in a stop to the Gordon House Museum in nearby Silverton. Guided tours are available of this Frank Lloyd Wright designed house, one of the architect's visionary Usonian designs. This is the only Wright designed home in Oregon.