Aalto's Boat

architect Alvar Aalto
written by Esa Laaksonen

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During his comprehensive career as an architect and a product designer Alvar Aalto has made also a few more divergent and special works apart from everyday pieces. Those include several wall reliefs made from wood or stone, paintings, gravestones to his colleagues and a large casted Second World War memorial of the Suomussalmi battles. Yet to him personally, one of his perhaps most loved designs, which took lots of working hours – at least based on the amount of drawings in the archive – was to give a shape to his own motorboat at the beginning of the 1950s.


act 1 Alvar Aalto was born in the west coast of Finland in Kuortane, which has a relatively small number of lakes, where his family lived until they and 5-year old Alvar moved to Alajärvi and further to Jyväskylä. The story tells that the Aalto family didn’t have a motorboat even during the time in Jyväskylä, even though the city is located in a Finnish area rich in lakes and the civil servant families like the Aalto family usually had their own boat.


act 2 When his wife Aino died in 1949, Aalto returned from mit professorship from the usa to Helsinki, where his office has had lots of designing projects since the Second World War ended. He married the architect Elsa (Elissa) Mäkiniemi in 1952. The couple ended up building their summer residence on the island of Muuratsalo, near Jyväskylä, which in the 1950s did not have any road access. Muuratsalo is located very near Säynätsalo, where Aalto was working on a significant town hall site, which was to be completed at the beginning of 1950s. Aalto’s summer residence, a building known as the trial house, was completed in 1953. At that time, it was also a matter of timely decision to acquire a boat in order to reach the island. Aalto decided to design the boat himself.


act 3 Aalto designed a very fast boat which would come ashore easily like a landing craft even though there was a little pier/harbour built for the boat in Muuratsalo. According to the historian Göran Schildt, who has produced a profile for Aalto, the boat was only supposed to transport friends to Shangri-La. The boat has a back cabin and its front part is an open deck with padded benches on both sides. The cockpit sides have wide laths to keep the seaters dry. The boat is 10.2 metres long and 2.6 metres wide. Aalto named the boat Nemo propheta in patria. Construction of the pine-boarded flat-bottomed (carvel-built) boat began in Säynätsalo in the late autumn of 1954. Due to the carve-built method it was quite difficult in springtime to launch the boat. Almost every spring, the water would get into the boat because the boards were dried out. The boat’s decorations are abundant in carefully made details and the interior is made in oak and mahogany. The mid-engine, apparently smuggled from the United States by Aalto, is a 96 horsepower Scripps Marine Engine, propelled with two 150-litre built-in fuel tanks. Because of the heavy engine and the placement of the fuel tanks, the prow would rise making steering of the boat very difficult. Apparently at one time she was the fastest motorboat on the Päijänne Lake. In addition, in deep waters she would produce large waves. For that reason the boat was primarily used to run a relatively short distances between Säynätsalo and Muuratsalo. On the other hand, it can be said that Nemo was ahead of her time, the production of aft-cabin boats began only some twenty years later.


act 4 Aalto and his wife Elissa are both dead, Alvar died in 1976 and Elissa in 1994. There is now a concrete bridge constructed to Muuratsalo. Nemo was being unused in an unpractical and ugly wooden acrylic showcase in Jyväskylä in the quay of Juurikkasaari. It was decided to arrange an international competition for students, whose aim was to find a solution for an appropriate storage for the boat. For example, one of the jury members was an Australian architect Glenn Murcutt along with Juhani Pallasmaa, and the competition received approximately 220 proposals from all around the world. The grey boathouse made from larch with wire tray walls was completed according to the design by two Danish students of architecture, Claudia Schulz and Anne-Mette Krolmark a few years later. The boathouse found its way into a large book of the world architecture published by Phaidon.


act 5 Even though the boat has been preserved quite well, over the years it has got into a bad shape, and requires a comprehensive renovation. In 2012 the Aalto Foundation decided to renovate Nemo Propheta in Patria and move it permanently from its outdoor location in Muuratsalo, most likely to Forum Marinum, a sea centre in Turku, where she would be accompanied by Göran Schildt’s legendary sailing boat Daphne. The journey of the boat continues.