‘A delirious deco dream’: former TB sanatorium is now Finland’s most unusual holiday let
16.11.2023 - 17:51
Deep in a forest two hours’ drive west of Helsinki is the deserted Paimio Sanatorium (Paimion Parantola in Finnish). One of the world’s best-preserved buildings from the modernist era, it’s as clean, sleek and mysterious as a medical instrument.
An overnight stay in a remote, disused hospital may not sound enticing. But for architecture and design enthusiasts, some opportunities are impossible to resist – and this one is time-limited. At least part of this building is likely to be converted into a hotel and spa in the coming years. The Alvar Aalto Foundation, which preserves the legacy of Finland’s most celebrated architect, took over the site three years ago from state ownership, and is searching for a way to pay for its upkeep.
In the meantime, the foundation wants to share Paimio’s beautifully spartan state with visitors, and raise funds in the process. This year it opened Mäntylä, a block of former nurses’ apartments, as self-catering holiday lets. There is no spa, no pool and few luxuries. But anyone in search of untouched art deco splendour and restful escape will find them here.
We arrive at night, turning off the motorway from Helsinki to Turku for the small town of Paimio. Three kilometres beyond, at the end of a track, the sanatorium emerges from its forest setting like an ocean liner ablaze. Its massive, brilliant-white form is all towering edifices and moderne curves – a spectacular sight against deep-black Nordic skies.
Above the entrance is a concrete canopy, vaguely in the shape of a lung. Inside, Paimio’s decor is true to the 1933 original designs and a delirious dream: a vast, silent lobby area, chilly white with canary yellow floor, and a receptionists’ booth shielded behind glass, something like an enormous conical flask.
Mäntylä is a separate block. My room is functional, almost monastic, but it is also immaculate, uncluttered and utterly silent. The woodwork looks original. Thankfully, the plumbing is modern, and the Aalto-designed high-modernist furniture and textiles are contemporary reproductions.
Today Paimio is disused (though not quite abandoned). Finland, one of the world’s most equitable countries, is seeking Unesco world heritage status for 13 Aalto-designed modernist landmarks designed to improve society. They include housing, government offices, a university, Helsinki’s Finlandia concert hall and, of course, Paimio, which Aalto considered his early-career masterpiece when he completed it.
This place was commissioned in urgent circumstances, part of the Finnish state’s efforts at the end of the 1920s to deal with tuberculosis, the biggest public health crisis of the era. About 10,000 Finns were dying every year, more lives than a young country could afford.