The Edgar J. Kaufmann Conference Facility

On the 12th floor of 809 United Nations Plaza in New York City, home to IIE headquarters, lies an architectural jewel – the Edgar J. Kaufmann Jr. Conference Room, designed by the renowned Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (1898-1976). This facility is one of only four Aalto-designed projects in the United States. With its gently undulating ceiling and walls, its abstract, forest-like sculpture of bent birch wood, its blue porcelain tiles, and its modern yet humanistic lighting, this Aalto interior embodies many of the architect’s most-admired design elements.

The Aalto conference facility was a gift from Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. when the Institute raised the money to build its headquarters building opposite the United Nations over 40 years ago. Mr. Kaufmann had been a student at Taliesin when he suggested Frank Lloyd Wright as the architect for his parents’ country house, Fallingwater, and he later initiated the Good Design exhibition series as a curator of design at the Museum of Modern Art. Mr. Kaufmann had worked with the Institute on exchange programs while teaching architecture and art history at Columbia University, and it was his vision to invite Alvar Aalto to design an interior that represented the character and the scope of the Institute’s ideals.

Commenting on the facility that Aalto designed for the Institute in an essay entitled “Aalto on First Avenue: A brief history of the Finnish master’s lyrical conference suite” in Interior Design magazine (September 1984), Mr. Kaufmann said, “The liberated forms of the wood details … the refinement of the light fixtures … and other features create an atmosphere of exhilarated yet orderly inspiration which can hardly fail to enliven the discussions and pronouncements that take place within their ambience. . . . [The conference suite] carries, I believe, the spirit of a splendidly individual artist into the functioning of a normally and properly bureaucratic organization, one dedicated to serving the freedom of intellectual and artistic exchange world wide.”

The Kaufmann Conference Center is a unique and important example of Alvar Aalto’s work in the United States. The space offers a veritable catalogue of Aalto’s signature contributions to the International style. The Kaufmann Conference Center has served as a lyrical and inspirational backdrop to many of IIE’s most important activities since 1964. The Center has hosted countless expert panels selecting participants for Fulbright Fellowships and other educational exchange programs sending U.S. students around the world and bringing individuals from more than 175 different countries to the United States.

It has served as an exhibition and audition space for artists in all fields – from visual arts to music composition to drama - invited by IIE and eager to share their talents with an international audience. The rooms have been used for IIE board meetings, dinners, and receptions, including events honoring outstanding Americans, such as former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Perhaps most significantly, IIE has used the Kaufmann Conference Room on a regular basis for workshops, roundtables, staff meetings and training sessions focused on how international educational exchange can make the world a better place. These occasions have provided outstanding educators and non-profit leaders with the opportunity and - literally - the space to deliberate on pressing educational exchange needs and to conceive of new programs that will help encourage cooperation and problem-solving among peoples and nations. This is what Edgar J. Kaufmann, Jr. envisioned when he asked Aalto to design the rooms in the 1960s.

Alvar Aalto (1898-1976)

Designer of IIE's Edgar J. Kaufmann Conference Facility in New York

Alvar Aalto was born on February 3, 1898 in Kuortane, Finland and died on May 11, 1976.

His name in itself means "wave" which later would come to life in his architecture. An architect, designer of cities, and furniture maker, Aalto’s international style rested on a distinctive blend of modernist refinement, indigenous materials, and personal expression in form and detail.

His regional and cultural architecture has come to be known as the Scandinavian style. His work included schools, libraries, churches, housing schemes, university plans, entire urban layouts, glassware and plywood furniture.

Aalto's preliminary plans were freely sketched without the use of tools so that the unfettered creative urge for inventive shapes and irregular forms was allowed full play before functional relationships and details were resolved. His use of complex forms and varied materials, acknowledged the character of the site, and gave attention to every detail of the building. The volumes of space created through clustered overlapping of forms were articulated with windows, and introduced views, and motion through curved surfaces. These curved forms often used by Aalto were, he thought, related to the anthropomorphic forms; he was always concerned with the human factor. The curved forms also allowed for varied views along their paths. Natural materials such as wood, brick, stone, copper, and marble were used and were always articulated with natural lighting.

Aalto's style was contextual and vernacular, he was very sensitive to contours of the land, angles and direction of the sunlight. He was very conscious of the need for social settings linked directly to natural surroundings with the use of natural landscape. They achieved this through natural living conditions, the use of natural materials, and integration within the boundaries of landscape and vegetation. Nature, sun, trees, and air all served as functions in creating a harmonious balance between natural and artificial.

In contradiction of Le Corbusier, Aalto said, "Nature not the machine should serve as the model for architecture." This was very much in compliance with the thoughts of Frank Lloyd Wright. He also remarked, "Architecture cannot disengage itself from natural and human factors; on the contrary it must never do so. Its function is to bring nature ever closer to us." Aalto's massive monumental designs both rich in surface textures and traditional materials were showcased with his control of flowing spaces, natural light, sureness of volume and combined with a great attention to detail.

He has influenced many through an international style that he so adorned. As he once said, "nothing is ever reborn, but it never completely disappears either, everything that has ever been emerges in a new form." His belief that buildings should be individual solutions to a given set of problems became the driving force of his architecture, a belief that has become internationally recognized and accepted.

Major Works

1929: Sanatorium Paimio, Finland
1930: Municipal Library Viipuri
1937: Terrace House Kuatya
1938: Villa Mairea Gullichsen Noormarkku, Finland
1939: Finnish Pavilion NY World’s Fair
1947: Baker House Dormitory MIT Cambridge, MA
1949: Helsinki University of Technology Espou, Finland
1956: Church of Vuokseniska Imatra, Finland 1958 Art Museum Aalborg, Denmark
1958: House of Louis Carre Bazches-sur-Guonne, France
1959: Community Centre Wolfburg, Germany
1962: Community Centre Seiajoki, Finland
1964: Edgar J. Kaufman Conference Rooms Institute International NY
1967: Mount Angel Abbey Library Salem, OR
1971: Finlandia Hall Helsinki
1973: Taidemuseo Alvar Aalto Museum Jyvaskyla, Finland