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Alvar Aalto (1898-1976)

Following the trajectory of Alvar Aalto’s career

Alvar Aalto was pretty sanguine about his reputation, citing the sentimentality of foreign critics evaluating his work as part of some ‘wholesome Nordic sanity’, as well as the gullibility of his countrymen in believing and repeating such assessments. Aalto was well aware of the paradox that while his work was venerated for its sense of place, that place was based on what Roger Connah has neatly phrased an ‘expediency of inexactitude’ that willed his buildings apart from the commonplace of his actual practice. Yet if the character of his achievements is separated from his reputation, Aalto represents an important link between architectural excellence and the everyday.

Firstly, Aalto’s environments have endured as thriving, inhabited places that welcome the processes of ageing and weathering. Buildings such as the Baker House Dormitory at MIT (1946-49) are still beautifully fit for purpose, while projects such as the Rautatalo Office Building (1951-55) in central Helsinki, and suburban environments such as the Jyväskylä University Campus (1951-60) are typical of an architecture that reflects on art as a second nature, in opposition to the Modernist idea that a building can be conceived or experienced in isolation.

Secondly, unlike almost all his international peers, Aalto was able to work at home, building out of the nuances of what was there. Spread over six decades, Aalto’s buildings address an extraordinary range of situations, from the brittle and divided First Republic that existed in Finland after Independence and the bloody Civil War of 1918, to the united but vulnerable post-war Second Republic, along with its emerging consumer culture.

Thirdly, Aalto and his atelier developed a form of artistic practice with a genius for contingency that allowed the particularities of social and physical ecology, brief, budget and materials to inform each other and the project. This approach enabled Aalto to build well, and at the same time prolifically, in response to the complexities of modernity. Aalto’s atelier completed over four hundred projects in response to myriad briefs, and for every Villa Mairea there were copious others in housing, healthcare and education, plus warehouses, factories, lending libraries, etc.

Aalto insisted his work was functional, but by this he did not mean reductively mechanistic (Sachlich), but a purposive intention (Zweckmässigkeit) that forms a setting for, and frames, human activity. A staircase can be just functional, or − as so many of Aalto’s projects display − a structure that binds buildings and topography, conditions experience, and acts as a place for social encounters.

As early as 1935, Aalto spoke of an ‘extended rationalism’ that included the uncertainties of the human condition, and in his writings he espoused a consistent theme of reconciliation. Social spaces that might encourage socially beneficial forms of behaviour are placed at the heart of his projects, whether they are asked for or not, potentially reconciling them with the life of the city, town or commune. These include the piazza at the centre of the otherwise banal offices and shops of the Rautatalo, and the integrating of the National Pensions Institute into the urban tissue of Helsinki.

‘While photographs may pick out particular details, the buildings themselves are low key; just enough’

Aalto understood our experience of the environment to be primarily empathetic, not visual, and he designed to sway, not direct. In his most famous essay, ‘Archittetura e arte concreta’, Aalto reaffirmed the writer Yrjö Hirn’s conception of how art is not solely cognitive, but an experience that engages our entire body. It is this understanding that makes the ambience of Aalto’s works so imperceptibly engaging. While photographs may pick out individual architectural gestures or particular details, the buildings themselves are low-key; just enough.

The essay also describes a process Aalto calls ‘child-like’ in which he was free to play without preconceptions, and could assemble ‘a maze of possibilities’ into a cohesive design. Like a child playing in an unfamiliar room, an idea is not thwarted by the lack of any one thing, but is brought into being through whatever is at hand.

This approach to design permits contingencies and fortuities to participate in ‘the slow construction of the narrative’. Equally, free play leads to a synthesis in which design becomes an informed instinct; to use Hirn’s terms, Aalto’s designing was as intuitive as a trapeze artist performing, where rationalising the act would be fatal. It is this performance that fires his work way beyond any empirical dullness.

Playfulness also formed the basis of Aalto’s representation, where from his first sketch he determined to keep the ambiguity of his ideas alive. Aalto made a series of impasto paintings from the 1940s onwards, and while the paintings are not especially good, they explore what he called ‘the mental image and [its] material implementation’. His overlaying lines in soft 6B pencil elucidate a suggestion of form and a continuous contour of building and landscape. Orthogonal drawings and large-scale models check and refine ideas, but Aalto happily called the building site the largest model of all, and would change things even as they emerged from the ground.


Alvar Aalto

Helsinki University of Technology

Key Buildings
Villa Mairea, Finland (1939)
Finnish Pavilion, New York (1939)
Baker House Student Accommodation, Cambridge, MA (1948)
Säynätsalo Town Hall, Finland (1951)
Rovaniemi Library, Finland (1968)
Essen Opera House, Germany (1959-88)

RIBA Royal Gold Medal (1957)
AIA Gold Medal (1963)

‘Human life is a combination of tragedy and comedy. The shapes and designs that surround us are the music accompanying this tragedy and this comedy.’

Despite hubristic denials, Aalto also readily collaborated with others, and his career is full of concepts engendered through the visceral spark and nuance of conversation. Aalto sought out progressive practices from friends abroad, including Frederick Kiesler, Fernand Léger, and László Moholy-Nagy. It was Aalto’s capacity to bind the clarity of their self-consciously radicalised techniques to his own context that led to some of his greatest inventions. Moholy-Nagy’s modulation of artificial light with grilles was recast as the rooflights of the Viipuri Library, while his ‘objective’ experimental reliefs for testing materials were extended through Aino and Alvar Aalto’s collaboration with the Turku furniture maker Otto Korhonen to become their bentwood furniture.

However, the most important collaborators were his atelier and partners. Most importantly, from 1924 Aalto worked in partnership with Aino Marsio-Aalto until her death in 1949, and then from 1958, until his death, in partnership with Elissa Aalto who continued to run the atelier until her death in 1994. As he said ‘only when we’re together can an unexaggerated attitude be found’. Typically, but no less reprehensibly, these female figures have been overlooked, as has the contribution of his wider atelier whose shared trust enabled Aalto to undertake a remarkable array of projects.

Aalto’s achievement, if not his reputation, was to build well within the everyday conditions of modernity, rather than standing aside from them, or attempting to replace them with a single dogmatic artistry. Working with his atelier, Aalto exhibited a care for the uncertainties of the 20th-century human condition, and ensured he had the resourcefulness to match. Form was important, but as a means not an end. As Veli Paatela, the job architect of the Baker House Dormitory recalls in Alvar Aalto: the Mark of the Hand: ‘Once when we were on a beach on Cape Cod, by the Atlantic, Alvar and I and were going to go for a swim, Alvar suddenly stopped. The waves had washed a few corals onto the sand and Alvar stood there and said: […] ‘I’m filming it into my head. I might need this shape one day.”’


Paddy Mills. See more work on his website

See more on Alvar Aalto

Alvar Aalto is included In the Big Rethinking of Peter Buchanan “Learning from Four Modern Masters” 

Readers' comments (1)

  • I'm glad that Harry Charington mentioned the fact that the importance of Aalto's wives has been almost entirely overlooked by history. I was at Aalto's old atelier in Helsinki late last year where some members of the foundation's research team are based. While leading the tour, the researcher pointed out that Aalto was actually pretty poor at detailing and solving practical issues, and relied heavily on (I think) Elissa's knowledge and skill in this area. Also, the conditions of the country itself have always been more conducive to the production of quality architecture than other European nations (particularly the UK). The industrialisation of Finland happened much more slowly in Finland than in other places (which helped the 'craft' based attitude to design) and the Fin's (indeed the whole of Scandanavia) seem to have administration down to a fine art. Even now, Helsinki reeks of a fine balance between urbanity, culture and pragmatism within which Aalto's office buildings (such as the one at Rautatalo) fit very naturally, and which I have never experienced in London, even with all it's great architecture. Did I mention that Aalto (like every famous architect) exploited students, and woe betide you if you were a foreigner working in his office!

    ' No man is an Island, even unto himself'!

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