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Aalto: Explaining an Enigma

Aalto America: Exploring the innovative architect’s individualism

I’ve long been puzzled by Alvar Aalto: a great architect, certainly; but at the same time his work is strangely personal, so that discussing it seems to constitute almost an invasion of his privacy. We use his three-legged stools in our living room, so I think of him frequently. When I designed a block of flats in Highgate, I took the garden side with its balconies from Corb, and the road side with high strip bedroom windows from Aalto. I tried to make the design fit intimately to the sloping site, as he advocated.

So why the hang-up? This book goes a long way to explain it. Edited by Stanford Anderson, who contributes a relatively short introduction, it clearly bears the mark of his intellect in the choice of contributors and in its general argument. The argument is, broadly, that Aalto was different from the other greats in the way he thought of nature, memory, tradition and function. He was a member of the Modern Movement, but the breadth of his concerns made him anticipate the wide-ranging references that we find in Postmodernism.

There were only three Aalto buildings in America: the Finland Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair of 1939; Baker House, a students’ dormitory at Harvard; and the Mount Angel Library in Oregon. But he was taken up by Dean William Wurster of MIT, who appointed him as a teacher there, and this led to his considerable reputation in the US.

Aalto believed in the duty to function, in the importance of providing a sympathetic environment that answered people’s needs. But he also knew that everything in human culture is mediated by shared concepts retained in the memory: reasoning has to be done cautiously, with due weight given to intuition.

These points are dealt with in the lead essay by Sarah Goldhagen on ‘Aalto’s Embodied Rationalism’. Aalto advocated ‘flexible standardisation’ rather than the rigid approach of the Neue Sachlichkeit. He was not obsessed by the structure of his buildings; he valued their transparency, but revelled in their opacity.

He was influenced by phenomenology and claimed that rationalism had not gone deep enough: intuition, he said, can sometimes be rational. She ends up by claiming that Aalto can help us to see not only with our eyes, but also with our minds.


Photograph of the inside of Mount Angel Abbey Library in Oregon designed by Aalto

A subsequent essay by Dörte Kuhlmann entitled ‘Floating Signifiers: Interpreting Aalto’ focuses on the apartment block Neue Vahr at Bremen. Here the balcony ends of the flats at different angles give a varied facade, unlike Le Corbusier’s Berlin Unité. This is occasioned by the use of a fan-like disposition in the plan. Kuhlmann defends Le Corbusier: wouldn’t it be better, he asks, to adopt an ideal orientation for all the flats equally? In this respect, Bremen can be considered as a variation on the type of the Unité.

Aalto’s opposition to the mainstream personified by Le Corbusier merely accentuated his position as a new force, a Finnish deus ex machina. In the Hansaviertal apartment block of 1957 he showed a concern for the common areas, which marks him as a more humanist architect, and justifies his position among the moderns, yet not entirely of them.

Colin St John Wilson’s essay on ‘The Other Tradition’ suffers from being little more than notes on his book of the same name. Nonetheless, it was extremely important in bringing Aalto forward as a new source of inspiration. In the various essays describing his American work in detail, Baker House forms the main subject and of these, Paul Bentel’s on ‘The Historical Significance of Alvar Aalto’s Baker House’ is probably the best.

Another fascinating thread is provided by Michael Spens on ‘Mount Angel Abbey Library and the Path from Viipuri’. Mount Angel is not yet fully appreciated and Spens stresses the tradition of the Benedictines, who insisted on the importance of reading and reflection.

Libraries were Aalto’s favourite subjects and it is amazing to reflect that the design was done before he visited the site, and needed to be only slightly changed later. The building adopts a fan-shaped plan, similar to Neue Vahr, which slightly begs the question: didn’t Aalto enjoy the fan shape as a form, whatever the function?

The book would have benefited by bringing into the discussion ideas put forward by Demetri Porphyrios (in Architectural Monographs 4, Academy Editions 1978). Porphyrios argues that Modernism in general favoured Monotopia, but Aalto favoured Heterotopia, the juxtaposition of decisively different elements. That completes my own understanding of an architect who was both precise in every part, yet also surprisingly vague. This book is splendidly produced and is a must for libraries and practising architects, if a little daunting for students.

Aalto and America

Authors: Stanford Anderson, Gail Fenske and David Fixler

Publishers: Yale University Press

Price: $75

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