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Giant in the Woods

Alvar Aalto: Between Humanism and Materialism

exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, February 19-May 19, 1998., Catalog of the exhibition edited by Peter Reed
Museum of Modern Art/Abrams, 320 pp., $55.00

Finnish Modern Design: Utopian Ideals and Everyday Realities, 1930-1997 Arts, February 27-June 14, 1998.

exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative, Catalog of the exhibition edited by Marianne Aav, by Nina Stritzler-Levine
Yale University Press, 352 pp., $65.00

Alvar Aalto in His Own Words

by Göran Schildt
Rizzoli, 280 pp., $60.00

Alvar Aalto: Master Works

by Göran Schildt
Rizzoli, 240 pp., $25.00 (paper)

1.

Among the more piquant ironies of twentieth-century architecture is that two of the greatest exponents of its most widespread manifestation—the International Style—moved away from it forty years before the rest of the world discovered the shortcomings of that boldly simplified but severely circumscribed way of building. Less than a decade after Le Corbusier codified the basic design principles of the International Style in his Five Points of a New Architecture of 1926, he abandoned the machinelike forms and sleek finishes of Purism and introduced the biomorphic contours and rough materials that he often used during his later career.

Le Corbusier had no more brilliant first-generation follower than the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, born in 1898, eleven years the junior of the Swiss-French master. If claims that the International Style would be universally applied were at the heart of Corbusier’s project, then he could have had no better confirmation than the unexpected emergence of such a gifted early adherent in a cultural backwater, as Finland was (and often still is) regarded in cosmopolitan circles. From its inception, the International Style had been faulted for being less suited to a northern climate than that of the Mediterranean, whose vernacular building traditions largely inspired Corbusier’s formula of white walls, flat roofs, and cubic volumes. To have the International Style applied with conspicuous success in a subarctic region for a wide range of functions—including a sanatorium, a library, an apartment block, and a newspaper office and printing plant, all of which Aalto designed in his homeland before 1930—gave a tremendous boost to Corbusier’s argument that the new architecture could thrive throughout the world.

Yet despite the significant foreign recognition Aalto’s first Modernist schemes brought him before he was thirty-five (relatively early in the career of an architect), he, like Corbusier but quite independently of him, foresaw the creative limitations implicit in the new style’s rigorous reductivism. With the skeptical insight—“the gift of doubt,” as he called it—that was always his most valuable critical faculty, Aalto came to realize, as he wrote in 1938, that “nature, not the machine, is the most important model for architecture.”

Aalto’s successive changes of direction—from his initial Stripped Classical mode, partly inspired by Renaissance buildings, to the International Style and then to his very personal brand of organic architecture—were relatively easy for him to make because he was never constrained by purely ideological issues. An impresario of duality and ambiguity, he was willing to meld seemingly disparate points of view in a single design. As Michael Trencher points out in The Alvar Aalto Guide, a concise and cogent book about the architect’s built works, that is as much a Finnish national tendency as an individual trait: “The tradition of balancing competing forces remains a Finnish necessity.” Ruled by Sweden from the twelfth century until 1809 and then by Russia until 1917, Finland for almost a millennium has had to accommodate itself to the dominant powers that have surrounded it.

Hardly recalled today, for example, is the Finnish alliance with Germany during World War II, when Aalto’s countrymen saw the lesser of two evils in joining forces with the Nazis to drive out their most hated historical enemy, the Russians. Like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Philip Johnson, Aalto was all too willing to collaborate with the fascists. During a 1943 visit to Germany to inspect Nazi architecture as a guest of Albert Speer, Aalto told his Finnish fellow travelers, “Look, boys, don’t you think we should treat this trip as a game?” (Reference to that journey is omitted from the Museum of Modern Art’s detailed chronology of Aalto’s career in its new exhibition catalog.) At a farewell dinner in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, Aalto gave a speech that today seems less than a joke. Recalling a trip to the US in the late 1930s, he said,

Once when I was waiting for Laurance Rockefeller at the Harvard Club, my eyes happened to fall on a book with red covers on the shelf. I took it down, and discovered that it was written by an author completely unknown to me by the name of Adolf Hitler. I opened up the book at random, and my eyes fell on a sentence that immediately pleased me. It said that architecture is the king of the arts and music the queen. That was enough for me; I felt that I did not need to read further.

In 1899, Tsar Nicholas II began his Russification campaign to subjugate the Duchy of Finland culturally and to fully integrate it into his empire. The Finns’ artistic revolt, the movement called National Romanticism, was typified by the lush tone poems of Jean Sibelius, which evoked the country’s majestic landscape, and the fancifully folkloric early architecture of Eliel Saarinen, which harked back to what Saarinen saw as the pagan vitality of the Vikings. By the time Aalto began his own career, after graduating from the Helsinki University of Technology in 1921, he in turn rebelled against such calculatedly emotional aesthetic propaganda, disparaging National Romanticism, which he called “that absurd 1905-period of the flowering of the birch-bark culture when all that was clumsy and coarse was considered so very Finnish.”

Yet Aalto was a romanticist in his own way, and as a young man dreamed of transforming Finland into a Florence of the North. During his initial years of practice in his rural hometown of Jyväskylä, he designed several exceptionally elegant buildings in a pared-down Italian Renaissance manner reminiscent of Alberti. Yet those sophisticated classical paraphrases seem thoroughly at home in their Nordic setting, as do his early country house designs, which derive equally from the villas of Palladio and the dachas of Karelia, the eastern province that the Soviet Union took back after the Finnish debacle of World War II.

During each of his three stylistic periods, Aalto proved himself to be an inveterate synthesist but no mere compromiser. After his conversion to Modernism in 1927, he designed structures according to “machine aesthetics,” but they were rarely as unyielding as those of his more extreme contemporaries. And his biomorphic schemes from 1935 onward, which recall the rounded shapes of Jean Arp, avoided the self-indulgent expressionism that deviation from rectilinear order often seems to invite. Aalto wanted his architecture to combine qualities that seldom went together—at once monumental and intimate (as in his Säynätsalo Town Hall of 1948-1952), practical and symbolic (Finlandia Hall of 1962-1971 in Helsinki), flexible and immutable (the Church of the Three Crosses of 1955-1958 at Vuoksenniska), respectful of worthy local traditions (his own country house and sauna of 1952-1953 at Muuratsalo), and receptive to progressive scientific ideas (the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium of 1929-1933). Aalto’s true genius was for combining diverse qualities in a single project without any of them seeming extraneous or contradictory.

One of Aalto’s most celebrated objects is his undulating glass vase of 1936, commonly known as the Savoy (after the Helsinki restaurant he designed with his first wife and principal collaborator, Aino Marsio-Aalto, who died in 1949)—though he gave the vase the more playful name of Eskimo Woman’s Leather Breeches. As Aalto’s ravishing preparatory sketches for a variety of objects suggest and as the historical record confirms, his friendships during the 1930s with Arp, Brancusi, and Calder were the likely source of his new interest in biomorphic form, of which this vase is his best-known example.

The Savoy vase (still made by the Finnish firm Iittala; see illustration on page 20) is a highlight of the Museum of Modern Art’s centennial retrospective, which also displays a number of variants of the free-form vessel along with Aalto’s strikingly Arpesque studies for it and the Brancusian wooden molds used in its manufacture. At the same time one is reminded that the linear purity and material economy of the vase is also quite close in spirit to the Pyrex laboratory beakers that were exhibited in MoMA’s Machine Art show of 1934 and are still on view in its design collection as a model of the modern functionalist vocabulary.

The Savoy vase is also included in the Bard Graduate Center’s illuminating exhibition Finnish Modern Design: Utopian Ideals and Everyday Realities, 1930-1997, which places Aalto’s pivotal contributions within the much less familiar setting of his country’s lively and varied modern design movement. The Bard show, which also displays several examples of his furniture, is accompanied by a catalog that addresses his tendency to overshadow the design work of his talented contemporaries and successors, though admirers of his incomparably elegant schemes are unlikely to be persuaded that the consensus among critics on Aalto’s superiority is wrong.

Like other members of his generation, Aalto was excited by the potential that industrialization offered for bringing better and more affordable architecture and design to a broad public. “The real building economics is how much of the good things, at how cheap a cost, can we give,” he said in a 1957 lecture reprinted in Alvar Aalto in His Own Words, a welcome anthology compiled by Göran Schildt, author of the architect’s definitive biography.*

Schildt’s other commemorative publication of this centennial year is Alvar Aalto: Master Works, a lavishly illustrated survey of his most significant buildings, accompanied by the architectural historian’s pithy and sometimes ironic commentaries, much as Aalto expressed himself. In a speech to the British Architectural Association in 1950, Aalto said, “What an architect says does not mean a damned thing, what counts is what he does.” Stung by postwar criticism of his work in Finland, he named his speedboat Nemo Propheta in Patria (“No man is a prophet in his own country”). Around that time he sarcastically titled a competition entry for a new customs terminal in Helsinki harbor “Come in to Paradise.”

For all his enthusiasm about mass production, however, Aalto worried early in his career that modern objects unnecessarily resembled the machines that made them rather than the people who used them. He greatly admired the innovative metal bent-tube furniture of Marcel Breuer, which Thonet began to manufacture in 1928. Much taken with the structural ingenuity and formal daring of Breuer’s Wassily chair, Aalto bought it for his own house, but after living with it for a while he found the chrome-plated steel too cold to the touch and too reflective of light and sound. Aalto’s response was the bent-plywood furniture he designed from 1931 onward, which in his typically synthetic fashion combined the continuous leg-and-arm forms pioneered by Breuer with a low-tech application of Finland’s most abundant natural resource, wood.

Aalto’s Paimio chair of 1931-1932 was first made for his tuberculosis hospital of the same name and subsequently put onto the world market. The precisely inclined angle of the back was determined not by aesthetic concerns but to provide the optimum position for patients’ ease of breathing, an extension of Aalto’s own conception of the building as a “medical instrument.” Aalto’s furniture (which caused a sensation when it was exhibited abroad for the first time, in London in 1933, at Fortnum & Mason, of all places) had a profound effect on modern designers, most notably Charles and Ray Eames, whose molded plywood chairs would have been unthinkable without Aalto’s inventive precedents. Along with his glassware and his World’s Fair pavilions in Paris in 1937 and New York in 1939, Aalto’s chairs were the most persuasive examples of his work to be circulated internationally during his defining decade, spreading his reputation far beyond his remote homeland, where three quarters of his buildings were to be erected.

2.

Wood, as Aalto wrote, was for him “the principal material of sensitive architectural detailing.” Certainly no other member of the Modern movement used wood as extensively or with greater ingenuity, sensitivity, and variety than he did. Furthermore, his genuine affinity for wood led to the most important patronage of his career: Finland’s major forestry-product corporations, whose numerous commissions for factories, office buildings, managers’ and workers’ housing, and even entire company towns were to become the mainstay of the Aalto office, the range of whose work ran from interior design to regional planning. Aalto was able to make the alliance between high-style architecture and large-scale industry that most of his Modernist colleagues could only fantasize about. The accommodating Finn, however, worked in close concert with his country’s foremost capitalists—though his political sympathies and economic beliefs were thoroughly socialist. In the bargain he gave Finland’s lumber barons an invaluable international showcase for their products.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Aalto’s Finnish Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, now generally regarded as the architectural masterpiece of the exposition. Torn down after the fair closed in 1940, it is today known to most people through a single black-and-white image (see illustration on page 16): the widely reproduced photograph of the pavilion’s main interior exhibition space. So startling and powerful is that towering gallery after almost sixty years that it comes as even more of a shock to learn that this was only an interior design scheme. Because Finland could not afford to erect its own freestanding building at the New York fair (though Aalto did so quite economically in Paris two years earlier), the architect had to work within the boxy confines of one of the Stripped Classical shelters provided by the fair’s organizers for lesser participants, adding a row of birch sapling trunks to one stucco exterior wall in an attempt to make it seem more organic.

Aalto envisioned the pavilion’s 54-foot-high display space as resembling a forest clearing, a motif he would return to again and again in his work, but, as here, always in a thoroughly abstract manner. In no way drawn to the representational kitsch of the atmospheric movie theaters that were popular a decade earlier—this was no Loews Lapland—he nonetheless devised light fixtures to evoke the glow of the aurora borealis and made the grand room reflect the source of the wood products displayed in it.

Four-story-high undulating screens of vertical wood slats grew from the periphery of the pavilion’s curving floor plan, forming nonstructural walls that leaned progressively forward as they rose higher, creating a sensuously embracing space. In outline and vertical development, it was remarkably like an enlarged version of the Savoy vase. The closest architectural analog to this interior was to be found in the Great Workroom of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax Building of 1936-1939 in Racine, Wisconsin. Wright’s similarly high-ceilinged, streamlined, inward-turning “landscape” was punctuated with treelike columns, making the feeling of a forest even more explicit. The affinity between his own revitalized work of the 1930s and that of the Finnish newcomer was not lost on Wright, who, in an uncharacteristic outburst of generosity toward a rival, during a visit to the Finnish Pavilion proclaimed Aalto to be a genius.

Several scholars have examined Aalto’s relation to the Finnish landscape in general and the forest in particular. Yet Aalto’s metaphoric forest was above all meant to be a human habitat, and the human body, so palpable in the voluptuous contours of his designs, mattered as much to him as the primeval landscape. Some years ago the Boston architect Charles Rogers recalled to me Aalto’s working habits, which Rogers observed as a student during the architect’s postwar years at MIT, where Aalto taught during the design and construction of the Baker House dormitory of 1946-1949, his most spectacularly curvaceous structure. Aalto would arrive in the studio at 9 AM, place a bottle of aquavit on his drafting table, and proceed to sketch the nude female model he had added to the curriculum. By noon the bottle would be empty, Aalto’s drawing arm would be sufficiently loosened, and he felt ready to face the challenges of architecture.

In a 1947 article Aalto asserted “my personal, emotional view that architecture and its details are in some way all part of biology.” Finding that connection, he wrote, was for him a matter of freeing the intuitive creative process from undue rational thinking (although he omitted mentioning the catalytic role alcohol often played for him in reaching that state):

I forget the whole maze of problems for a while, as soon as the feel of the assignment and the innumerable demands it involves have sunk into my subconscious. I then move on to a method of working that is very much like abstract art. I simply draw by instinct, not architectural syntheses, but what are sometimes quite childlike compositions, and in this way, on an abstract basis, the main idea gradually takes shape, a kind of universal substance that helps me to bring the numerous contradictory elements into harmony.

3.

Aalto’s skillful fusion of opposites is underscored by the subtitle of the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition and catalog, Between Humanism and Materialism (the name the architect gave to a 1955 lecture). However, that duality, which is addressed in the catalog’s collection of excellent essays, is not fully enough reflected in the show’s physical presentation. Intelligently organized by Peter Reed, the Modern’s associate curator of architecture and design, the show has been handsomely installed by Jerry Neuner, the museum’s chief exhibition designer. This scrupulous chronological survey brings to mind the classic displays that decades ago made MoMA exhibitions a watchword for clarity and good taste.

Yet despite all the obvious care and precision of their efforts, Reed and Neuner could not fully overcome the major problem in mounting any Aalto show. The architect produced few drawings with enough “wall power” to dominate a gallery space—Aalto was much more interested in construction than depiction—and models of his buildings, however good they may be in explaining their inner workings, can give little idea of the environmental setting that was all-important to Aalto’s individualized conceptions, which varied dramatically from one site to the next.

The modern side of Aalto is well represented in this exhibition, but his primitive, even mystical, side does not come through as clearly. There are full-scale mock-ups of walls made from the traditional building materials whose use he reconceived with immense ingenuity—such as his wedge-shaped bricks for forming his hallmark serpentine walls, and the cobalt-blue half-round tubular tiles he used to create fluted wall textures—and examples of his sensuously molded bronze door handles. But there is not nearly enough wood in the show to convey the central place it occupied in his repertory of materials. Relegated to a small, easy-to-miss gallery off the main exhibition entrance is a wall-mounted series of the laminated bent-plywood models Aalto originally used to work out his furniture designs and later drew on for decorative reliefs. No matter what the limitations of space, these influential artifacts ought to have been incorporated into the body of the show.

That Aalto remains the most underappreciated giant of the Modern movement has much to do with the fact that his formally diffuse architecture is particularly resistant to the kind of one-shot photography that can adequately sum up a building by Mies van der Rohe, for example. Though large color photographs are abundant in the MoMA exhibition, they are fortunately supplemented by videotapes that conduct viewers through the interiors of several major buildings. One of those landmarks is Aalto’s most important house, Villa Mairea of 1937- 1939 (see illustration on page 18) in Noormarkku in western Finland. This was commissioned by Maire and Harry Gullichsen when she was heiress to, and he the chief executive of, the A. Ahlström Company, manufacturer of forestry products and at the time Finland’s largest corporation. The Gullichsens were also owners of Artek, the company that still manufactures Aalto’s furniture. The house is as remarkable for its connections with Finnish industry as it is as an artistic achievement.

Built on the Ahlström family’s heavily wooded compound near the firm’s headquarters, Villa Mairea is completely unprepossessing when one sees its principal façade, a modest-looking, low-slung, two-story structure clad in natural wood siding and white-painted brick. The front door is protected by a canopy supported by groups of slender, unpeeled birch sapling trunks. That forest grove motif continues in the entry hall, where the stairway is screened by more smoothly finished birch posts of the same dimensions as the sapling trunks outside.

Though Villa Mairea’s floor plan follows the familiar L-shape of the English Arts and Crafts country house, the spatial development Aalto has carried off within it is astonishingly original. Asymmetrical and episodic, the interiors unfold as a sequence of revelations prompted by subtle changes in level, floor texture, and orientation to daylight, making it feel more Japanese than European. Gone is the standard hierarchical procession from one room to the next. In fact there scarcely seem to be rooms at all, only congenial and casual groupings of furniture and objects amid architectural elements that appear to have been randomly and even temporarily placed.

This was a radical rethinking of the style of an upper-class residence. Here in this house of plutocrats are none of the conventional trappings of wealth (though the Gullichsens assembled an impressive collection of modern art). Instead, the generous flow of space, the omnipresence of natural light, and the constant contact with trees and sky beyond the vast (and very expensive) window walls become the true luxury.

A similar redefinition was accomplished in the United States by Aalto’s American contemporary, kindred spirit, and close friend, the San Francisco Bay Area architect William Wurster. Wurster’s spacious but unpretentious houses for sophisticated West Coast clients during the Great Depression and World War II ran counter to ostentation, which, in those economically and politically uncertain times, seemed insensitive, if not foolhardy. One thinks of the multimillion-dollar mansions that today’s technology tycoons are building in Pacific Northwest locales that are not very different from Villa Mairea. Some of those new houses make half-hearted gestures toward regional traditions, natural materials, and environmental integration, but none of them begins to approach Wurster’s discretion or Aalto’s faultless instinct for honoring the spirit of the place. Since Aalto’s death in 1976, his reputation has never been as high as it should be. But the degree to which his humane and sustaining architecture is emulated in the years ahead will be a telling indication of the maturity of our architectural culture.

Letters

Aalto and Hitler September 24, 1998

  1. *

    Göran Schildt, Alvar Aalto: The Early Years (Rizzoli, 1984); Alvar Aalto: The Decisive Years (Rizzoli, 1986); Alvar Aalto: The Mature Years (Rizzoli, 1991).

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