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)

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 …

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Letters

Aalto and Hitler September 24, 1998