ALVAR  AALTO, 1898 - 1976

 

 

  Name Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto
     
  Born February 3, 1898
     
  Died May 11, 1976
     
  Nationality Finland
     
  School INTERNATIONAL STYLE
     
  Official website  
     
 

BIOGRAPHY

 

Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto, whose architecture is often described as organic and close to nature, is regarded as one of the most significant architects of the 20th century. The majority of historians and critics emphasize three aspects in Aalto’s architecture that set it apart from any other architect’s work and explain his importance: his concern for the human qualities of the environment, his love of nature, and his Finnish heritage.

It seems that Aalto’s architecture is a socially refined reflection of Le Corbusier’s work, a masterly connection of avant-garde culture with traditional values. Despite being well integrated into the art world, apparently Aalto did not hesitate to include in his designs unfashionable issues that were dismissed by other architects of his time: individuality in mass housing, social equality in theaters, and his foible for details, such as extreme, carefully planned light systems in public buildings. From this angle, Aalto turns out to be a pure dissident of the avant-garde, emphasizing the complexity of architecture by leaving aesthetic values behind him.

Even before adopting the language of modernist architecture, the young Aalto was determined to be as avant-garde as possible, which in Scandinavia in the early 1920s meant a sophisticated and mannerist neoclassicism. His early work shows the influence of anonymous irregular Italian architecture and neoclassical formality as developed by 19th-century architects such as Carl Ludwig Engel, and these strategies were to remain important throughout his career. His most interesting buildings from this time are the Jyväskylä Workers’ Club (1925), the church (1929) in Muurame, and the Seinäjoki Civil Guard Building (1926) and the Defense Corps Building (1929) in Jyväskylä. Aalto organized the facade of the Workers’ Club like the Palazzo Ducale in Venice by setting a heavy, closed volume on airy Doric columns on the ground floor. The almost symmetrical facade is challenged by a Palladian-style window that is shifted to one side, marking the location of a theater on the first floor. The church in Muurame, which also recalls an Italian motif, namely, Alberti’s Sant Andrea at Mantua, is on the outside very much into the neoclassical tradition, whereas its interior emphasis on light anticipates later church designs, such as the churches in Imatra and Wolfsburg.

In 1924 Aalto traveled to Vienna and Italy with his wife and partner Aino Marsio, where he made several sketches that had a great effect on their later work. However, Aalto did not ignore the development in continental Europe, either, and his conversion to international functionalism can be traced back to the autumn of 1927, when he and Erik Bryggman jointly designed a modernist proposal for the Kauppiaitten Osakeyhtiö office building competition. Le Corbusier’s reputation among Scandinavian architects had been widely disseminated by a 1926 article in the Swedish magazine Byggmästaren by Uno Åhren, and Aalto’s first functionalist buildings, the Standardized Apartment Building in Turku (1928) and, more important, the Turun Sanomat office building (1929), demonstrated all of Le Corbusier’s five points.

The beginning of international recognition was marked in 1929, when Aalto was invited to join the newly founded CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne) and he attended the second congress of CIAM in Frankfurt on the theme of “Housing for the Existenzminimum.” Other masterpieces of functionalism were created by Aalto in the following years, including the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium (1933) and the Viipuri Library (1935). During this time, Aalto started designing bent-plywood furniture, which he later developed into standard types. From 1942 Aino Aalto directed the Artek Company, which had been set up in 1935 for the manufacture of this furniture. These experiments also affected the architectural designs: in the mid-1930s, Aalto introduced the famous curved, suspended wooden ceiling as an acoustical device for the lecture room of the Viipuri Library. Although the functioning of this element is very questionable, curved walls and ceilings became typical of his later work.

In the 1930s, surprisingly enough, Aalto, who had until this point been known as the most modern of Finnish architects, began returning to the vernacular tradition. With the Finnish Pavilions to the World Exhibitions in Paris (1937) and New York (1939), he infused functionalism with his own organic alternative and radically parted ways with mainstream International Style. The critics appreciated this move, for they saw Aalto’s primitivism in connection with his origin in the exotic and unspoiled Finland.

Most important for Aalto’s architectural reputation was Sigfried Giedion’s analysis in the second edition of Space, T ime and A rchitecture (1949). Giedion’s interpretation of Aalto’s work as Finnish, organic, and irrational helped Aalto to achieve worldwide fame after World War II. The integration of building and nature emerged as a central theme in Aalto’s work; this is exemplified in his designs for the Sunila pulp mill (1937) and the Sunila housing for employees (1939). In the engineering staff housing, the first fan-plan motif appears, which became a crucial element in his designs. Characteristic of this period is his interest in natural materials, such as wood, brick, and grass roofs, as he demonstrated in one of his masterpieces, the Villa Mairea (1939) in Noormarkku. The villa is often praised for its harmonious relationship with nature and reference to old Finnish farmsteads. However, Finnish critics did not originally recognize Aalto’s buildings as particularly Finnish but, rather, as Le Corbusiersian with Japanese touches. Gustaf Strengell noted that the interiors of the Viipuri Library exhibited strikingly Japanese characteristics in their use of light wood in its natural state. The Villa Mairea was originally a collage of Le Corbusian modernism with Japanese tearooms, African columns, Cubist paintings, and continental Heimatstil until it slowly became a paradigm of “Finnish” or “natural” architecture in the modern architectural discourse.

After the war Aalto was again commissioned by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to build a student dormitory, where brick was a typical material for the other campus facades. The Baker Dormitory (1949) was Aalto’s first experiment with brick, and throughout the 1950s his oeuvre was dominated by the use of red brick. Later, he used the brick as a metaphor for standardization, claiming that the cell was the module of nature, and the brick would occupy an analogous position in architecture. His most important works of this period include the Expressionist House of Culture (1958) and the National Pensions Institute office building (1957), both in Helsinki. The House of Culture consists of a curvilinear theater and a rectangular office block, a typical Aalto arrangement of organic versus orthogonal shapes, where the public space is articulated in a free form and more private functions are placed in rectangular shapes. As in most of his designs, all elements including the apparently free form follow a hidden geometric grid, with the center being a fountain in the courtyard, where a giant hand presents a tiny model of the building. Inside the theater, he experimented again with the acoustic ceiling but also drew on references to the facade of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. The Säynätsalo Town Hall (1952), another brick building, is a small version of the piazza theme that Aalto elaborated further in the town center of Seinäjoki (1956–69). After the death of Aino in 1949, Aalto married the architect Elissa Mäkiniemi, for whom he built the Muuratsalo Summer House (1953), or experimental house with an inner courtyard. The exterior walls are painted white, whereas the inner walls show brick patterns of various De Stijl compositions.

Although Aalto’s brick buildings from the late 1940s and 1950s won international critical acclaim, for his commissions in Germany—the Hansaviertel House (1957) in Berlin, the Neue Vahr Apartment building (1962), and the parish centers in Detmerode (1968) and Wolfsburg (1962)—he chose international white modernism while at the same time continuing to use brick in the Otaniemi (1974) and Jyväskylä (1971) universities. This choice may seem surprising, given that brick had a strong regional connotation in Hanseatic cities, whereas in Finland the dominant building material was wood. Hence, Aalto’s use of brick in Finland cannot be understood as primitive or regional, and he himself connected brick rather with Central Europe, whereas Finnish architects of around 1900 tended to view it as Russian. Aalto did not want to simply reproduce tradition, and so he worked in both Finland and Germany explicitly against tradition and concentrated more on the symbolic selfidentity of the community than on local traditions or building techniques.

The German project Neue Vahr, a slender skyscraper in a suburb of Bremen and the most daring use of the fan plan, is odd in another way. Although in 1934 he had proposed high-rise housing for Munkkiniemi, Helsinki, Aalto was generally known as an outspoken critic of tall buildings. He argued that high-rise apartments were, both socially and architecturally, a considerably more dangerous form of building than single-family houses or low-rise apartments, and therefore they needed a more stringent architectural standard and greater artistry and social responsibility. Despite these reservations, in June 1958 he was appointed to build the 22-story tower Neue Vahr and later the Schönbühl high-rise block of flats (1968) in Lucerne, Switzerland. However, his solutions were praised as outstanding examples of modern housing, and both the Hansaviertel House and the Neue Vahr supported his reputation as a humanist architect among his modernists colleagues.

In 1959 he received the commission for the Enso-Gutzeit headquarters on a prestigous site next to the harbor of Helsinki. In this work he referred partly to the notion of an Italian palazzo while at the same time responding to Engel’s neoclassical harbor front. With its location right next to the Russian Orthodox Uspensky Cathedral, the strange composition of the House of Culture is repeated: a rectangular modernist office building adjacent to a curved public brick building. Aalto’s public buildings of this time are in the tradition of Bruno Taut’s Stadtkrone: they are meant to support the identification of the individual with the community and—appropriate for monuments—are usually cladded with marble tiles. The striped marble facade of the Cultural Center (1962) in Wolfsburg is reminiscent of Siena, whereas the white Finlandia hall (1971) looks more like a snowy hill. Both the Finlandia and the Essen Opera House (competition 1959, completed 1988) are very much in the Expressionist tradition and seem to celebrate the social event of visiting a theater rather than responding to the functional needs of an opera. Aalto’s image in crticism does not really reflect his sensitivity to region, nature, or the human being in an abstract sense but rather in the context of critical debates on the lack of regional, natural, and human qualities in international modernism. Thus, in Göran Schildt’s characterization of Aalto as the secret opponent within the Modern movement, the word “within” should be emphasized. Aalto did not undermine the cultural field of modernism but exercised his critique internally. Many of his 1950s buildings, for example, addressed the placelessness of modern architecture, which critics had complained about. His Rautatalo office building (Helsinki, 1955) in particular was singled out by critics as a successful example of contextualism because the brick corner pilasters could be read as minimal markers that indicated respect for the built context, the adjacent brick facade of the bank by Eliel Saarinen, without giving up the modern agenda.

DÖRTE KUHLMANN

 

 

TIMELINE

 

3 February 1898 Born Kuortane, Finland;

1916 graduated from Jyväskylä Classical Lyceum;

1921 earned diploma of architecture at the Institute of Technology, Helsinki;

1923–27 established private architectural office in Jyväskylä (from 1924 in collaboration with Aino Aalto);

1924 Married Aino Marsio (1892–1949);

1927–33 Private architectural office in Turku;

1933–76 private architectural office in Helsinki;

1940 Appointed visiting professor, Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT);

1941 returned toFinland;

1943–58 Chairman of the Association of Finnish Architects SAFA (Honorary Member);

1946–48 returned to United States, Professor, MIT;

1952 married architect Elissa Mäkiniemi;

1955 Member of the Finnish Academy, (Emeritus Member since 1968);

1963–68 President of the Finnish Academy;

11 May 1976 died in Helsinki.

 

 

FURTHER READING

 

Fleig, Karl (editor), Alvar Aalto, Oeuvre Completes I-III, Zurich: Artemis, 1963–78 Giedion, Sigfried, Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth o f a New T radition, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1941, 2nd revised edition, 1949 Jormakka, Kari, “House of Culture,” Datutop 20 (1999) Kuhlmann, Dörte (editor), Mensch & Natur, Alvar Aalto in Deutschland (Human & Nature, Alvar Aalto in Germany), Weimar: Bauhaus Universität, 1999 Porphyrios, Demetri, Sources of Modern Eclecticism: Studies on Alva r Aalto, London: Academy Editions, 1982 Quantrill, Malcolm, Alvar Aalto. A Critical Study, New York: Schocken Books, 1989 Reed, Peter (editor), Alvar Aalto. Between Humanism and Materialism (exhib. cat.), New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1998Schildt, Göran, Alvar Aalto. The Complete Catalogue of Architecture, Design and A rt, translated by Timothy Binham, New York: Rizzoli, 1994 Weston, Richard, Alvar Aalto, London: Phaidon Press, 1995

BOOKS AVAILABLE TO DOWNLOAD

 

 

 

RELATED

 

Corbusier, Le (Jeanneret, CharlesÉdouard) (France); Finland; Helsinki, Finland; International Style; Paimio Sanatorium, near Turku, Finland; Villa Mairea, Noormarkku, Finland; Villa Savoye, Poissy, France

 

 

 

 

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