Photo © Alvar Aalto Museum, Eino Mäkinen
The received opinion today is that Alvar Aalto (1898 to 1976) was the representative of a “humanist Modernism” – as if conversely Mies van der Rohe or Le Corbusier were inhuman monsters and Modernism per se an inhuman matter. Now, anyone who has concerned themselves with the architect and designer’s oeuvre and how it evolved down through the decades will notice that the more carefully one studies the proposals, plans, models and buildings, the deeper one delves into the ramified network of relations to colleagues, staff members, clients, manufacturers, artists and scientists, the more the overall picture fragments. And pigeonholing helps little when trying to paint a differentiated portrait. Or most certainly when it comes to Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto.
Ever since the celebrations to mark the centenary of Aalto’s birth in 1998, which among others the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York marked with an exhibition and catalog entitled “Between Humanism and Materialism”, and not least thanks to the efforts of the Alvar Aalto Foundation, countless aspects of the creative output of the man Siegfried Giedion termed the “Magus of the North” have been illuminated that had hitherto been overlooked or had not been sufficiently considered.
The organizers of the exhibition “Alvar Aalto – Second Nature” at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein have likewise been very ambitious. Jochen Eisenbrand, who curated the show, has eschewed the obvious. Encouraged and supported by Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen and her study on “Alvar Aalto. Architecture, Modernity, and Geopolitics”, he has instead attempted to extend the canonized interpretation of Aalto’s work to include some in part surprising aspects. Although, as is customary in such exhibitions, Aalto the architect and Aalto the designer are treated as equals.
In short, there are above all two aspects displayed that catch the eye for the way they expand the customary image of Aalto: Aalto’s oeuvre was by no means only inspired by Finnish nature and organic shapes that manifestly emulate those in nature. Certainly, the outline of Aalto’s “Savoy Vase” is primarily reminiscent of the shape of a Finnish lake. But such associations are by no means all. Rather, Aalto drew many of his ideas and derived many shapes from his close links to artists such as László Moholy-Nagy, Alexander Calder and Fernand Léger, from his inquiry into the media of photography and film that were so blossoming in the 1920s and 1930s, and from the innovative manufacturing methods and standardization processes that were evolving. Aalto’s rightly famed spaces are therefore likewise the result of a response to current cultural developments informed by natural metaphors. To this extent, the interior was a multisensory space which Aalto designed by factoring in not just human nature and our sensory organs, but also by responding to new media, a change in production methods and historical and political upheaval.
Exploring buildings with photography
Armin Linke’s color photographs doubtlessly enhance the presentation of Aalto’s buildings, although in contrast to the furniture and models it would be have been great if the format chosen had been larger. Although Linke’s photos serve less to present the massive scale of the buildings and more to describe certain details, they do shed light on how Aalto’s architecture embeds itself in the contours of the surrounding countryside and reflects its key characteristics, how the interiors and outer spaces are dovetailed, how Aalto played with ambient light, and carefully structured views outward and inward. Linke’s photographic approach seeks to explore the buildings and allows us to see that Aalto never sought to distinguish different zones but to organize fluid transitions, to enable the “organic” structures and forms to resonate in the buildings and their uses, indeed to construe the built space as an echo of its surroundings even if the cubed volume seemed to be quite the opposite of natural.
Building with nature – and not to oppose it
Aalto never built in opposition to nature, but always incorporated it. His curved ceilings are quite legendary in their emphasis on the organic rather than the structural. Specifically, they capture the energy of the atmosphere by breaking our gaze and causing us to refocus in and on the space. A case in point is Maison Louis Carré. Or the Villa Mairea in Noormarkku, where Aalto structured the view and our sense of space by relying on round vertical wooden rods to recreate a clearing in a forest. This shows clearly how Aalto avoided some subservience to nature and instead sought to reconcile the rational/structural as a key trait of Modernism with the organic and natural.
Linke’s photographs are, even if they could simply be considered an approximation of the real things, all the more crucial as a means of interpreting the built architecture in that they take up and continue what Aalto himself pursued in the 1920s and 1930s – and which attests above all to how intrigued he was by the experiments of his friend László Moholy-Nagy in the fields of photography and film. With regard to Le Corbusier, Siegfried Giedion (and Aalto was in close contact with him) stated in 1928: “Only film can render the new architecture tangible.” Moreover, Moholy-Nagy’s experiments in the 1920s with his so-called light/space modulator seem to have influenced Aalto, too.
Familiar with avant-garde debates
Aalto was open toward new media not just as a means of assessing and presenting architecture, but, as Jochen Eisenbrand emphasizes, himself part of those driving change, along with his wife and comrade-in-arms: “from designing theaters and stage sets through to planning cinemas, from his own photographs in the idiom of New Objectivity through to collaboration with leading photographers, from an interest in film through to organizing the first Finnish film club.” His focus on the urban mass media, on the movie theater and stage spaces, were as stimulating for Aalto’s “Embodied Rationalism”, where he melded rational construction and functions with the perception and sensation of spatiality. Through the CIAM congresses, Moholy-Nagy and Giedion Aalto was closely familiar with the avant-garde trends and debates of the day. For example, around 1930 Aino Aalto photographed the chimney of the “Turun Sanomat” building her husband had designed – adopting the style and perspective of the art/avant-garde photography being propagated then.
Aalto, as the exhibition also sets out to show, was forever taken by Modernist art and had strong personal links to it through his friendship with artists such as Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger and the afore-mentioned László Moholy-Nagy. However, unlike Le Corbusier Aalto never himself worked as an artist. Even if his oeuvre does not reveal any linkage of art and architecture, Aalto’s biographer Göran Schildt has highlighted the formal references that he attributes to a “profound grasp of Cézanne’s notion of space”. A consideration of Aalto’s preoccupation with Modernist art therefore seems pivotal if we are to realize his special position within Modernism.
The foundation of Artek in 1935 (you can ogle the typescript of the founding manifesto in the show) was meant not only as a vehicle for marketing Aalto’s furniture. From the outset, exhibitions of art, arts and crafts, and photography were as much part of the agenda as was publishing books and a trade journal. The gallery among other things held the first show with works by Calder and Léger in Finland. Artek saw itself as much as a distributor as it believed it was the “standard-bearer of the spirit of Modernism” and an educational organization.
Letting shapes wander
What gives Aalto’s production its special appeal is that he allowed his organic, sweeping shapes to “wander” from one application to another – in his architecture just as in his furniture designs. This is superbly evidenced by the mountain of white pedestals in the third room of the show, which have been conquered by cantilever chairs made of tubular steel and wood, for example the Stackable Chair 23 (1929) and the Comfy Chair 41 for the Paimo Tuberculosis Sanatorium, as well as stools and side tables. These are juxtaposed with Aalto’s luminaires, glasses and vases right beside them – with the famous “Savoy Vase” taking pride of place.
The exhibition thus not only gives visitors an impression of everything Aalto actually realized. It also opens our eyes to the multiple thoughts, relationships and processes necessary for that synthesis to emerge that makes the output of the great Finnish Modernist so unique. This is far more evident from the catalog than from what the documents, plans, models, luminaires, vases and furniture in the show can present at first glance. Only within the network of international relations can we grasp Alvar Aalto’s oeuvre against the backdrop of Modernism. After all, he not designed buildings and furniture.
Alvar Aalto. Second Nature
Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein,
Until March 1, 2015
10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily
Catalog, edited by Jochen Eisenbrand and Mateo Kris
Hardcover, 688 pages and some 500 images.
In English and German
The exhibition is being accompanied by a multifaceted program of events. Guests include Shigeru Ban, Claesson Koivsto Rune, Front Design, Harri Koskinen, Matthias Sauerbruch and others. Find more here.
Photo © Thomas Wagner, Stylepark