Arts: Alvar Aalto rules the waves
revered of them all. By Charles Darwent
The problem is not that there is a paucity of things to say about Aalto and his oeuvre: rather the opposite. How do you sum up the life of God in a dozen or so pages of copy? Aalto, of course, was not really God: just one of the pantheon of four deities who cohabit the Olympus of current architectural thought. Such are the vagaries of critical history, though, that it is the Finn's turn to be Zeus this year while his fellow gods, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, rub along as best they can. Corb and Mies, especially, seem destined to have a bad time in 1998. Everything they are now assumed to stand for in the public imagination - primarily a taste for low-cost, high-rise, standardised, rectilinear buildings - will be compared unfavourably with Aalto's allegedly more humane beliefs and structures: his championing of "the little man", of non-standard building types, of natural materials, of wavy lines, of psychological mysticism, of light, of trees.
Should you want to take part in this debate, you might want to do one of two things: buy an air ticket to Helsinki in order to examine Aalto's monolithic performing arts centre, the Finlandia Hall; or buy a tube ticket to Euston and (if you don't have reading rights) blag your way into Colin St John Wilson's new British Library.
Should you opt for the former course, you will probably find yourself wondering whether your money has been well spent. Seen from its terraced and often snow-lashed podium overlooking Helsinki's Toolo Bay, Aalto's Hall looks at first glance like any other late-Sixties civic trophy building: big, blocky and blank-faced. Why fly for two hours to see our National Theatre?
Looked at from across the bay, though, the thing that makes the Finlandia Hall different from most other Modernist "city crowns" becomes clear. It is not, in fact, architecture so much as landscape; a small piece of man-made geomorphology. The metaphor is by no means fanciful. Aalto often began his working sketches with drawings of hills, especially the terraced variety of his beloved Italy. "Every one of my buildings begins with an Italian journey," he wrote, and the Finlandia Hall's exotic parenthood shows. (Just in case it didn't, Aalto clad the building in Carrara marble. This, unfortunately, has buckled under the onslaught of Finland's notably un-Italian winters and is in danger of falling off.)
The Finlandia Hall's real geographic extraordinariness, though, lies in its interior. When he built the exquisite Villa Mairea in his early forties, Aalto began a love affair with nature (and, specifically, with Finnish nature) that was to involve all his subsequent work in an eye- teasing game of inside-out. From 1940 on, abstracted Finnish pine forests would march through the vast windows of his buildings to take root as sporadically-placed pillars, sprouting from equally sporadic terraces. Wander around the Finlandia Hall today and you will see that they were still marching when Aalto finished it, more than 30 years later. At the same time, Aalto's shapes were to become more and more baroque, more biomorphic, more expressive. They also became more individualistic. The entrance canopy to the Paimio tuberculosis sanatorium (shaped like a bacterium) is still known to anatomically-minded nurses as "Aalto's lung"; the indented fireplace at the Villa Mairea is "Aalto's ear". None of these members were ever merely decorative - or so Aalto himself hotly insisted. The wave-shaped, cliffy walls of the Finlandia Hall's main amphitheatre look as they do because the acoustics demanded it, pure and simple. The flowing "S" of Aalto's famous bent plywood chairs - also designed for the Paimio sanatorium - was predicated by a need to provide comfortable accommodation for emaciated buttocks. Nothing else.
It was, of course, all an enormous - though interesting - fib. Aalto had begun his architectural life as a Corbusian functionalist: his 1933 competition entry for the redevelopment of north Stockholm involved tearing down the entire existing city and replacing it with tower blocks. Long after he had reinvented himself as the Trotsky of international modernism, he retained a horror of being accused of decoration. Wavy walls and chairs were absolutely, definitely, not decorative. They were scientific: biological, in fact. "[Architecture] can not be treated differently from biology's other elements or [it will] become inhuman," wrote Aalto, simultaneously turning his back on Corb's straight lines and admitting the rightness of his rules.
Were Aalto's buildings better for his sort-of apostasy? The American poet Robert Frost once likened the writing of free verse to playing tennis without a net. Somewhere, deep down, the apres-modernist Aalto would probably have agreed with him. His best buildings - the Paimio sanatorium, the library at Viipuri - were built when the net of modernist belief was still in place. If he served unquestionable aces subsequently, Aalto also dished up a number of duds: buildings that were whimsical, self-indulgent and undisciplined. Mainly, though, he absented himself from the mainstream politics of 20th-century architecture: the provision of everyday building - standardised housing and office spaces - for the masses. Using Aalto (as will doubtless become increasingly voguish in 1998) as a shy for throwing at the heads of Corb and Mies is unfair. Their inheritance lives on, however unfortunately, in the grungy idealism of council estates: Aalto's mostly survives in the form of expensive trophies, city crowns.
Hence the usefulness of a visit to the new British Library. St John Wilson is an Aalto fan, and his building's interior is a whisper away from the Master's Viipuri Library - a last flowering of Aalto's functionalist period, which explains the poised restraint of both structures. (If you can't get into the BL, you can at least buy a piece of Viipuri: Aalto designed those cute little stackable plywood stools as seating for his library, and they are still in hot demand with the Wallpaper* crowd 60- odd years later.) Those with deeper pockets and a curiosity about just where Aalto's later (and much-denied) tendency to self-expression might have led will want to opt for more torrid structures: Jorn Utzon's opera house in Sydney, say, or Frank Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao.
At any rate, both groups - and anyone else - will certainly want to pay a visit to New York's Museum of Modern Art, which will host the year's keynote Aalto centenary exhibition. The show's curator, Peter Reed, admits that he was appalled at the reaction when he first mooted the idea of an Aaltofest. "It was scary," says Reed, hands waving. "Even people here at Moma either didn't know who Aalto was or thought of him as a guy whose vases we sell in the shop next door." Reed has spent the best part of three years mining the Aalto lode and has unearthed some startling nuggets: original drawings of Aalto's Saynatsalo town hall and a model of the Essen opera house exhumed from an underground car park, both long assumed lost and neither previously seen in public. Reed's favourite find is a collection of watercolours and colour swatches - blue and yellow - intended as studies for the interior decoration of Aalto's 1927 (and much repainted) Sanomat newspaper building. "Even in what we had always assumed was just a sterile piece of white functionalism, Aalto was already trying to introduce colour, some kind of human dimension," marvels Reed. It's going to be a bad year for Mies and Corb.
! 'Alvar Aalto: Between Humanism and Materialism' opens at Moma, New York (00 1 212 708 9480) on 19 Feb (through 19 May). 'Alvar Aalto' by Richard Weston is now in paperback (Phaidon, pounds 25). Aalto's stools, lights and vases are sold by SCP, London EC1 (0171 739 1869).
THE MODERN MASTER
PIERS GOUGH Architect
He is the softer face of modernism. Whereas international modernism was quite hard and cool and based on concrete, steel and glass, Aalto was interested in local materials, particularly bricks and curves, and made a much softer face. [His work] certainly influenced the generation before me; there was a generation of architects in Britain who were looking for a less Teutonic level, something slightly more pragmatic, but also gentle, and Aalto gave them that.
COLIN ST JOHN WILSON Architect of the new British Library
I first met him 40 years ago, and he has been very important for me. He was the youngest of what you might call the old masters of the modern movement, and was sympathetic to the problems with the way the movement was going. He was very, very alive to the abuses of dictatorship; he could see there was a kind of rigid orthodoxy, and he said 'You have to watch out for that'. He once sent a famous telegram to the effect that architecture is only authentic when man is in the centre, and I still think that's important because there's so much concern with the purely technological and with stylistic things that the whole point gets forgotten. I believe his judgment both in his work and writing on the subject was absolutely right.
RON ARAD Architect and designer
When you see the original Aalto furniture, it's delightful. It's something to do with the beautiful ageing of the plywood: it's lived-in. The original pieces were just fantastic, but the same piece done today has something cold and out-of-place about it. His was a new way: he was the first to construct using plywood. I wouldn't say he influenced the way I developed, but when you know that these people existed, it means there are some things you can't do any more because you don't want to repeat. Sometimes I did things in tempered steel, which is flexible, and the way it is free to move has some sort of link to the flexibility that Aalto achieved in plywood.
CLAUDIO SILVESTRIN Architect
I think Aalto was definitely one of the best architects of the century, but he was no influence on my work. Iwent to see his church in Bologna when it was built; it was very beautiful but for me it is too curvy. I don't think he has been as influential as Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe - maybe he hasn't built internationally enough. He's always been labelled as an architect from Finland, and sometimes that puts you in a corner. The furniture has been very successful; his signature is the curve, but almost in an obsessive way. In his case, it was exaggerated.
TOM DIXON Furniture and lighting designer
He's Mr Wood - he's still very much around. People still buy his furniture, so it's a lasting influence. It's hard to better in plywood terms, so there is no point in trying to. He's the person that pushed it almost as far as it could go.
INTERVIEWS BY RACHELLE THACKRAY
Aamazing grace: the magisterial Finlandia Hall, Helsinki (1967), exterior (main picture) and (right) the main foyer. The forms were influenced by those of the Finnish landscape
Aastounding: the Paimio tuberculosis sanatori-um (1929-33). The free-form canopy over the main entrance (right) is known to the nurses who work there as 'Aalto's lung'
Aastonishing: living room, Villa Mairea, Noormarkku (1938-41). The thicket of slen-der wooden poles evokes the shape and tex-ture of the great Finnish forests
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