Design: For Alvar Aalto, a cool centenary celebration

The style projected his country away from alien influences and asserted Finland's role as a modern state. Nonie Niesewand assesses a genius of the curve.

In Finland designers and architects are held in higher regard than footballers. They even chose their internationally acclaimed architect Alvar Aalto (1898 -1973) to grace the Finnish 50 mark banknote. A prolific and influential architect, he was born on 3 February 100 years ago in Finland at the height of its passion for Jugenstidjl, that fusty flocked style that mirrored our Arts and Crafts.

Aalto captured the national identity as Finland threw off centuries of being controlled by Sweden or Russia, taking it architecturally forward into a functional and modern state but still revering his countrymen's love of nature, and timber technology.

At the Paris fair in 1937, amid all the glass and steel pavilions, he took a rather damp and windy site on the hillside and boldly developed the Finnish aesthetic of wood and free form, bunching sapling and lashing timbers together to make a pavilion that made a lasting impression. At home in forest glades and small towns where the biggest landmark was the slalom ski jump, he built libraries and churches, universities and houses, schools and cinemas, libraries and concert halls that are still used today pretty much as he designed them.

His name means a "wave" which is appropriate. Aalto certainly threw away the set square in interpreting International Modernism. Where Gropius and Van der Rohe,and Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright used steel and glass and bricks and mortar on their linear grid in horizontal or vertical blocks, Aalto went swinging timber and stone in great curves. You can see that wave form made visible as a fan on the splayed top of chair legs where they meet the seat; on the walls to help the acoustics in the concert auditorium at Finlandia Hall in Helsinki where the wave beats back sound, on the undulating wooden ceiling at the Vilpuri Library where he manipulates light to travel in waves across the inner core.

The British greatly admired Aalto's furniture, which appealed to the British sensibility, and purse. Where Bauhaus designers stretched leather across cantilevered chrome frames and Rietveld glued it into impossibly sharp angles, Aalto in the early Thirties boiled up resins and steamed plywood in an old saucepan at his practice in Turku to make sinuous bentwood furniture. These first chairs were designed for a tuberculosis sanatorium, the Paimio. Today the Paimio chair, as it is known, is still made by Artek in Finland. Even more surprisingly, the Paimio sanatorium designed by Aalto with oblong wings in a fan arrangement still operates as a general hospital. Very little has changed since he completed it in 1933. Beneath the undulating roof, the portico at the entrance is still the fluid free- form known today as Aalto's lung. Inside, ceilings are painted a calming green. The light is filtered to cut glare and there are ceiling mounted heat panels to warm patients' feet, wraparound windows with views of the forest, sun beds on the roof and big gently paced stairs for people running out of puff. No wonder the hospital runs special tours for architectural enthusiasts.

Back in Helsinki, you can dine on grouse, salmon and chanterelles at the Savoy restaurant, in one of the few commercial buildings Aalto designed but just as comfortable and human-sized as his thoughtful hospital rooms. The long, low room with its roof garden, and wall of ceiling high plant containers, known as the Giraffe's Stables, has not changed from the old black and white photos of the launch lunch in 1939. Prizes for the most unusual souvenir to celebrate Aalto's centenary must be at the Finlandia Concert Hall in Helsinki. There they are selling chips off the old concert hall block which in 1963 Aalto specified should be built in Carrera marble, but it didn't winter well. Inside the building is classic Sixties. A long slatted wooden cafe bar snakes across a foyer scaled for Valhalla, the black and white grouted tiled walls contrasting sharply with the modular leather furniture hunkily shaped in slabs like the stone floor they sit upon.

The Aalto Centennial International Student Prize 1998 has been launched by the Alvar Aalto Museum in association with Riba in London to celebrate thecentennial of Aalto's birth. Winners of the first round, to be announced by 10 August 1998, will be invited to participate in a second phase. The ultimate winner will have the opportunity to build the new Library in Seinajoki. Architectural assessors are Daniel Libeskind and Juhani Pallasmaa. All registered part-time and full-time architectural and design students world wide are invited to register before 3February. Enquiries to Hanni Sippo, The Alvar Aalto Museum, PO Box 461, 40101 Jyvaskyla, Finland. Fax 00 358 14 61 90 09. Email hanni.sippo@jkl.fi

Alvar Alto furniture is available from Aram Designs, 3 Kean Street, London WC2. Tel 0171 240 3933.

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