The tactile legacy of Alvar Aalto and its relevance to contemporary practice



Kenneth Frampton





Among the pioneers of the Modern Movement Alvar Aalto remains the one figure whose seminal contribution to the field seems just as valid now as it was at the end of his life. This claim may be justified on many levels, not least of which is the inherent sustainability of Aalto’s architecture, sustainable above all in his preference for using brick and wood which remain the two materials with the least embodied energy in terms of production. Apart from this attribute these materials would also ensure the social accessibility of his work and it is my belief that Aalto’s manner, particularly over the years from 1934 to 1968, was more accessible to the man-in-the-street than the architecture of any other pioneer whose work came to maturity over the same period. As Eduard and Claudia Neuenschwander were to demonstrate, in their study of the first decade of Aalto’s post-war work, in their book Alvar Aalto and Finnish Architecture of 1954, Aalto’s production was a symbiotic extension of Finnish environmental culture in every conceivable sense, encompassing not only his lifelong allusion to National Romanticism but also his recognition of the fact that the origin of Finnish vernacular culture was ultimately grounded in a perennial interface between wood, water and rock.

It was precisely Aalto’s sensitivity towards his native culture which enabled him to render his architecture accessible to society as a whole and it is this surely that is still one of the most fundamental challenges confronting the profession today, namely, how to continue with a liberative project of the Modern Movement, while also conveying a sense of security without descending into kitsch. Aalto recognized this challenge well before many of his contemporaries and it is my contention that through his biorealist corporeal vision of modernity Finland came closer than any other modernizing state to resolving this dilemma, particularly over the last two thirds of the twentieth century. In this regard, Scandinavian functionalism was always more nuanced than the normative aspirations of the Neue Sachlichkeit as this prevailed throughout the 1930s, particularly in Germany, Holland and Switzerland. This contrast between so called funkis manner and the productive preoccupations of the Neue Sachlichkeit was already manifest in Gunnar Asplund’s Stockholm Exhibition of 1930 which, as a subset of the international style, was softer in its syntax and thereby more humanly accessible than the Deutsche Werkbund Weissenhof Exhibition, staged in Stuttgart three years before. This shift exerted a decisive influence on Aalto as we may judge from his initial response to the Stockholm Exhibition:

Aalto sympathized with the latent social democratic ethos as this had been conceived by the director of the Swedish Arts and Crafts Society, Gregor Paulsson. The funkis sensibility seems to have arisen out of a some kind of symbiotic exchange between Asplund and Aalto just prior to the Exhibition for with its cylindrical skylights, lacquered mushroom columns, wooden handrails, and louvered ceiling lamps, Aalto’s Turun Sanomat Building, realized in Turku in 1929 evidenced a subtly nuanced sensibility within the overall severity of its cubic form. In fact Aalto’s Turku building may have prompted Asplund to liberate himself from the rigid civility of Nordic Classicism not only on the occasion of the Stockholm exhibition but also in his Brandenburg department store, completed in Stockholm in 1935. This was the same year in which Aalto realized his Viipuri Library, the initial design for which had been influenced by Asplund’s Stockholm public library of 1926. With its cylindrical anti-glare skylights, ergonomic handrails, Artek timber furniture and its serpentine acoustic ceiling, the Viipuri Library achieved a new kind of tactile functionalism that went beyond the populism of the Stockholm Exhibition (Figures 12.1 and 12.2).

Among the facts brought to light by Göran Schlidt’s biography of Aalto of 1984 is the strong bond that obtained between Aalto and Paulsson. According to Schildt, Aalto was deeply affected by the cultural socialism of Paulsson’s book of 1916, entitled The New Architecture. Aside from sympathizing with Paulson’s progressive view, the foundation of Artek in 1935 enabled Aalto to realize Paulsson’s ideal of industrially produced, low cost quality furniture to be made available to society as a whole. In fact, Aalto’s Artek furniture in bent and laminated wood would prove to be one of the keys to the accessibility of his architecture; a quality which without compromising the liberative drive of the modern project transcended the reductive functionalism of the European avant-garde which Aalto had encountered at the end of the 1920s when he acquired for his own use Marcel Breuer’s Wassily chair in tubular steel. In his seminal address “Rationalism and Man,” given to the Swedish Society of Industrial Design, in 1935 Aalto argued that however rational and efficient it may be from a productive standpoint, the high thermal conductivity of steel was unsympathetic to human touch. In his address Aalto extended this critique to formalist light fittings, such as the Bauhaus white opalescent spherical lights much favored by the Neue Sachlichkeit particularly when suspended in the center of the room. In his anti-glare counter-argument in favor of indirect and/or diffused light, Aalto would come close to anticipating Richard Neutra’s concept of biorealism as this was advanced in his book Survival through Design of 1954.

Figure 12.1 Alvar Aalto, Viipuri Library, interior photo; image courtesy of Alvar Aalto Foundation

Figure 12.2 Alvar Aalto, Viipuri Library, interior photo; image courtesy of Alvar Aalto Foundation

Aalto’s tactile approach to both form and material first emerges in his own house constructed in the Helsinki suburb of Munkkiniemi between 1934 and 1936 (Figure 12.3). Comprised of whitewashed load-bearing brickwork and vertical timber siding, this is for the first time when we will encounter this particular juxtaposition in his work, the juxtaposition of milled timber, the opposition that is between milled timber cladding and rough timber balustrading from which only the bark has been stripped; the two being brought together in conjunction with plate glass and a rubble stone walling. This modern reinterpretation of the Finnish vernacular will come more fully into its own with his Finnish Pavilion designed for the World Exhibition staged in Paris in 1937 (Figure 12.4). This last was built almost exclusively of wood consisted of single story open-sided gallery, which culminated in a top-lit exhibition hall clad, on all four sides, with ribbed timber siding. The exhibition, staged at the height of the Spanish Civil War, was followed in 1939 by the New York World’s Fair and by the outbreak of the Second World War. In Finland these events were accompanied by a three and a half month bitter struggle against the Soviet Union, the so-called Winter War, a conflict, which will be resumed in the so-called Continuation War of 1941 to 1945.

Alvar and Aino Aalto first visited the United States in 1938 and Alvar Aalto would return there in the following year to supervise the construction of the Finnish National Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. Aalto’s pavilion in New York was another tour de force in timber construction, which as an interior was virtually an inversion of the Paris pavilion (Figure 12.5). At the same time, the thematic was virtually identical, namely, the representation of Finland as a rising industrial nation, based on a forest economy and committed to a social-democratic program of modernization. In physical terms this pavilion was a fifty-two foot high cavernous space dominated by an undulating inclined wall made up of a reiteration of vertical timber patterns and divided horizontally into a geometrically progressive sequence of four successive tiers, respectively representing the country, the people, the workaday world, and, at the lowest level, the products of the national timber industry, which varied from the rolls of newsprint to skis, propellers and Aalto’s bent and laminated Artek furniture. Above this tactile display of industrial products on the ground floor, the various facets of Finnish life were represented by large blown up photographs of varying size and shape. There was something about the rhythmic dynamism of this montage that recalled El Lissitzky’s agit prop setting for the Soviet contribution at the International Hygiene Exhibition staged in Dresden in 1930. What was unique here, however, was Aalto’s particular approach to the plasticity of the space which, as with his famous Savoy vase of 1936, derived from his feeling for the organicism of the Finnish landscape inundated with lakes.

Aug 9, 2021 | Posted by in Building and Construction | Comments Off on The tactile legacy of Alvar Aalto and its relevance to contemporary practice
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