Alvar AaltoSculpting A Nation's Identity
‘Finland is with Aalto wherever he goes’. Indeed, it seems that at the core of Aalto’s work, there is an unerring desire to express Finnish identity.
Alvar Aalto was born during the winter of 1898, in the small municipality of Kourtane, a place of dense pine forests and dark icy lakes. His career as an architect, furniture maker, city planner, sculptor, and painter surged like a strong Nordic stream through the decades of the 20th century. His reputation steadily gathered pace until his standing as an icon of Finnish design was deeply scored into the rockface of his country’s history. While art historians rarely speak of Aalto outside the Finnish context, a number argue that his work should be recognised within an international framework, as his contributions to the Modernist movement were so significant. Rather than examine Aalto’s legacy under the banner of one of these schools of thought, it seems more relevant to assess them as one in order to ascertain a multifocal perspective on his body of work.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell examines the factors that contribute to human achievement. In the process he argues that the place and period in which a person is born are key in determining their future success. Whether you are a Gladwell aficionado or not, Alvar Aalto would have struggled to pick a better moment in history to launch his career as an architect in Finland. His graduation from the Helsinki University of Technology in 1921 coincided with a period of national prosperity. Having seceded from Russia in 1917 following a brutal civil war, Finland was enjoying rapid economic growth, and booming industrialisation. This resulted in a plethora of architectural commissions on offer, as governmental groups, philanthropists, and businessmen sought to carve an identity for their newly independent country. As one critic put it, Aalto’s timing was ‘flawless’. Finland was a nation ready to be sculpted.
Over the course of the next 50 years, Aalto delivered more than 300 buildings in his native country. From the curving auditorium of the University of Technology in Helsinki, to the billowing, sail-shaped roof of his Munkkiniemi-based studio, his unique style of refined Modernism interwoven with Scandinavian Classicism moulded the aesthetic of Finland’s urban landscape. In the same way that the Georgian towns of England are marked with the influence of Sir Christopher Wren, the streets of Helsinki, Jyväskylä, and Espoo are permeated with Aalto’s demonstrations of form and detail. When working on commissions abroad, whether it was the Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair or the Aalto Theatre opera house in Germany, his design often evokes a sense of Finland’s physical beauty: the crags of the Haltia mountain range replicated in a complex use of clustered and overlapping forms, or the whispers of a coastal lake recreated through his use of undulating line. In his article Irrationality and Standard in 1941, friend and benefactor Sigfried Giedion exclaimed, ‘Finland is with Aalto wherever he goes’. Indeed, it seems that at the core of Aalto’s work, there is an unerring desire to express Finnish identity.
Despite this apparently nationalist sentiment, there is evidence that Aalto often found himself wedged between his life in Finland, and the exterior world of those international architects, critics and academics who constituted the Modernist movement. As his reputation grew in the 1920s and 1930s, he became a household name in the classrooms of Yale, M.I.T. and the Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne. Correspondence between Aalto and friends in the Bauhaus suggest that, at times, he felt a greater rapport with the artistic communities of Europe and the United States than he did with those of his native country. In a letter to László Moholy-Nagy in 1931, he wrote, ‘We want to thank you for bringing us so much joy by having the courage to visit our poor Finland, which can offer nothing but mud roads and fly infested forests.’ Another message, this time to Walter Gropius, reads, ‘[I am] trying to make buildings for people into whose heads the ‘organic line’ will not fit for another 100 years.’ Without adding too much significance to these words, Aalto’s frustration with Finland’s lack of cultural development is plain to see. In this light, he seems more akin to an émigré of the Joycean variety than a standard bearer of nationalism. When considering his work outside a nationalist context, three of his most notable Finnish buildings, Turun Sanomat (1928-30), Paimio Sanatorium (1929-33) and Viipuri Library (1928-35), can easily be placed within the field of international Modernism. In their use of simplified form, white stucco walls, and flat roofed design, they encapsulate the central tenets of that movement. In his review of the Aalto Retrospective held in MOMA in 1998, New York Times columnist Herbert Muschamp stipulates that his distinguishing feature was not his identity as a Finnish designer, but rather as an ‘architect ahead of his time’.
Stepping back from the picture of Aalto as a conflicted artist, we may view these contradictory readings of his work as a testament to the significant impact it had on a national and international level. A visit to his 1950s family house in Munkkieimi shows that in the later stages of his career, his methods had evolved into a more vernacular and personal Modernism. While the building’s naturally lit and spacious atriums espouse Aalto’s close attention to the International Style, the distinctly Nordic use of wood, seen in the furniture from his early Artek collections, and the structural use of planks, beams and columns, define it as a Finnish home. Both an intimate refuge and a showcase for his great dexterity, the Aalto House represents a synthesis of the influences that he drew from, and his own distinct vision. An amalgamation he would describe as a ‘total work of art’.