Alvar Aalto, a modern, classic and contemporary teacher | Antón Capitel

Alvar Aalto
Alvar Aalto

Alvar Aalto (Kuortane, Finland, 1898; Helsinki, 1976) was the great juvenile teacher of the modern architecture, very later to Frank Lloyd Wright, but also to Le Corbusier and to Mies van der Rohe, of similar age between them and intermediate between both first ones. And it might be said this way, without too many exaggeration, that with the works of these four names we would manage to synthesize very expressively what has been considered like more importantly of the architecture of the modern revolution, which they invented as the principal protagonists who were, extracting to the architecture of the eclecticism and systematic and irritated historicismo that they had characterized to that it was own of the 19th century.

Alvar Aalto was, so, more young woman of recognized as “big teachers”, and also that one that, without leaving the modern architecture in strict sense, enriched it considerably. The modernity had been relatively plural in his initial consolidation, in the period between the wars, but it triumphed and was consolidated definitively, not by means of all the trends, but by means of the one that was really triumphant and that knew itself as “rationalism”, or, then, “International Style”. (Or “funcionalism”, if it is preferred, and if we think about the way of speaking commonly in the least professional environments). This winning trend can define very well so much to the work of Le Corbusier as to that of Mies van der Rohe, both champions of two of the modalities of her, next but different.

Aalto studied in Helsinki and was a pupil of architects who were representing then what was known in the northern countries as “national romanticism”. But on having initiated the profession it joined to the so called “new classicism”, which was opposed to the previous thing, which there was leading the Swedish architect Erik Gunnar Asplund, and which there practised all the northern and young architects of that time. To the so called romanticism they objected, so, a style of simplified and modernized, anachronistic enough classicism actually, though I do not exempt of successes, and that characterized them during some time.

But the modern architecture had begun in Europe almost in the same moment of this practice, for what the northern young persons were leaving her to exercise the new trends. Alvar Aalto (with his wife Aino Marsi, also architect and both assistants of Erik Bryggman in Turku and in his first years of profession) was of the first ones and of the most rapid in doing this change and in practising the rationalism in already well significant works, since they were the building for the newspaper of Turku (1928) and the anti-tuberculosis Paimio Sanatorium (1929). The latter was known already then, on having be published in some European magazines. A white, geometric architecture, of relatively simple forms but of functional and structural, varied, and picturesque expression, of exempt and free volume, made deposit the Aalto in the modern architecture, almost officially, we might say. And very concretely in what the Americans would call, years forward, the “International Style”.

Aino Marsio-Aalto and Alvar Aalto in the architecture office, Aalto House, Helsinki, 1940s. Aalto Family Collection.
Aino Marsio-Aalto and Alvar Aalto in the architecture office, Aalto House, Helsinki, 1940s | Aalto Family Collection.

But to the Aalto a more complex architecture characterized them immediately still, in that it might be said that the romantic and classical bases of his youth had not disappeared completely, and to that resources and ingredients joined also of what was called the “organicism”, understood this one, especially, as aspiration to following in the architectural design some beginning that were extracted fundamentally from the laws of the nature, biological and telluric, and interpreted by means of instrumental analogies. All this without the foundations were not also getting lost rationalist and funcionalista on that they had been based to be modern, and obtaining this way a formal and spatially richer and variegated architecture, which was considered to be a carrier of a new humanism, and that was immediately very admired. This stage can consider the luxurious one-family housing to be represented by three big masterpieces, very celebrated and very different, Viipuri’s Library (then in Finland and today called Viborg and in Russia, 1930-35) in the field called “Villa Mairea” (Pori, 1937) and the Finnish Pavilion in the International Exhibition of New York of 1939. These three works, all of them of the epoch immediately previous to the Second World war, they have to be considered as that they define well this the first “golden age” of the aaltianne architecture , probably the best of all, at least in the judgment of some.

Because of the Finnish Pavilion of New York, extremely original and brilliant, the Aalto were known in The United States. Even the own Frank Lloyd Wright, who was not lavishing the praises, went to visit it expressly, and they say that once inside, it exclaimed filled with enthusiasm:

“Alvar Aalto is a genius”.

This knowledge did that the Americans, slightly hereinafter, were freeing him and to his family of the second war Russian – Finn (one of two simultaneous wars to the second world one) and that were taking it to him there to giving lessons, visit that repeated itself after ended the conflict and that cost him the order of the building of bedroom for major residents and of posgrado in the M.I.T, in Boston (1946-49). This building, very original and attractive, composed by means of a plant in wavy form, was also immediately one of his icons.

Pabellon de Finlandia, exposición universal de New York, 1939 | foto Ezra Stoller
Pavilion of Finland, universal exhibition of New York, 1939 | photo Ezra Stoller

The architecture of the “International Style” (the funcionalismo, at last) turned immediately after the Second World war into the style of the democracies, accepted by States Joined and for Great Britain, and almost officially proclaimed to avoid this way the continuity of a practice, that of the late classicism, which had happened to be considered to be own of Soviets and of Germans; it is to say, of red and of Nazi. This was not true, so the official architectures of The United States and of Great Britain had been equally classical up to the world war, but this way they are the things, or this way they are counted.

The case is that, simultaneously with this official victory, the racionalist architecture was checked and answered by some architects and significant groups, between which they were finding some of the northern countries, and, very concretely Alvar Aalto, already enormously admired and endowed of great prestige. Centering in him, Aalto believed that, at least in some occasions and places, the modern architecture, without stopping existing as such, could and having to admit some resources, instruments and elements of the traditional or historical architecture, prospering this way with it and being adapted more to certain uses and emplacements. It can be said that the most representative thing, acquaintance and celebrated of this attitude it was the Town hall of the people of Saynätsälo Saynätsälo (Finland, 1949-52), constructed in a fullly rural environment, and conceived as a modern mansion concerning a court; this is, so modern as traditional, built with brick and stone berroqueña and with sloping covers. It is a work very attractive and brilliant, enormously known and admired since then, and whose prestige has not declined. There has to make notice that this trend and this building were specially important for the Spanish architects, especially for a significant group of architects of Madrid, followers mostly of the positions aaltianas

But, said this, it would be the moment to warn that the Aalto were with all these works the introductory ones of a modern and conscious eclecticism. This is, of an attitude that is not too much interested in the loyalty to a definite style, not at least in the loyalty to anything really stylistic, but it seeks to solve, on the contrary, the problems raised in every building, identifying, by means of the attention to the program, to the necessary character of every institution and to the local characteristics, that one architecture, almost always complex and variegated that every concrete case provokes and needs. This is what explains, at last, such big differences between five mentioned masterpieces and between all other.

Also it is important to distinguish to the main modern young person of other three big ones in another aspect. Aalto neither was, nor appeared, as like a luck of demiurgo, of savior of the humanity by means of the architecture, and similar things, which yes we can apply, in major or minor measure, to other three ever. Aalto was more a pure, exceptionally endowed, but more current professional, almost “of provinces”, we might say; to the effect that it was giving to the works the treatment that each one really was deserving and that did this way many normal, ordinary works, without heroic gestures, and that alone in the attentive observation demonstrate like of very high level. It has turned him into something nearest for all, and concretely for his companions, though his virtuosity and his brilliant and amazing skill was doing that it has not had, almost, disciples.

Alvar Aalto bautizó a su barco (no sin cierta ironía) "Nadie es profeta en su tierra".
Alvar Aalto baptized to his ship (not without certain irony) “Nobody is a prophet in his land”.

But this must not make us believe that was submitting to anything next the vulgar thing. Aalto was an architect extremely worried by the reflection it brings over of the nature of the architecture, for his social and cultural meaning, for the intellectual value of his instruments… and it took the reflection to his works with efficiency and attraction. Aalto was thinking about the natural laws as possible application to the buildings, as well as about the value of the history and that of the traditions. The reflection brings over of the nature it led him to not estimating the habitual architectural mechanisms of the repetition and the equality, which in the nature they do not produce, and to using the rational geometry, certainly, but always without abuses, avoiding for example the systematic parallelism, or the esquematismos inherent in the linear, typical compositions of the modernity. It had estimation great for the telluric thing and for the topographic thing: the fact that the land is discontinuous, different in each of his points, it moved to his works in lucid conceptual and plastic interpretations. He identified also some hasty forms, for him superior to others; but, far from the estimation of the geometric regular figures, since it happened with the renaissance or in case of Him Corbusier, it put his appreciation, on the contrary, in irregular and naturalistic figures, since they were the wavy forms and the forms in range, which it used with great profusion, skill and diversity.

It can be said that there was no topic that it was avoiding and attacking, and of these combats it extracted most of his values. Though this does not have to get confused with the scorn for the conventions, so like lucidly and wisely that was, he respected the value that in the architecture they have. And everything did it with an extraordinary skill for the design of anyone that was the aim, which took him also, since it is known well, and from the beginning of his career, to being an attractive designer of furniture. (They it were both, his wife and he, collaborators in everything; but Aino died prematurely after the second world war. He returned to marry, some years later, Elisa, also architect and his employee in the study).

Alvar and Elissa Aalto, 1950s, Author Christian Leclerc | Alvar Aalto Museum
Alvar and Elissa Aalto, 1950s, Author Christian Leclerc | Alvar Aalto Museum

To give Aalto’s sufficiently complete idea only two things would be absent for indicating. The first one, that of the recognition of the discontinuity that the architecture has. For Aalto the nature of the architecture is not always the same one, since it had been said on having spoken about his eclecticism; and, like that it can change even in the same building, since of fact it did it in many of his works, which integrate or make compatible two different manners, often opposite, of understanding the architectural form. You work so many people (House of Culture of Helsinki, Seinäjoky’s Library, Apartments in Bremen, Opera of Essen …) they take this agreement as his fundamental beginning, or this confrontation, between opposite architectures.

The second one is the been credit, together with some other teachers, one of the designers who based his inspiration on the illusory forms. This is, the chosen credit manifestations of the impossible thing, of the illusory thing, of the wonderful thing or the magic thing, of the royal thing or materially non-existent, in end, as fertile pretext to invent the new architecture. The illusory representation of the nature, the magic multiplication of the Sun, the disappearance of the gravity… they are some of great and attractive illusions used by Aalto to do his architecture. This is, to move the figurative language, the tropes and the metaphors, to the conception of the buildings, joining architecture like that and literature, or architecture and language, in an unusual embrace. Certain it is that Asplund or the same one Corbusier also did, and that it speaks therefore about an interpretation of the architecture modern so little studied like really important.

Aalto’s work offers, so, as one of the most important and seductoras of the modern architecture. So much it is so his prestige continues unscathed: we see him as one of that they are already classic and more valuable, but also, and still, as one of our contemporary ones.

Antonio González-Capitel Martínez · PhD architect · Full Professor at ETSAM
Madrid · february 2016

Es arquitecto y catedrático de Proyectos de la Escuela de Arquitectura de Madrid, fue director de la revista Arquitectura (COAM) de 1981-86 y de 2001-09. Historiador, ensayista y crítico, ha publicado numerosos artículos en revistas españolas y extranjeras sobre arquitectura española e internacional. Entre sus libros destacan diferentes monografías sobre arquitectos.

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