President of the Academy of Finland
Alvar Aalto is considered a modern architect, yet his work exhibits a carefully crafted balance of intricate and complex forms, spaces, and elements, and reveals traditionalism rooted in the cultural heritage and physical environment of Finland. He was born Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto in the Ostro-Bothnian village of Kourtane, Finland in 1898. He graduated with honors from Helsinki Polytechnic in 1921 after which he opened his own practice. He held the position of Professor of Architecture at MIT 1946 to 1948, and was President of the Academy of Finland 1963-68.
Aalto was a religious man and a practicing Christian. Although his early work borrowed from the neoclassic movement, he eventually adapted the symbolism and functionalism of the Modern Movement to generate his plans and forms. It allowed him to create a series of functional and yet non-reductionist buildings. Even though he borrowed from the International style, his use of color, texture, and structure was creative and new in its own right. He refined the modern European architecture and molded it to develop and define a new Finnish architecture.
His designs were always contextual as they were responsive to site, material and form unlike most of the other modernist architects who designed in isolation. Aalto produced a lot of work in countries like Germany, America and Sweden. A lot of his projects under construction at the same time have overlapping ideas and details. Moreover, Aalto was of the few architects who designed to the last detail and was aware and receptive to the needs of the people and the environment. Aalto was a master of form and planning.
His buildings have provided renewed inspiration in the face of widespread disillusionment with high modernism on one hand, and post-modernism on the other. Aalto’s mature work embodies a unique functionalist/expressionist and humane style, successfully applied to libraries, civic centers, churches, housing, etc. In their scale, mastery of light and distinctive palettes, Aalto’s buildings were characterized with a robust humanism. During the mid-1930s Alvar Aalto’s work began to embody a more tactile, romantic, and picturesque posture, becoming less machinelike in imagery.
The presence of these characteristics in his work, coupled with a seemingly rekindled interest in Finnish vernacular building traditions and a concern for the alienated individual within modern mass society, signals a movement away from the functionalist tenets that formed his architecture in the early 1930s. In renouncing industrialized production as a compositional and formal ordering sensibility, Alvar Aalto moved toward a more personal style which solidified over the next decade, a direction achieving maturity in his work executed after World War II.
Aalto’s Saynatsalo Town Hall, built between 1942- 1952, in Saynatsalo, Finland, was one of the civic projects he undertook. The building had a pioneering effort in using brick. Never before had red bricks been used in civic buildings in Finland as they common concept on them not being too formal existed. However, bricks were warm with reference to color and not as formidable looking as stone, so they fit right into context in the cold harsh climate of Finland. Aalto had strong political opinions and wanted to make the town governments strong enough to be able to stand up to central governments.
He had individual freedom in mind while designing the Saynatsalo Town Hall. He changed the program brief to increase the footprint and the mass of the building. He introduced a courtyard in the centre with single loaded corridors to ensure well-lit offices and corridors. He utilized the principal idea of the Greek agora when designing the town hall. The building followed the contours of site and the courtyard level defined the spatial datum. The use of exposed timber trusses was there as well as a double height council chamber to give it that hierarchy.
Similarly, the Baker House Dormitory, at the MIT campus in USA was designed and built between 1946- 1949. In this building, Aalto comes up with a slightly different approach which he later carries on in his other projects such as the Church of the 3 crosses in Vuokesenniska. He uses the concept of duality and carries it out in detail throughout the project in the sinuous serpentine wall. It’s a large brick building with repetitive elements. The duality exists in the background vs. foreground relationship of the building, in the repetitive vs.
the unique, the curvy vs. the rectilinear, the planar vs. the volumetric, the large vs. the small and the brick vs. the marble. The unique staircase projects out of the buildings and becomes the diagonal element. It gives a certain degree of dynamism to the project. Like the Baker House Dormitory, Aalto juxtaposes the rectilinear against the curvilinear in a lot of his other projects. He breaks away from the idea of symmetry and uses asymmetry to his advantage and for functional reasons.
Aalto’s later work had a lot to do with acoustics as he attempted at making acoustically sound buildings such as the Finlandia hall or the Church of the 3 crosses. Before totally moving towards architecture ad designing buildings, Aalto designed products and furniture. So in 1935, with the assistance of Maire Gullichsen and with Nils Gustav Hahl as director, the firm of Artek was formed, which produced and marketed Alvar Aalto’s furniture, fabric, and glassware designs. Amongst some of his most famous product designs is the Savoy vase which was an organic form.
Aalto’s vases had a fluid sinuous shape in varying colors that let the users decide the use. They are being manufactured to this day. Aalto’s furniture was mainly bent wood light furniture which followed the principles of clean functional design. He made the Paimio Chair for the sanitorium in 1931-32. It was inspired by the tubular steel Marcel Breuer chairs in his own home and was devised to ease the breathing of tuberculosis patients in a combination of molded wood and plywood which, Aalto believed, would be warmer and more comfortable than metal.
Alvar Aalto died in 1976 in Helsinki. Over the course of his 50-year career, Aalto, unlike a number of his contemporaries, did not rely on modernism’s fondness for industrialized processes as a compositional technique, but forged an architecture influenced by a broad spectrum of concerns. Alvar Aalto’s architecture manifests an understanding of the psychological needs of modern society, the particular qualities of the Finnish environment, and the historical, technical, and cultural traditions of Scandinavian architecture.
Bibliography : • Gardner’s Art through the Ages • Alvar Aalto (Archipocket) by Alvar Aalto and Aurora Cuito • Alvar Aalto by Richard Weston • www. wikipedia. org/wiki/Alvar_Aalto • www. scandinaviandesign. com/Alvar_Aalto • www. designmuseum. org • http://virtual. finland. fi/netcomm/news/showarticle. asp? intNWSAID=26966 • http://architect. architecture. sk/alvar-aalto-architect/alvar-aalto-architect. php • Finnish Architecture and the Modernist Tradition by Malco Quantrill • www. artek. fi