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Alvar Aalto


By Nicholas Ray.

Yale University Press.


This book looks as if it might be part of a series. The format is compact, the length modest, and its organising scheme is eminently repeatable: an account of the life, interwoven with general discussion of the work, is followed by analyses of key buildings and themes.

Ray's biography draws extensively on Göran Schildt's monographs, but is spiced with fresh anecdotes and insights. He discusses the quirky Classical phase of Aalto's career, but more might have been made of its impact on the mature work, such as the handling of materials. The evocation of time-worn brickwork and the blue-tiled 'window' at Muuratsalo, for example, combines the realism of National Romanticism with the playful use of metaphor typical of Nordic Classicism.

Six buildings are discussed in detail - Paimio, Villa Mairea, Baker House, Säynätsalo, the Pensions Institute and Finlandia Hall - and the presentations are models of their kind, combining current scholarship with a practitioner's eye for detail.

The final section is structured around the themes of 'nature, function, means, style, positive scepticism and the legacy', and Ray's advocacy of Aalto as a model practitioner draws on ideas that have exercised many at Cambridge - notably a preference for the nominalism of Aristotle over the idealism of Plato. Ray's book contains no major revelations, but as an authoritative, fluently written introduction to Aalto's achievements and legacy it could hardly be bettered.

Richard Weston is professor of architecture at Cardiff University

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