There's an awful lot of Aalto around at the moment. Those serpentine vases make attractive wedding presents for friends, and we have all sat on those nice, cheap stools. And this month, from the Aalto archive in Helsinki, two exhibitions have arrived in London, both devoted to single buildings. A show at Aram Design (4-20 November) described the Viipuri Library while the riba Heinz Gallery deals with Helsinki's House of Culture.
Viipuri dates from the 1930s and is perhaps Aalto's most emotive building. Like the Paimo Sanitorium, it strives for new forms, which are organic, Modernist and functional. But it's an error to mistake Aalto for a Nordic Scharoun, because Scharoun rarely transcended these categories while Aalto rose above them. He combined them to create something original deriving from an almost undifferentiated mixture of analysis and intuition. Viipuri is the building with the famous diagram of how the shape of the ceiling distributes sound evenly across a room. Aalto may not have understood that sound does not behave in the same way as light, but he certainly came up with a justification to exert his penchant for and skill in creating sensuous and sinuous forms out of plywood.
But Viipuri's emotive force increased with its subsequent history. It lies in territory ceded back to the Soviet Union as part of a 1944 peace treaty, and it was neglected. An international committee has been formed for its restoration. Its English arm is headed by Michael Spens with support from a clutch of architectural knights. Perhaps the sacrifice was worthwhile, because it ensued Finland's continued, if truncated, independence. Having replaced books at Viipuri with a portrait of Uncle Joe, the Soviets would surely not have allowed Aalto to continue in practice had they got their hands on the whole country, and there would have been no House of Culture.
Yet, ironically, the House of Culture shows what communist building might have become. Through a warm personal relationship with the Communist Minister for Social Welfare, Matti Janhunen, Aalto was asked if he would undertake the job in 1952. That to some degree accounts for its openness and its hierarchy being even less explicit than in the Festival Hall or the Berlin Philharmonie, whose function it shares.
But much more important is the mode of its construction. The Finnish tradition of talkoo, something like New England barn-raising, brings friends and neighbours together to assist with building a house. Migration to the city after 1945 brought many skilled craftsmen to Helsinki who still shared that habit. So Helsinki acquired many new buildings which could otherwise not be afforded; at the House of Culture 5000 workers gave 500,000 hours free of charge. Even though materials were largely sourced locally they were generally more expensive; thus the building reverses the received wisdom of much modern construction, that labour is expensive and materials, industrially produced, cheap.
This is one of the keys to understanding Aalto's work. It says much about the materials he uses and the ways they are put together, even to the extent of the evolution of his forms. It also helps to account for the straightforward, undemonstrative nature of his drawings, simple and large scale; obviously intended to be understood by individual volunteer workers who may not have had supervision from a main contractor. There are, though, some exquisitely beautiful early design sketches, in particular one which shows the interior of this northern auditorium as if it were a Greek amphitheatre.
The discrepancy between these types of drawings indicates a second key to Aalto's work, which is explored more thoroughly in his notes on Viipuri called 'The Trout and the Mountain Stream'. As interpreted by Ted Cullinan in his contribution to the catalogue, this suggests two ways of conceiving form, leading to two approaches to composition. One is static, the other dynamic, but it is the relation between them which achieves beauty. Grids and organic forms, explicit and visionary drawings, Modernism and regionalism, mathematically generated forms constructed with volunteer labour - so many of the dichotomies in Aalto's work fit into this binary division.
These two keys give important insights into Aalto's architecture. The almost complete absence of social housing in his oeuvre goes some way to accounting for his never suffering the same fall from favour experienced by other Modernist heroes. But on their own these factors do not quite explain his powerful hold over the collective architectural imagination; why some of the most distinguished contemporary architects - Ahrends, Cullinan, Foster, MacCormac and Wilson - should support the restoration of Viipuri and contribute to the Heinz catalogue. For that, we should perhaps examine the pervasiveness of those vases and stools.
Jeremy Melvin is an architect and teacher