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A homage to Aalto

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letter from finland

'William Morris was a Swede!' Jim Stirling famously thundered. But Morris could just as well have been a Finn. Finland is rich in the sort of twentieth-century architecture and decoration - romantic, evocative of tradition, 'cosy', and sometimes a touch effete - which the generation of Stirling and the Smithsons so loathed. Today we can appreciate its qualities in a more objective light. Indeed, the church at Nakkila by Erkki Huttunen (1937) and the Turku cemetery chapel by Erik Bryggman (1938-41) are masterpieces of a style justly claimed as both modern and traditional. They would be highlights of any architectural tour, but the Twentieth Century Society's recent Finnish expedition, in which they featured, was dominated by the work of Alvar Aalto.

The Twentieth Century Society is, by instinct, a revisionist organisation. In its earlier incarnation as the Thirties Society, it questioned Modern Movement orthodoxies and re-evaluated the sort of twentieth-century architecture that Pevsner had dismissed as reactionary and irrelevant. Times (and personalities) changed, and the society began a rather fraught (and not uncritical) love affair with the Modern Movement that continues today. At one time, Aalto might have been seen - wrongly - as part of an alternative, 'soft' modern tradition. Now, it seems, we embrace him as he really was.

Seeing Finland under the guidance of a Finn (Laura Iloniemi) whose family is closely involved in the world of architecture was a particular privilege. We were able to understand the all-embracing character of Modernist culture in a nation which, after all, did not exist before this century. At a party held in the Iloniemis' Helsinki apartment, we met Kristian Gullichsen, himself an architect of considerable stature. (His admirably bold extension to the Stockmann department store in Helsinki was completed in 1989.) Two days later, we visited the Villa Mairea, built for Gullichsen's parents Harry and Maire by Aalto in 1938-39, a house which infuses vernacular, oriental and naturalistic elements into an inherently modern parti to produce an indisputable masterpiece.

The Villa Mairea was certainly influenced by Wright (who pronounced Aalto a genius on the strength of his 1939 New York pavilion) and, like so many of Wright's own buildings, has to be visited to be understood or appreciated. The sanatorium at Paimio (1928-33) is better known, and admired for its fluent plan and memorable form. Yet again, however, the reality exceeded expectations. This building exemplifies the passion behind modern architecture between the wars, the conviction that architects had a part to play in making a healthier, happier society for the future. Seeing it, one understood how wrong the revisionists have been to depict 'Modernism' as just another style. The sanatorium has been splendidly restored and is maintained to a standard which would be inconceivable in Britain. Patients are no longer, however, obliged to lie for long hours in rows on the top-floor balcony. (The fire escape from this level consists, extraordinarily, of a series of steel rungs down which patients would have had to climb down seven storeys - it was never put to the test.)

The Aalto magic was also working powerfully at the 'experimental' house at Muuratsalo, built by Aalto in 1952-53 as a country retreat for himself and his family. 'Experimental' because it was a test-bed for materials being used in larger projects of the period, including the House of Culture in Helsinki. Close to a lake - Aalto always came there by boat - and surrounded by trees, the house (and inevitable sauna) embodies Aalto's convictions about nature and the landscape. In the ideal city, he argued, everyone would pass through a forest on their way from home to their place of work. When the house was built, Aalto had just completed the town hall at Saynatsalo, currently being restored. The building is both exotic - influenced by a love of Italy - and strongly rooted to its site, a dramatic little fortress amid a rather bland suburban landscape.

Back in Helsinki, bars and restaurants were explored and dinner enjoyed at the richly textured Savoy Restaurant (1937, by Aalto and intact, with good food). Again, it was evident how modernity is integrated into Finnish culture. The Savoy was owned by the Ahlstroms, one of whom married Harry Gullichsen. Downstairs is the Helsinki store of Artek, the company founded in 1935 by Aalto and others and still selling his furniture and glassware.

When Jim Richards published his Guide to Finnish Architecture in 1966, he did not feel obliged to include many examples of traditionally-inclined twentieth-century architecture, moving on swiftly from the National Romanticism of the elder Saarinen - architect of the magnificent central station in Helsinki - to the age of Aalto. Richards could not get excited about the Parliament building, completed in 1931 and a rather cold pile which could have passed muster in Speer's Berlin. I share his doubts. Far more genuinely Classical, in the warmth of its emotion, is Aalto's early (1924-25) Workers' Club in Jyvaskyla, a project which reflects the strong influence of Asplund. Aalto apparently felt embarrassed about his early excursions into historicism, which were at odds with his later standing as an apostle of modern design. Today, the logic and integrity of his career seems impeccable.

Ironically, Aalto's reputation in Finland has never been as strong as it is abroad. Aalto named his beloved boat Nemo Propheta in Patria and drew strength from his reputation overseas. (His newspaper offices in Turku were included in Hitchcock and Johnson's 1932 International Style exhibition at moma in New York and an Aalto show was staged at moma as early as 1938.)

A visit to Finland is to be recommended. Enjoy the past - Helsinki has plenty of fine Neo-Classical, National Romantic and Art Nouveau buildings - and the present day. Steven Holl's Contemporary Art Museum has just opened and is worth seeing. It is said that Holl is the first foreign architect to build in Finland since the foundation of the Finnish state - there is no shortage of native talent. Midsummer is the time for the Finns to live it up - their reputation as a rather festive people is not exaggerated. Book a table at the Savoy and forget that you ever had doubts about modern architecture.

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