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Errors of omission HARRY CHARRINGTON Alvar Aalto: Towards a Human Modernism Edited by Winfried Nerdinger. Prestel, 1999. 168pp. £19.95. (Distributor 01403 710851)

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Alvar Aalto: Towards a Human Modernism is a selection of papers given at conferences in Munich and Essen last year as part of the Aalto centenary celebrations. Its stated aims are 'to examine more closely the works of Aalto' and 'to study his work and influence in an international context'.

As for the first of these, it is remarkable that so responsive and liberating an architect as Aalto should attract such conservative commentators. I have just spent a week revisiting many of his works for the umpteenth time and they are still directly affecting - an inspiration to any architect. But in most of these texts the places are not so much directly observed as reduced, through analogy upon analogy, to a set of received assumptions. Only Richard Weston at the Villa Mairea seems to be looking and taking pleasure.

The book is more successful in its second aim. It includes a sketch by Goran Schildt of the Aalto he knew so intimately and unsentimentally. This is a determinedly 'modern' Aalto with a clear philosophy, his 'Finnishness' his situation not an attitude. Indeed Schildt's observations on Aalto's approach are meant as a rebuke to the contemporary Finnish scene.

This group of essays is more focused than the first. Detail demystifies Aalto and puts him into a real context: in particular, Elina Standertskjold on his contacts with Richard Neutra and Erich Mendelsohn, and Bruno Maurer and Arthur Ruegg on his yearly visits to Switzerland, where he met with Sigfried Giedion, Alfred Roth and Max Bill.

Further contributions deal with Aalto's influence abroad but, apart from interesting coverage of the Viennese Civic Centre competition, they are just surveys of 'buildings that look like Aalto's' - and are incomplete. They omit both the usa, which has his two finest works outside Finland, and the uk, where his impact was as great as anywhere.

These omissions point to the problem of the book as a whole: it is incomplete, a rag-bag of essays. Moreover, despite the portentous title, nowhere is there interest in how - through the organisation of his office, the development of a 'type-solution', or a one-off building - Aalto actually went 'towards a human modernism'. Instead he is another, albeit more sensitive, 'artist' whose ways remain mysterious.

This is Aalto of Finland as a defence against all the complexities of bigness and the here-and-now. But Aalto's motto was not Frank Lloyd Wright's 'Truth Against the World'. It was the opposite: continual engagement with the facts and people of the time; an architecture of invigorating, risky possibility, not worthy homilies.

Far better than spending time on this book would be to read Schildt's biography (the paradigm to which almost all these essays refer), grab Michael Trencher's guidebook (aj 29.5.97), and head for Finland to experience Aalto's quality and passion at first hand.

Harry Charrington is an architect in Finland

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