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Imbued with the spirit of freedom

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Alvar Aalto: Between Humanism and Materialism Edited by Peter Reed. moma, New York, 1998. 320pp. £35. Distributed by Thames & Hudson

As part of the celebrations coinciding with moma's Aalto centenary exhibition (aj 12.3.98), this fine volume speaks for reasonableness against the Arts Council's Le Corbusier: Architect of the Century (1987), with its partisan title. Between Humanism and Materialism is now available here, just as the Aalto exhibition transfers to the Palazzo del Te, Mantua.

Following the introductions the book has three parts: five clear essays by well-chosen authorities, the plates (largest chunk of the book), and well-ordered indexes, references having culminated each essay. The plates illustrate all the major Aalto projects and buildings with excellent photographs, drawings and terse captions: indeed, one might happily while away a couple of hours just thumbing through these to imbibe a different world of architecture than that to which we are accustomed - were it not a fact that Aalto's works have a nearness not noticeable to a camera's lens.

What does come across here, though, is the gentle humanism and, against dogmatic belief, warm materialism that continues to reach the hearts of so many who know the buildings, despite Aalto's anarchical beginnings. Those who are not star-gazers - praying for the lifejacket they cannot swim without - will know that a single figure as 'architect of the century' is absurd. They will also have reasoned that, like Aalto, those all-too- few architects who stood out against the formal canons came far closer to the spirit of freedom, in all its vicissitudes, for which Modernism began to argue a century ago.

This is best explained in Juhani Pallasmaa's essay 'Alvar Aalto: Toward a Synthetic Functionalism', Pallasmaa himself having been the ringleader of those young angries almost 30 years ago who believed Aalto to represent the Establishment and made the end of his life such a misery. But now he doffs his cap in recognition of genius. By 'synthetic' he does not mean 'false' but rather 'man-made', in the sense that Aalto believed that, since Functionalism or Rationalism had never gone deep enough, it was necessary for architects to produce a synthesis through abstraction as a basis for design, abstraction being key to the art process needed. Pallasmaa deals mainly with Aalto's formative years of practice, but that is enough for they set the course he afterwards followed.

Those who did understand that outset at the time - I doubt if there were many - would not have been surprised by Baker House, mit (1948), as against Le Corbusier's Pavillon Suisse, Paris (1931), or even Saynatsalo Town Hall (1953) when som's Lever House, New York (1951) had signalled the doctrinaire way forward after the war. As Pallasmaa quotes Aalto: 'Every commission is different and so solutions to problems cannot be stereotyped.'

Marc Treib's 'Aalto's Nature' fixes a fundamental point. Aalto's father was a land surveyor in sparsely populated central Finland, the boy accepting early that land is vital to life. From the beginning Aalto's buildings took their cues from surrounding landscapes - indeed it was not long before interiors (for example Villa Mairea; the Finnish Pavilion, New York) could be seen to reiterate landscapes. The land itself is a phenomenon clear of mankind's formalities and Aalto often used its natural 'faults' to spark a design. Like people, buildings are never perfect.

While Pekka Korvenmaa's 'Aalto and Finnish Industry' explains the architect's relationship to the timber industry and his many commissions thereby (we should nor forget that Aalto had a far larger workload than Le Corbusier, Mies and even Wright), Peter Reed's 'Alvar Aalto and the New Humanism of the Postwar Era', in addition to his grand job of editing, quotes Van de Velde's hatred of standardisation and the establishment of canons - values which Aalto followed.

Aalto went much further, though, for at the end of his life his Finlandia Concert Hall can be seen as an equal rival to Hans Scharoun's Philharmonie: both predicated from anti-formalist standpoints. Kenneth Frampton's 'The Legacy of Alvar Aalto: Evolution and Influence' is on somewhat risky ground, for those who imitate directly, without adding a layer of their own invention, will produce a nonsense without life. So why oh why, as a blasphemy of Aalto's values, is the British Library - exemplar of neither constructive evolution nor useful influence - included? Jorn Utzon and Raphael Moneo, just fine. They understood the values.

No one mentions it, but Aalto's fantastic Villa Mairea staircase, so redolent of forest, was sparked by Wright's steel-slung stair connecting living room to waterfall at Fallingwater. The master winked at my query 40 years ago.

Patrick Hodgkinson is emeritus professor of architecture and urbanism at Bath University. moma's Aalto retrospective exhibition is at the Palazzo del Te, Mantua, until 22 November. Details 0039 0376 3232266. An exhibition on Aalto's House of Culture, Helsinki, is at the riba Heinz Gallery from 5 November to 19 December

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