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Reinventing Aalto in England

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The Finn's influence, at times more philosophical than stylistic, is still crucial for some of this country's current practitioners

As Alvar Aalto's contribution to the Modern Movement is reflected upon in his centenary year, it is tempting to ask what his work represents to contemporary British architects. An earlier generation - above all, Leslie Martin and Colin St John Wilson - was directly influenced by Aalto. But does his work still generate excitement among the recently established and the up-and-coming?

If looking for overtly Aalto-esque buildings, we may be disappointed: no one is making homages to him in the way that Martin did at the Royal Festival Hall or Wilson at the British Library. Nonetheless, some architects still feel a special affinity with his work - but as one of a number of influences on their practice. It is no longer a question of being for Aalto or for Le Corbusier (or someone else); nor do architects need to know Aalto's work inside out to refer to it.

Instead, it is part of the language of Modern architecture, passed down and appropriated in such a way that the results are more subtle and 'random' than before. One could say that architects are now re-inventing Aalto rather than emulating him.

Allies and Morrison Architects is more familiar with Aalto's work than most. Graham Morrison was urged by his tutor, Leslie Martin, to set off to Finland and see as much Aalto as possible. The 21-year-old Morrison took six months to do this, also working in the office of Keijo Petaja in Helsinki. The tour paid off: Morrison has an in-depth knowledge of Aalto's oeuvre (and an impressive Aalto slide library to boot).

'Aalto made it acceptable to absorb history logically into a rigorous and disciplined Modern building, ' says Morrison. 'He was designing buildings as a totality even when absorbing parts from elsewhere.

From the moment you reach one of his buildings and grab the door handle, a story begins to unfold.'

Despite this admiration of Aalto's work, only a few of Allies and Morrison's buildings have readily recognisable Aalto-esque motifs.

Instead, there is something about walking into their world that makes the master's presence felt. It is to do with the crafted quality of their designs, the attention to detail, the enjoyment of pattern, the sequential flow of spaces, and the quality of light. Together these create a general sense of architectural integrity and well-being akin to Aalto and other Scandinavian architects.

Aalto's architecture is often seen as being human, especially so amid the problems of alienation associated with much post-war work.

Architects have thus looked to him when trying to create engaging or convivial communal surroundings, often concentrating on his use of materials.

Van Heyningen and Haward Architects is especially drawn to how the materials relate to the structure of Aalto's buildings. 'The realisation that hierarchical changes in the plan are articulated in the most subtle way by the use of materials, and the way in which structure is revealed, has made an impact on us, ' says Birkin Haward. He cites the example of Saynatsalo Town Hall: 'We have always been impressed by the use of brick paving in the 'secular' corridor leading to the suspended wooden floor of the 'hallowed' council chamber above.'

It is interesting to observe how the weight of Aalto's buildings, as well as the tension between solidity and void, is transported into a British tradition in van Heyningen and Haward's work. As Haward points out, the buildings the pair admire remain somehow untouchable, locked into their cultural context - but he nonetheless recognises a clear correspondence between the plan of Saynatsalo Town Hall and that of their own Wilson Court at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. A sense of place is created in both by enclosing the courts within a cloister-like space.

Issues regarding materials and planning spurred Robert MacDonald's interest in Aalto. MacDonald (of RMA - Robert MacDonald Associates) discovered him while working with Peter Aldington, whose projects seemed influenced by Aalto in that building materials were expressive, not subservient to their form. In MacDonald's own work, Aalto has proved a useful guide to tackling the complex briefs of large masterplanning schemes, as he explains. 'In large estate planning you are often looking for clues in existing buildings, or landscape features, to hang a structure around. This gives order to what you are doing. There are half-a-dozen Aalto projects one always thinks about - the town halls, his studio.'

At Milton Keynes, RMA's massing and siting of the houses show an Aalto-esque approach to working with natural contours and features.

MacDonald wanted to break away from the anonymity and monotony that often characterise such large housing schemes. He sought to give the occupants of the estate a feeling of individuality by setting their houses in a number of different ways within the landscape. Views of the village church were preserved to retain a sense of orientation and create a nucleus or heart for the community. Such ambitions are very much in keeping with Aalto's insistence on never losing sight of the person.

Cottrell and Vermeulen Architects is less influenced by Aalto's overall method of conceiving a building, or his ideologies, but is instead inspired visually by certain aspects of his work. As Richard Cottrell puts it: 'You have the freedom to source different influences.

Before, this was not PC - architects moved in camps of ready-formulated ideas. For me, Aalto represents a catalogue of work that you can dip into and utilise.'

He adds: 'You don't need to like everything. The Villa Mairea is annoying as well as interesting. We noticed its box window framing. In Aalto's churches the windows - the making of light - have been resolved beautifully.'

Contrary to one's initial hesitations, in the case of Cottrell and Vermeulen this kind of approach does not entail stylistic imitation.

The exterior shape of the practice's Martin Community Centre (adjacent to its newly-refurbished St Martin's Church in east London) brings to mind Aalto's summer house at Muuratsalo. This stems from the architects looking at brick buildings which they thought well-done and akin to the Modern aesthetic they believe in. In the current Westborough School project in London, Cottrell and Vermeulen again 'looked up Aalto' for leads as to how it could create a canopy to link two separate buildings. The result is a Viipuri Library-like roof, with its round skylights, but at the same time an original and playful reinterpretation of the Aalto prototype.

Some have suggested that Aalto's influence today is less a stylistic one than a philosophical one. Certainly these four practices have retained their own identities even when overlapping with his work. The use of materials, the plans of buildings, the general design ethos or particular features that can be attributed to Aalto - all are treated very differently by them in their projects. Aalto has become anglicised, modernised, mixed and contrasted with other influences.

Of course, not everything in Aalto's work sets an example for the future. It is to be hoped that the assessment of his career during this centenary year will lead to a more critical appraisal of his contribution to Modern architecture. For instance, the controlling and inflexible qualities of Aalto buildings are not as common in new Aalto-esque buildings, nor are they overdesigned or fussy in the way Aalto's architecture can be. But in the omissions as well as the additions that it provokes, and in the new combinations that it informs, Aalto's influence may now seem richer and more stimulating than ever.

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