Inspiring Architects: Alvar Aalto

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Alvar Aalto was a Finnish architect and designer of interiors, furniture and objects. In his 50 year career spanning from the 1920s to the 70s he displayed a rare and complete mastery of materials – from wood and glass to concrete and brick – forever changing how each is implemented in both commercial and domestic building design.

The photo above is the interior of his 1939 Villa Mairea. Steel, wood, glass and stone are perfectly harmonised in a design that – despite its age – perfectly describes the values that guide my own work today: ample and unobstructed natural light, a marriage of the interior and exterior and sensitive use of local vernacular (in the case of Villa Mairea, a clear forest theme).

Aalto’s work was as driven by sensation and atmosphere as they were by efficiency and form. This makes his portfolio one of the most versatile amongst the great architects, the defining characteristic of his works being their experimentalism rather than their repetition.

He wasn’t as strict a functionalist as many of his modernist peers – such as Le Corbusier – who believed architectural purity could be achieved by refining a building to its most essential parts. Aalto saw architecture as an art that was capable of curating a deliberate experience for those that used the space, believing building design could not only be built around behaviour but influence it positively.

Take his habit of placing large, communal atriums in his commercial and public buildings to encourage socialising. Now atriums have become something of a standard feature for even modest offices but Aalto’s Rautatalo office block of 1951 was a bold diversion from the more cramped and private layouts of classical architecture, the sensation of light and space in the atrium enhanced by the pared back modern aesthetic.

As Aalto matured he never lost his appetite for play, which he considered an essential process for freeing the mind and allowing new ideas to unfold free from preconceptions and rationalisation. This open imagination is clear to see in famous works such as the Essen Opera House and the Baker House Student Accommodation, both of which look as if they were formed by a single sweep of his pencil.

Having such an artistic approach meant that he often visualised the building first and figured out how it would actually work later. It’s said that this task often fell to his wives, Aino Aalto, who died in 1949, and Elissa Aalto, who continued running his practice after his death in 1976.

Aalto, for all his fame (which he found humorous) was not an island. He was open an generous with his ideas and is known to have cherished the unique dialogue of creative collaborations, especially with his wives. Unfortunately a lack of records and the era’s indifferent attitude towards women we’ll never know exactly how much of an influence Aino and Elissa had on his work.

Beyond Aino and Elissa, Aalto also sought out similarly progressive contemporary architects and designers from around the world, keen to collaborate and learn from them. Though he never worked with him, Aalto paid close attention to the work of Le Corbusier, who was perhaps modernism’s most defining figure.

His welcoming and insatiable creative spirit nurtured a practice of incredible productivity and talent, with Aalto alone responsible for over 500 workable designs, the last of which were completed posthumously by Elissa, who also diligently protected and restored his iconic works until her death in 1994.

Aalto is an inspiration for me in his entirety: his varied and sensational work, his humble and playful attitude and his open design philosophies. He was an artist to his core and his personality was poured back into his work, an effort I try to make myself and foster amongst my colleagues.

By John Dyer-Grimes