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Alvar Aalto in His Own Words.

By Goran Schildt, New York: Rizzoli, 1998, 288 pages, 100 b/w illustrations, [pounds]40

Of the five conventional hero architects of the first half of the twentieth century, Aalto has been an enigma as thinker and writer. Every word (no matter how trivial) that Frank Lloyd Wright ever wrote or spoke has been reverently collected. Le Corbusier was such a prolific journalist and anthologizer of his own work that he sometimes appeared more powerful as polemicist than as architect or artist. Gropius was verbally articulate in academic fashion. Mies seems to have kept largely mum, apart from one or two famous epigrams.

Outside Finland, Aalto was rumoured to have written and spoken quite prolitically, but few could find out what he said for, on the whole, he spoke in Swedish (his mother's language but largely inaccessible to most Europeans), and he wrote mostly in Finnish, the daunting slopes of which have been conquered by only a few really dedicated non-Finnish heroes (none of whom has been an architectural critic or historian). Now, Goran Schildt has crowned his loving and extensive biography of his friend (AR May 1988 and AR March 1992) with an anthology of over 75 of Aalto's speeches and essays, all translated or reproduced in English (like most of his countrymen, Aalto was no slouch at foreign languages and during and after his '40s American period, he sometimes spoke in English - for instance in his 1957 RIBA Annual Discourse).

Schildt has arranged his matter in roughly chronological order, so we start with the young architect patriotically trying to marry his obsession with the Italian Renaissance to his love of the landscape anti culture of Finland. Then there is his increasing interest in modernity, industrialization and rationalism, which commenced in the late '20s and, perhaps focused by the 1930 Stockholm Exhibition, began to lead to his first brilliant personal interpretations of European Modernism which started to cam him an international reputation. But as early as 1935, he was already criticizing 'formal functionalism', and arguing that 'objects that can rightly be called rational often suffer from a flagrant inhumanity'.

This was the attitude that led him for instance to introduce bedside lights and radiant ceiling heating for the recumbent body (leaving the head cool) in the Paimo Sanatorium, rather than having central room lights and uniform suffocating heat, as was then the practice in hospitals. He believed at the time (and indeed throughout his life) that technology and rationalism have a huge amount to offer, but they must be controlled. In the RIBA Discourse, he argued that we should 'create an elastic standardization, a standardization that [will] not command us, but one that we would command. Slowly, slowly there is more and more mechanical dictatorship over us ... It does not matter how much electric cables or the wheels of motor cars are standardized: but when ... we come to things that are close to us, the problem is different it becomes a question of the spirit.' And in a much earlier speech he had emphasized that 'as opposed to a car, a building has a fixed relationship with nature: it is inseparably attached to a plot of land ... A building cannot fulfill its purpose 100 per cent if it is standardized in the same way as a car'.

He decried the decline in public architecture: 'the overseas world has gained so much ground that even here in Finland we have built only a handful of truly authoritative public buildings since we gained independence in 1917. Our cities are turning, or have turned, into an amorphous mass'. This was written in 1953, when he still hoped that Finland, and perhaps Scandinavia as a whole, could become patterns for the development of building, planning and architecture throughout the world, and that idealistic architects would be among the leaders of the creation of a better society.

In the early '50s, both propositions seemed plausible. But Aalto's 17-year chairmanship of SAFA (the Finnish Society of Architects) came to an end in 1959. His position was being challenged by a new and iconoclastic generation of architects who saw his long dominance of the profession as dictatorship - and a woolly one, ill-suited to a nation still struggling to overcome devastating results of wars. More seriously in the long run, bureaucracy and big business were starting to undermine the authoritative humanist position of the professions: the proposition, in which Aalto believed so passionately, that all professional people should work disinterestedly for the good of society.

Schildt surely exaggerates when he suggests that Aalto thought that SAFA members could he a Nietzschean elite leading Finnish society towards progress, but certainly there were elements of the notion in his approach at the time (as there were in the minds of very many contemporary architects). In a sense, Aalto's later years were darkened by punishment for the hubris
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Author:Davey, Peter
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1998
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