MAKING WAVES ; Famous for His Curvy Designs, Alvar Aalto Created Environmentally Friendly Architecture That Was Way Ahead of Its Time

By Hoggard, Words Liz | The Independent (London, England), February 24, 2007 | Go to article overview
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MAKING WAVES ; Famous for His Curvy Designs, Alvar Aalto Created Environmentally Friendly Architecture That Was Way Ahead of Its Time


Hoggard, Words Liz, The Independent (London, England)


The Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) is often called "the Nordic father of modernism". He believed design should be humanising, and rejected severe geometric forms in favour of flowing curves. "Aalto" is Finnish for "wave", which is appropriate for an architect and designer whose work is characterised by soft edges. Over a 50-year career, he evolved a new vocabulary of organic, undulating forms in wood, glass and brick. Arguably, modern Scandinavian design evolved from this holistic approach.

Aalto was in at the start of what came to be termed "Scandinavian Modern". Designers such as Tapio Wirkkala, Timo Sarpaneva and Aalto mastered the medium, creating elegantly flowing pieces that were both delicate and powerful. His career coincided with a new phase of Finnish nationalism, as the country threw off centuries of being controlled by Sweden or Russia to become a modern state. Today in Finland, designers and architects are held in higher regard than footballers. Until the country adopted the euro, it was Aalto who graced the Finnish 50-mark banknote.

Although he had little interest in fame (what he called the "triviality of notoriety"), Aalto was awarded the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture from the Royal Institute of British Architects (1957) and the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects (1963).

Aalto wasn't just concerned with the structures of buildings. The interiors were just as important to him, and he designed everything from light fittings to textiles and furniture, many of which continue to be manufactured today by the Finnish design company, Artek, that he founded in 1935.

He and his wife, Aino, also an architect and designer, used to boil pieces of birch in an old saucepan at his practice in Turku to make sinuous bentwood furniture. Today we know him best for a series of design classics - the Savoy vase, his three-legged stacking stool, the zebra-striped Tank armchair. But he also created many classic buildings throughout Scandinavia and beyond. Among his most celebrated projects in his native country are the Paimio Hospital, built more than 70 years ago, and his own house in Turku.

While his modernist contemporaries Mies Van der Rohe and Le Corbusier argued that the home should be a machine for living in, Aalto turned instead to nature. Where they used steel and glass and bricks and mortar on a linear grid in horizontal or vertical blocks, Aalto used timber and stone in great wave-form curves. Rooms in his buildings are comfortable and human-sized, but have a sensual elegance.

As well as using organic, local materials, Aalto was passionate about integrating architecture into the landscape. He often blurred the boundaries between indoors and out: creating plazas and forest spaces in living rooms and lobbies.

Best of all, Aalto believed that architecture was for the "the little man". Throughout his career he designed houses for ordinary clients and housing projects for industrial workers. Often he took advantage of privileged commissions, such as the luxury house of the Villa Mairea, in order to experiment with new architectural ideas, which he later applied to social housing. But he was anything but worthy. A snappy dresser, attractive to women, Aalto cut a handsome figure into late-middle age, thanks to his habit of morning gymnastics.

Hugo Alvar Henrik Aalto was born in Kuortane, Finland, in 1898. His father was a surveyor. When he was five his parents moved to Jyvskyl, in the middle of a lake landscape in central Finland.

Creative from a very young age, despite being dyslexic, Aalto studied architecture at the Helsinki University of Technology. He returned to Jyvskyl, opening his first architectural office in 1923. In 1924 he married the architect Aino Marsio; they honeymooned in Italy, a trip that inspired a love of all things Mediterranean.

In 1926 Alvar and Aino built a summer house in Finland's Alajarvi, the Villa Flora, in which they led a very modern life.

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