Alvar Aalto in America

By Howard, Bevin | Scandinavian Review, Autumn 1997 | Go to article overview

Alvar Aalto in America


Howard, Bevin, Scandinavian Review


"Alto is a genius" declared Frank Lloyd Wright upon seeing the Finnish Pavilion at the New York World's Fair in 1939 (fig.8). Although it was only a temporary building, the pavilion firmly established the Finnish architect, Alvar Aalto (1898-1976), as being among the most important architects of his day. The pavilion was Aalto's first building in the United States, and its design epitomized many of the ingenious forms and ideas that distinguished his architecture from that of other modernists such as Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier.

In 1939 Aalto and his wife and professional partner, Aino, sailed to New York to supervise the transformation of the generic building provided by the fair commission into an extraordinary experience for its visitors. While Aalto did very little to the exterior, he reconfigured the long, narrow interior with a dominating, three tiered, undulating wooden wall. Aalto described this massive, sculptural display as "a building with the facade inside."

The theme of the Finnish pavilion was the land, the people, labour and its fruits. The great waving wall was adorned with enlarged photographs of Finland's natural landscape and man-made industry: lakes, forests and pulp mills. What Aalto created was a stage set, a temporary construction to seduce the fairgoers. Using oversized pictorial images and film against a backdrop of rich textures in wood, Aalto presented a theatrical and atmospheric vision of Finland. Every surface of this "symphony in wood" had a timber veneer. On the ground floor the myriad by-products of Finland's growing export market were displayed: airplane propellers, skis, furniture parts and assembled pieces. Not surprisingly, Aalto's new bent wood furniture was also prominently displayed. The undulating wooden screen enlivened the interior space while increasing the surface area for displays. A seemingly irrational form combined drama and atmosphere with a very practical purpose. The small space in some critical ways became much larger. According to Sigfried Giedion, the renowned Swiss architectural historian and critic, Aalto's pavilion was "the most daring piece of architecture at the World's Fair."

Aalto at MoMA 1938

Although the fair pavilion was his first building in the United States, New Yorkers were first introduced to Aalto the previous year in 1938 when The Museum of Modern Art presented AlvarAalto: Architecture and Furniture, his first museum exhibition and the accompanying catalogue, the first book published on Aalto. The success of Aalto's Finnish Pavilion at the Paris World's Fair of 1937 (which featured the debut of his famous "Savoy" glass vase) had inspired the Modern's curators to organize the first Aalto exhibition. This exhibition introduced Aalto's architecture through models and photographs of his Paimio Sanitorium, Vpuri Library, the Finnish Pavilion at the Paris World's Fair and his own new house in Munkkiniemi. Two galleries were filled with his glass vases and furniture. The waving, free form glass vases, still produced by littala, echo natural forms. Seemingly arbitrary, they also evoke the contours of Finland's many lakes.

The forests of his native land were present at MoMA in the more than 50 birch bent-wood chairs (fig.1). Strong, hard and surprisingly pliable, birch ply adapts well to the ingenious methods of heat and manipulation that Aalto developed in the early 1930s with Otto Korhonen. In fact, Artek, established in 1935 by Nils-Gustav Hahl and Maire Gullichsen, quickly joined by Aino, promoted new housing ideology with Aalto furniture as the principle product. The furniture, still produced by Artek, was an instant international success. Maire Gullichsen, one of Aalto's great friends and patrons, visited the New York World's Fair, and later recounted:

When the ceremony was over the Rockefeller boys asked us whether we could come over to their yachting club for a light lunch with the Aaltos. …

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