Ateneum Art Museum in Helsinki now hosts a touring exhibition on Alvar Aalto, produced in collaboration with the Vitra Design Museum. Artworks by key artists, including Hans Arp, Calder and Léger are showcased alongside Aalto’s designs.
Art, politics and new ways of living were at the heart of the Modern Movement. Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) was one of the central figures, creating his own brand of modernist architecture with organic forms and humanistic ideals. He steered away from so-called International Style and was awarded the RIBA Gold Medal in 1957 for his professional achievements.
Always enthusiastic about people and networking, Aalto stayed in close contact with international colleagues and friends. From the late 1920s onwards Aalto travelled widely, often with his first wife Aino Marsio-Aalto (1994-1949), also an architect. Life-long friendships with artists such as Alexander Calder (1898-1976), Fernand Léger (1881-1955) and László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) were a great source of inspiration for both of them.
Through CIAM (Congrès international d’architecture moderne), where Aalto was the Finnish representative, he met like-minded practitioners. In the 1933 conference Aalto met Léger, who had studied architecture and also collaborated with Le Corbusier. With Calder Aalto shared an interest on movement, light and abstract space. Moholy-Nagy’s 1929 book on materiality was an important source of inspiration for Aalto. The exhibition looks at these dialogues, the influence on Aalto’s architecture and product designs, and the formal innovations of the Modernist era. Artek, the company founded by Aalto in 1935, functioned also as a gallery showcasing works by these pioneering artists in Finland.
Jochen Eisenbrand, chief-curator from Vitra, draws attention to Aalto’s artistic sensibilities, his innate, intuitive ability to conceive space and the impact on later generations. Eisenbrand makes conceptual links with Aalto’s organic forms and architectural methods of the post-digital age, where parametric design systems are used for creating spatial movement and fluidity.
The recent emphasis on architecture as a social tool, as seen at the last Venice Biennale, also relates back to Aalto, as Eisenbrand points out: “To help countries in the aftermath of human crisis, that was a big topic for Aalto during and after World War II.” He mentions Shigeru Ban, who draws inspiration not only from Aalto’s innovative ways with wood, but also his humanitarian actions. And Alvaro Siza, who was interviewed for the exhibition: “The attention to detail, the importance to direct the light, architecture speaking to all the senses”, Eisenbrand describes their similar approaches.
Today it’s harder to find clear manifestos. “After post-modernism the field is so wide open, all the architects and artists connect anyhow. There are so many biennials and triennials, the TED conferences and other platforms,” Eisenbrand says. Indeed, organisations like CIAM, which brought Modernist architects, theorists and artists together, has been replaced by a multitude of voices and global platforms in the post-digital context.
Amongst the wider public Eisenbrand thinks Aalto’s legacy is best known through his furniture designs, which are still globally distributed under the Artek brand. “At least outside Finland his furniture is seen by more people, because it’s movable, it travels around.” The sculptural Paimio Chair is one of the items originating from the Paimio Sanatorium, which was commissioned in the late 1920s – a fusion of beauty, function and social purpose. Aalto’s bent wood has been a great inspiration for designers, for example Charles and Ray Eames. “Aalto working with laminated wood that he moulded in two dimensions and the Eameses work with plywood bent in three dimensions – there is a clear progression there,” Eisenbrand explains.
Evocative photographs of Aalto’s key buildings have been commissioned for the exhibition from Armin Linke, a fine art photographer based in Berlin. The curatorial team wanted to provide fresh views of these iconic spaces. “We chose Linke because we didn’t want to have typical architectural photography that shows the buildings empty, devoid of people and monumentalises them,” Eisenbrand says, describing Linke’s approach as neutral and sachlich (objective). “He found some unusual views that I had never noticed before.”
Alvar Aalto – Second Nature, published by Vitra Design Museum, with essays and photographs accompanies the exhibition
Alvar Aalto – Art and the Modern Form 11.5.2017 – 24.9.2017, Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki