Biology from a life’s work

© courtesy of Alvar Aalto Foundation

For many people, a roof above their heads is just an impossible thought to bare. The ‘small but expensive apartment design of excellence rhetoric’, linked with a kind of high-profiled speculation – transversal in all major cities – has something to do with this problem. Householders, property, real estate, architects – those taking a small slice of the “pie” –, are accepting a new normal. A new generation not endangering in the personal concept of creating massive personal debt, changes an old formula, for the good sake of personal finances. Even if it is a misconception, new self-mobility and a need of save money in small pockets, is destroying any scent of personal space awareness, of personal life and self-development, with the cost of having to live with this sense of not connected but still and always connected – a kind of air sustained philosophy. 

If one digs through details, quality of life through design – which has the purpose to improve how people live at a low cost (see design theoretical models, please) -, if you add fine materials applied through spaces and objects, well, it is easy to find yourself in an exclusive domain, since the old and the new have been dominated by a strong hold on prices configuration. The higher the price, the better the offer, the theory, even if the case is not always the that same one. This can be a kick start theme for a ‘biology’ for living in a certain place, or space. And there is a bit of a difference for what is actual seen as contemporary. And for what is possible to take as self-space, since no one wants or can to dare take a space for its own specifics – I like and want to develop there –, the sense of belonging. 

In general, architecture main purpose is to give people an opportunity to live properly. This works with the sense of belonging to a place. Cities have evolved to produce cultural structures, links to a contemporary life (home, job, kindergarten…) urban design helps to ensure as common life through spaces. Routine. Supported by. Shops, cafes, restaurants, museums, art galleries, streets to walk on, parks and gardens, lakes, offices, hybrid spaces with several different functions (intermodal stations and similar). The list is endless.  A space is just not a space but also what surrounds it and it cannot be just walls or paint and materials, but one will need some of those objects to go along. Interior configuration is also important. For that reason, crossing disciplines in a common platform, accumulated layers of information in a manifest of symbolic ‘architectural sources’, is something to see by the eventual theoretical lenses. Defining what is best to occupy space with throughout several places organized by a plan, or at least with a will and purpose. 

TV shows have changed any classical ideal approach, by presenting architecture and interior design as a popular concept possible to explore in 15 minutes of travelling exclusive ‘fiction’, in several scenarios where houses are just isolated entities, very far away from any kind of heritage from a common classical criterion. Architecture is in fact a discipline to help common people to solve common problems, even if TV amazing homes do not help such a conception to settle. 1,2 million euros in a house is a new normal? Classical but contemporary?! A place to live? Yes, of course. Diverging from a kind of popular reality. Because you want to fell at home, yes, not just to see amazing post-modern spaces in a bubble. You want also to understand what it means to live in a well-designed space contributing to easy your daily life routine, created with a special sense of identification. This is the work of an architect. Present a vision for a space from his own perception of the world, educated by a strong technical approach. Is something he does for/with you, if you are to build a house, if you chose to live in an apartment. 

So, why it is so important to read again about Alvar Aalto, an architect who, in his own words, ‘built for everybody’? Because truthfulness in his work was, still is, a regulator factor to help perdure and endure, and ensure for that matter, the relevance of a true meaning of conception in architecture. Is reality a sense of rational awareness cutting all strings attached? Alvar Aalto is a level breaker. He used his privilege to care, building for rich and poor people, big and small plans for cities, big and small houses, big and small apartments. Not one house in particular can we say is just amazing, not spectacular amazing, in the common sense. But several, for the same reason. You can live there and it is very good, not just apparently good. Not just because he has built houses, or spaces where people enjoy living for decades, but because he has built active ‘entities’ with a profound sense of proportion, taste and quality related to this common sense of belonging. With an inclusive interior design, a strong part of that equation. He created not just livable spaces to wait for life to pass by. He produced architecture heritage, linked by a strong use of very well chosen quality materials, blending a passion for details where they are commonly neglected, with a very fine design research level and reasonable approach, helping state living as something more complete, and belonging, because seen around a well thoughted place. 

© courtesy of Alvar Aalto Foundation

Aalto Beyond Finland 2 – Projects, Buildings and Networks
As Silvia Micheli putted in her dissertation on Aalto, for “Aalto Beyond Finland 2” group of essays: “I suppose one can say without reserve that it is precisely the authority of the past that is the main criterion for our work today.” This affected, for example, how ‘classical architecture was brought to attention in Nordic countries. Aalto read those nuances when ‘travelling extensively’ from Finland to Southern countries of Europe, where he visited and re-visited ancient architecture, taking that knowledge and perception into account for a kept transversal blend of his conceptual/rich approach with nature and landscape contextualization, typical in Nordic countries architecture (and not just there) as being part of a sensible design – not exclusively but relevantly. The result was something worth to investigate, that perdures as a piece of historic heritage one can learn from.  
This book is a theoretical approach and a must read. A collection of edited papers from invited lectures held at the 2015 International Seminar Aalto Beyond Finland. It presents a list like projects made outside Finland, with great context and updated information on Aalto travelling schedule (places, places), network and career consolidation. Sometimes presenting a vision of the man itself, with his likes and dislikes. Somehow giving insight in how he transformed himself during several years of practice, in the beginning of his career and social life, from being very active socially, writing, participating for the sake of his own professional success and, after achieving some of those goals, assuming a low-profile kind of reputation, in the end of the 1950’s. If one can have a low profile after being so prolific!

Bibliography is intentionally quoted and mentioned, helping researchers. Aalto focus in Italy and Italian culture, for example, as remarkable “source” for his work: “I don’t want to talk about a particular trip, because in my soul there always is a trip to Italy. Perhaps a trip made in the past that keeps coming back in my memory, a trip on which I am, or maybe a trip that I will take. Such a trip is perhaps a condicio sine qua for my architectural work.” ( pag. 68, quoting from an article wrote for Casabella-continuita magazine number in 1954). 

One can also read a group of essays about his non conscious creative process. For the reason that an essay is an intentional ground for experimentation and briefly discussion. The B&W photos presented along just give this edition a clear clarification on what it means to try out a hypothesis: to write (in the case) some kind of interpretation, proving some essential range of risk, for the person at stake assuming the content of a paper. And resting for the architect, in the case, his heritage, a sense of quietness evolving from his practice or lifespan, a direct link for the sake of valuable insight and architecture for its true value. Aalto will not be angry or said or happy. But his work will be better known.

This is a great input on understanding why Aalto is still a reference for architects nowadays. “Aalto Beyond Finland 2”, second volume by Alvar Aalto Academy and Alvar Aalto Foundation publishers, edited by Esa Laaksnonen and Silvia Micheli (quoted before), is an important tool to have at hand when interrogating on some choice one sees as a reference to use in his/her (sorry for the gender reference, people!) own work. And is a bit different from “Alvar Alto Homes”, a chronological biography in a high sized edition, strong imagery and short contextual texts, edited by Jari & Sirkkaliisa Jetsonen. Both stamped by Rakennustieto Publishing. Critic follows. 


© Jari Jetsonen

Alvar Alto Homes
For the sake of ‘stop building just glass facades around the world where glass is not just the great option’, we need more often to see a kind of architectural approach presented as a demonstrative tool, printed in very good and very heavy paper, excellent printing design layout, with strong and liable information in an exclusive edition. So, the book is not just a bunch of good imagery and ideas speeded away in a feed. A person needs to stop and see. It is important to see and understand what space means, to live it, avoiding a kind of transliteration performed by the spectacular 3D image preview we all are emerged in right now. Reality taking is course, but reality is also an impression across a pausing event: to switch pages at a controlled velocity! 

Who would care more about wood, concrete, glass and bricks, open views and not so opened? So many, and at the same time, so few. Rather, Aalto, a person who was worried with a sense of urgency for construction consolidation, building and building and building across countries, a sense very common to find among architects, preserved as memory, attaching smooth and contrasted lines within strong arguments (not just corners) made to help maintain a comfortable lifestyle. Architecture used as an improving tool for life. Even if not improving at all (for any other reason), helping maintain a certain degree of aesthetics.

Alvar Aalto worked at the center of architecture demise. The changing floors and walls covered, because walls are a bit more than just walls or concrete, mass and massive, more than just divisions in space, but notes, specific notes composed among shadows and light entering a place. A definition Aalto reached with a spatial hierarchy. Many problems solved after, both interior and exterior plans had a common foundation. They were (are) part of a major statement, to unveil space, light combination between and deliver a smart combination between social and spatial routine. An example is “Aalto House”, and “Muurarsalo Experimental House”, both of his property and built for his own use. 

Of course, Aalto had an amazing opportunity, living in a period of time where architects were seen as the single authority creating design methods, creative approaches among interpretation and design of value. Of course, working along with multi tasked, skilled teams.  We all build boxes, said me once a teacher in a classroom, but the secret is to find a geometrical distinction in a geometric figure like a “box”, so it can be used and seen as something more than just a geometric figure. In reality, Aalto’s work is one that assumes space is not just a neo-plastic consumption presentation, but a synthesized functional idea integrated in a conceptual planification, gambling rationalism with purism, discovering an inseparable common platform of discussion among chosen surfaces, materials and working in and through ‘entities.’ 

Alvar Aalto work production can be seen around the world, but Finland was a laboratory like place to test and develop ideas used after. This book helps to uncover that. He could build a house for a rich friend with a  large art collection (Maison Louis Carré, 1956-1959) and, at the same time, combine his efforts with a smart plan for a city center (Korkalavaara Apartment Buildings, 1956-1960, related with Rakovalkea housing block, at Rovaniemi), with diverse houses typology, in this case, apartments, to be used and bought by various types of families, less wealthy or really pouring money from their pockets. Standardization was a common conceptualization and research feature. But who can find commonalty in Rot Houses Slope-Door Houses design project (Kotka, Finland, 1938-1939) or in the iconic Villa Mairea amazing in sito construction, where landscape, views, light and details are so upscaled as the architectural unity everyone wants to achieve? 

© Jari Jetsonen

This book is a biographical approach in a fine and elegant edition, revealed as an easy reading for those thinking about re-editing the re-neo-modernism. All “isms” are to discover in a group of revealing photos, like a portfolio edited to show off a singular work, with strong images and technical designs as a very good graphic description. Some projects could have been more explicit, with more pages, covered to maintain a certain common level of intensity for every single work. But that would maybe have transformed this book edition in an unbearable one, any reading completely devastating. 

Images and sketches, from technical to any single detail or general drawing, are of some perception for a giving understand and interpretation, and are common ground for a territorial condensation, who helps to unveil a developing idea. In one’s memory and even work, if you are an architect and need a little external consultation. On Aalto´s work, as a breach in the Scandinavian approach, with its warm colors and sometimes contrasts. A bit more exquisite and differing from a certain common grounded white degrade. He placed itself in a certain Scandinavian architecture tenure, since he was also a teacher, pushing the cord to reach new limits, using wood as a spatial configuration element, not just masking surfaces. He carefully treated wood for enhance cozy designing, natural space absortion, natural light flooding, rectangular plans refused and at some point, with his standard interior conception materialized in extensive furniture plans, common to several works. 

Alvar Aalto Homes, by Jari and Sirkkalisa Jetsonnen, is a remarkable piece to have within doors for any architecture practice. Drawings are presented at a reading scale, as elements to inspire. Images reveal details within plans and related to them. Aalto needed concretion –, getting along within life´s normality, marriage, children, more work, less work, changing countries, and so on. A level of intensity that is absolutely true. 

Architectural dimension and impact its one right so intense and obvious, one can have a tendency to diminish its value. Blur or fog does not open endless opportunities when having to induce design standards by practice. Architecture is not just building stuff (interior and exterior) in record time. Is solving big urban problems, perpetuating time with a sense of poetic extrusion. This have nothing to do with chic, or super chic, but with fitting a purpose, the program, project and need. Yes, it can be luxurious, but living in a good, dimensioned space, even if made with a low budget, it is, in fact, luxury at its best. Good spatial architectural design, interpretation (f. example, a clients will) and creation, is to combine proportion, program (already said), intervention, deletion and to avoid ignorance – in its diminishing need to build pathos. To absorb heritage as a strong related ground, and conceptualization of the past to develop from that step onwards. 

Aalto wasn´t building in the 21st century. He had better/more time, a team that read and took is obsession as raw material in a locking completion modus. He could, not all can. No strings attached, all strings attached. He had who could pay for his work, in the first place. He cherished his friendships, was close to his delivering modus operandi. But was tight to his emphasis on good architecture, nurtured by excellent sense of composition and extremely good interpretation of space and time. It was good taste, of course, and a bit more along that fringe line. Very much more. He worked with teams and teams worked for him. In a parallel emergent and differentiated ordeal, placing houses, buildings and architecture conceptions through a variety of architectural paths, with a combined continuity. His work, for public and private clients, culminated in bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens, bathrooms, corridors, fireplaces, walking closets, enormous blocks with small bricks and concrete, amazing squared and not so squared windows, natural light radiance, shadows. All is still in place. Programs, but not just, enhancing impeccable use. The summarized formula architecture is all about. 

© All images are protected by copyright and are part of Aalto Beyond Finland vol 2 or Alvar Aalto Homes, and cannot be reproduced or used without previous authorization from its authors.

Title: Aalto Beyond Finland vol 2 – Projects, Builds and Networks
Author/Editor: Esa Laaksonen and Silvia Micheli eds
Publishers: Alvar Aalto Academy and Alvar AaltoFoundation
Publishing company: Rakennustieto Publishing

Title: Alvar Aalto Homes
Author/Editor: Jari Jetsonen & Sirkkaliisa Jetsonen
Publisher: Rakennustieto Publishing