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Alvar Aalto : Process & Culture

by Richard MacCormac

This essay first appeared in the catalogue to the RIBA Heinz Gallery exhibition ‘Alvar Aalto: Process & Culture’, 1998

“Quality for him was the ultimate product of the individual’s unrepeatable and unique experience; one achieves it by descending into the depth and by progressively clarifying the secret springs of one’s actions, the myths and recollections lurking in the unconscious which strongly influence consciousness and action:” [1]

It is a slightly startling experience to be asked to write about Aalto, to make a conscious evaluation of the work which I have come to feel part of the databank of my architectural subconscious. But the process of recollection has made me realise that certain buildings in his oeuvre have represented for me, at different times the values in my own endeavour to progress the quantitative and the generic towards the complex, metaphorical and allusive. These buildings amongst others are the Rautatalo, Säynätsalo – and the House of Culture.

As a student of Leslie Martin’s in the early 1960’s the Rautatalo was an affirmation of our preoccupations and also prescient of what we had yet to find out. Here was the generic courtyard building which realised the interest in such planning which was at the core of theory in the CambridgeSchool at that time, and which was to develop so powerfully in the collaboration between Leslie Martin and Lionel March to establish quantitative certainties and demonstrate the high densities achievable with courts and traditional urban forms. But even at that time we had some sense of the extraordinary urban and environmental implications of the building. Here was an office building which also offered a public space, a ‘Noli like’ part of the city, an exemplar of mixed use, with a design centre, shops and cafes around its perimeter. Here was an atrium (the term was not yet current) with a roof which ensured the public space would have a temperate climate throughout the year and which would, later, in the quest for energy effciency offer potential as a means of minimising fabric exposure to heat and cold whilst maximising daylight penetration. For me the intellectual fascination of the building was that the simplicity of the proposition was open to such wide interpretation.

The House of Culture, the subject of this exhibition, is also a proposition of disarming directness and intelligence. But here the effect is also visceral. From the perimeter circulation views up into the auditorium and down into the foyer beneath reveal the whole spatial flow of the building simultaneously and offers not just intellectual satisfaction, but that sense of elation and magnified awareness experienced in a Greek amphitheatre. When I first saw the House of Culture in the early 1960’s I was probably unaware of this historical resonance, nor did I see in the building the geological metaphor through which Aalto converts the most difficult of windowless building types, the auditorium, into a striated geological outcrop, an ivy covered cliff forcing itself out of the pavement of the city.

To experience Aalto’s work at that time was immediate, but to understand where he stood in relation to the modern movement was much more difficult. Most schools of architecture were dominated by a determinist interpretation of modern movement orthodoxy in which appearance was the consequence of technology and fitness for purpose. Even though Summerson had written a highly ironic essay in which he had suggested that, if this was really the case there could be no other expressive meaning in modern architecture, there were few critics or teachers who could articulate a response to that challenge. [2]

So for me the importance of Aalto and what Sandy Wilson, later, was to call “The OtherTradition” was that he was defiantly concerned with meanings beyond function and technology while demonstrably master of both. Yet the heterogeneity of the work was difficult, quite unlike Wright in whose work at that time I also perceived intentions beyond modern movement orthodoxy, but intentions which could be understood, to some extent, in terms of traditional architectural composition and syntax. Yet Aalto has affected my work as much as Wright, but in quite a different way, not consciously, but almost unwittingly. I recognise themes, particularly those of Säynätsalo.

I find Aalto at Säynätsalo demonstrates again the conceptual clarity of the couryard but combines within this general proposition complex allusions and architectural recollections, partly filtered through a personal and especially northern experience of the classical world. Säynätsalo is a little acropolis, sanctuary and clearing on an outcrop in the forest. This atavistic sense of the special significance of the raised place in the midst of nature, ambiguously both landscape and building, reappears at Jyväskylä Universiy, at Otaniemi, at Seinäjoki town centre and in the Aalto Summer House. The theme has precipitated itself in many of my own projects such as WorcesterCollege, Oxford, and the Cable and WirelessBuilding, Coventry.

Another characteristic of Säynätsalo, which Aalto transmuted from his experience of classical sites is its presence. It is small, but not self-effacing. The council chamber stands forth and the windows of the stair wrapped around it, are like a continuous lidded eye, alert and on the look-out. So the building, like a temple precinct, an Italian hill town, or Aalto’s early classical church projects such as Töölö achieves an anthropomorphic presence which distinguishes itself from its natural situation and declares itself.

Of course there are other wonders in Säynätsalo, the episodic fluency of the stair winding up round the tower and the mysterious timber fans supporting the roof. Aalto’s work is founded in a rationality which it then transcends. It has taught us that architecture must speak and like the other arts act as a medium of revelationary personal experience and thought made universal.



1 – Paul Klee: TheThinking Eye, Jurg Spiller, Lund Humphries, London 1961

2 – Five Buildings, MJP Catalogue, London, 1996