“Architecture cannot save the world, but it may serve as a good example.”
Alvar Aalto, the renowned Finnish architect, designer, and town planner, forged a remarkable synthesis of romantic and pragmatic ideas. His work reflects a deep desire to humanize architecture through an unorthodox handling of form and materials that was both rational and intuitive. Influenced by the so-called International Style modernism (or functionalism, as it was called in Finland) and his acquaintance with leading modernists in Europe, including Swedish architect Erik Gunnar Asplund and many of the artists and architects associated with the Bauhaus, Aalto created designs that had a profound impact on the trajectory of modernism before and after World War II. He favored a more heterogeneous architecture, with inspirations ranging from the birch and pine forests of his native country to the classical and Renaissance architecture of the Mediterranean.
In works such as the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium (1929–33) and Viipuri City Library (1927–35) he expanded the notion of a rational architecture, which for him relied too heavily on technical and functional considerations, by giving priority to the psychological and sensual aspects of design through means such as color, the sensitive modulation of light and sound, and materials, especially wood. Aalto designed all of the furnishings for his buildings with the goal of creating flexible standards, a synthesis of practical and aesthetic concerns that harnessed the advantages of machine technology—such as the possibility of low-cost, standardized, replicable products—and the artist’s desire for creative variation. The most famous of these standard designs is his so-called Paimio chair (1931–32), also known as the scroll chair, whose seat is made of a single piece of undulating bent plywood that seems to float in the frame. In the 1930s, Aalto became identified with wood—the essential, profuse, natural material that served as the backbone of the Finnish economy—and known for his explorations of bending and shaping it. His designs for stacking stools, chairs, tables, and other furnishings continue to be manufactured by Artek, a company founded by Aalto, his wife Aino Aalto—herself a gifted architect and designer—their patron Maire Gullichsen, and art historian Nils-Gustav Hahl to distribute the furniture and promote modern art and design through exhibitions.
The extraordinary success of Aalto’s Finnish pavilions for the Paris International Exhibition (1937) and New York World’s Fair (1939), with their notable use of wood elements inspired by the Finnish forests and evoking a pre-industrial spirit and sense of freedom, brought him international recognition. His architecture, bent-wood furniture, and the world premiere of his colorful curvilinear glass vases (produced by Karhula-Iittala) evinced a fresh, organic quality that owed more to nature than to historical precedents or machine industry.
After World War II, Aalto further developed his design vocabulary, his exploration of materials, and an architecture that responds to the landscape in such major works as the Baker House, Senior Dormitory for Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1946–49), marked by an unconventional undulating façade; Säynätsalo Town Hall (1948–52), featuring an enclosed courtyard inspired by Italian Renaissance piazze; and the Church of the Three Crosses in Vuoksenniska, Finland (1948–52), in which he achieved a sensuous, almost mysterious sense of light and brilliantly exploited the plastic, sculptural qualities of concrete.
MoMA has long placed Aalto among the key figures in modern architecture and design. It presented the first museum exhibition and publication devoted to his work in 1938, Alvar Aalto: Architecture and Furniture. In 1984, MoMA presented an exhibition devoted to his furniture and glass, Alvar Aalto: Furniture and Glass, followed in 1998 by the first large-scale retrospective in the US to present original drawings and models of his architecture, Alvar Aalto: Between Humanism and Materialism, which coincided with the centennial of his birth.
Note: Opening quote is from the artist, cited in Alvar Aalto, Peter Reed, and Kenneth Frampton, Alvar Aalto between Humanism and Materialism. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1998, 10. https://www.moma.org/documents/moma_catalogue_201_300063180.pdf.
Peter Reed, Senior Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs, 2016