Smooth Finnish

Alvar Aalto's buildings and furniture are exemplary expressions of modern Scandinavian design—clean, light, practical.

After more than 60 years the famous bentwood furniture still seems fresh, its fluid lines familiar even to many who can't name the designer. Even those who can, however, are likely to know little about Alvar Aalto's other achievements. During his long, celebrated career, the great Finnish architect invigorated modernism like a bracing Nordic wind, imbuing it with a humanism rooted in nature, tradition, and intuition. Responsible for more than 200 buildings (not counting single-family dwellings) and scores of unbuilt projects, he's been called the most productive architect of our century after Frank Lloyd Wright. Six decades after its first Aalto show (a mark of his staying power as a modern master), New York's Museum of Modern Art is honoring his influence and the centennial of his birth with a major retrospective (February 19—May 19). On view will be more than 50 of his finest works—buildings, furniture, and glassware—including many drawings and models never before seen in this country.

Like Wright, Aalto was labeled an organic architect. He stated that "the profoundest property of architecture is a variety and growth reminiscent of natural organic life." In form and materials, his work is alive with allusions to the natural world. His trademark undulating line was said to echo Finnish lakeshores and the contours he grew up watching his surveyor father chart (but then, aalto means wave in Finnish). He revealed the earthy plasticity of humble brick, reviving its use in nonindustrial modernist buildings (the MoMA show will incorporate a curving wall of the wedge-shaped brick he created for Helsinki's House of Culture). Drawing on Finland's bountiful forests, he used wood to lyrical effect, as in his rhythmic slatted screens. He developed his classic wooden furniture primarily because he didn't like the coldness of tubular steel. This emphasis on the tactile, evident in every handrail or door handle Aalto designed, reflected his conviction that "architecture—the real thing—is only to be found when tiny man stands at the center."

Alvar Aalto was born in the provincial town of Kuortane, in West Finland. Besides his father, another early role model was his grandfather, a dashing forester who invented a repeating rifle and a poodle-powered sewing machine. At the age of nine, young Alvar came across a red-covered journal with two pages of color perspective drawings. "From the effect those architectural drawings had on me," he later recalled, "I can say that a new architect came into the world that morning."

Much current architecture is striking in photographs but disappointing in the flesh. In contrast, photographic images of Aalto's best buildings, while intriguing, don't convey their enveloping grace. "His buildings are a sensuous experience—you're not aware of architectural rigor," comments Peter Reed, curator of the MoMA show. "They're more about your responses to light and site and context and scale. People are content in his buildings, which often look monumental in photos when they're actually intimate." (Visitors to the museum will be able to "walk through" several of them with the aid of videos showing on big-screen TVs.)

Most of Aalto's work is in northern Europe, mainly Finland; one reason he's not more widely known in America is that only two of his buildings and two interiors are here. To experience one of them firsthand, I made a pilgrimage to the library at Mount Angel Abbey, near Salem, Oregon. Finished in 1970, six years before Aalto's death, the library combines characteristic elements such as brick and timber exterior cladding, pale interior woodwork, and Aalto-designed lighting, furniture, and brass door handles. These and other aspects of the design—the fan-shaped plan, sunken reading room, small auditorium's curvilinear surfaces—can be found in many of his buildings. (As Aalto told the monks, he didn't mind using good ideas more than once.) He loved to read, and in all his libraries superbly modulated lighting banishes glare from the page.

The abbey complex occupies a butte, on the edge of which, facing a parklike commons, sits the library, deferring to its traditional neighbors with a low, discreetly modernist facade. Past the single-story lobby is the main desk; beyond that, the sudden drama of an interior that expands outward, upward, and downward, dropping with the hillside. Carved out of the ceiling is a semicircular skylight, its deep light-diffusing well pierced by beams that (like the long bookshelves) read as spokes radiating from the hub of the main desk. Two sets of stairs lead down to a curving mezzanine and the lower floor. A closer look reveals that the plan is asymmetrical, the radiant lines lengthening from left to right, creating a dynamic effect. The introverted design focuses main-floor views of trees and fields through small,eye-level windows. A limited palette of colors and textures adds to the sense of serenity.

The library is a virtuoso performance from an old master, a beautifully contained swirl of space and light. Writing in The New York Times, critic Ada Louise Huxtable called it "a small and perfect work" and "vintage Aalto—subtle, sensuous, full of wisdom about the environment and man."

Like his contemporaries Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, and Louis Kahn, Alvar Aalto arrived at modernism by way of classicism (which was, after all, the original International Style). At the Institute of Technology in Helsinki, where he studied architecture, the Beaux Arts tradition was still dominant. Neoclassical architecture enjoyed a European revival before and after World War I; its association with republican virtues suited a Finland newly independent of Russia. Not surprisingly, several of his early buildings were classical in form and spirit. His Terho Manner House (1923) boasted a garden temple and simple applied ornamentation of the sort postmodernists were to play with decades later. The Jyvaskyla Workers' Club (1923—25) was a mixed-use design in which the auditorium's curved wall protrudes into the foyer like a church apse into a piazza. He gave the Italianate Muurame Church (1926—29) a towering campanile and a portico borrowed from a favorite painting, Fra Angelico's Annunciation.

After opening his own office in 1923, Aalto married one of his assistants, and they honeymooned in northern Italy. It was on this trip that his admiration for Renaissance Italy deepened into the lifelong passion that led him to imagine Tuscan-style hill towns crowning the slopes of central Finland. (His wife, Aino Aalto, was a down-to-earth architect and partner, who acted as his sounding board and anchor until her death in 1949; his younger second wife, architect Elissa Aalto, survived him to complete projects unfinished at his death.) Dreams of Italy notwithstanding, Aalto was also attracted to the organic unity of Art Nouveau and the traditional integrity of Finnish wooden churches and other vernacular buildings.

Though he never ceased drawing inspiration from these early influences, Aalto was soon swept up in the wave of modern architecture that was rising across Europe. Modernism offered him new tools to achieve time-honored goals and a forward-looking style that went with Finnish architecture's need to build a new nation. "He consciously retrained himself in the new functionalism, then grew beyond it," comments MoMA's Reed.

By the late '20s Alvar Aalto had moved squarely into the modernist camp and was busy creating design solutions he would employ for the rest of his life. He'd begun to attract international notice, which increased in 1929 when he won a competition for a tuberculosis sanatorium in Paimio. A white high-rise planned to give patients healthful exposure to sunlight and fresh air, the sanatorium was hailed as proof of the progressive power of modernist architecture. With its cantilevered sundecks, bright accent colors, and free-form entrance canopy (dubbed Aalto's Lung by the nurses) Paimio seems more like, say, Miami's Fontainebleau Hotel than a halfway house for consumptives. The architect put his stamp on everything, from lighting for the bedridden to a scroll-back bentwood armchair designed to encourage better breathing. Later converted to a hospital, the building is very much in use today.

Aalto, who sketched and painted from an early age, habitually used drawing to harness his intuition. When stymied by a project, he would put it aside and sketch freely, sometimes inviting his children to join in (indeed, their drawings can occasionally be found alongside his). "I start drawing, giving free rein to my instinct, and suddenly the basic idea is born, a starting point which links the numerous, often contradictory elements . . . and brings them into harmony with each other," he wrote.

Thus his Viipuri City Library evolved from the neoclassicism of the 1927 competition-winning design to the strikingly modern final version of 1933. "I pursued the solution with the help of primitive sketches of fantastic mountain landscapes with cliffs lit up by suns in different positions," Aalto explained. The mountain plateaus became the multilevel reading areas, evenly lit by deep circular skylights, like so many suns. From its window-walled stairwell to the undulating wood ceiling of its auditorium, the Viipuri Library embodied clarity and confidence. It's ironic that after the area became Russian territory in 1944, the Soviets proposed renovating the library in the classical style, a project never carried out. The building has suffered from years of decay, but Aalto admirers have launched a restoration effort.

By the early '30s the architect had won the respect of Gropius, Le Corbusier, Moholy-Nagy, and other pioneering modernists. Aalto gained wider renown with his Finnish Pavilions for the 1937 Paris International Exhibition and the 1939 New York World's Fair. Le Corbusier praised the "deep-rooted authenticity" of the former, which used timber columns, exterior wood cladding, and views of its wooded Trocadero site to evoke Finland's forests. The New York pavilion was a tour de force dominated by a towering, tilting, serpentine wall clad in wood slats; on it were displayed blown-up photos of Finnish scenery and industry. If the Paris pavilion was further proof that Aalto had absorbed the ideals and vocabulary of the Bauhaus, the New York pavilion confirmed that his creative approach had more to do with cubist collage than with the rectilinear rigor of the International Style.

A remarkable example of this is the Villa Mairea (1938—39). Aalto wrote of the design's "deliberate connection to modern painting." In it he made artful use of natural materials, colors, and textures to transcend the open plan and rectangular white volumes of conventional modernism. Curvilinear forms (the entrance canopy, studio, and pool) counterpoint the angular exterior. Tradition, and the forest, crop up like wind-sown wildflowers: an exterior stone fireplace-cum-stairway, a grass roof, varied wood cladding, a corner splashed with lake-blue tiles, timber railings, a rustic sauna set off like a Japanese teahouse. From the sapling screen at the entrance to the airy, pole-enclosed staircase, wood uprights suggest trees in a sun-streaked forest. Aalto's Villa Mairea is a poetic dialogue between reason and emotion, a bridge between the modernist future and the primeval past—"an instant," wrote one critic, "between memory and imagination."

"Aalto's buildings address the visitor somewhat like a natural environment, so there's a layering of imagery that evokes memories, and stimuli that address all the senses," observes Finnish architect and critic Juhani Pallasmaa. "It's this layered quality in his work that makes it both fascinating and pleasurable. He tried to create discontinuities, when continuity was the normal modernist strategy."

No one who knew Aalto expected him to hew to the modernist party line. Concerned with the architect's role as social engineer, he designed his share of factories, worker housing, and company towns. But sober Bauhaus realism was too bloodless and formulaic for him. Aalto was no dogmatist, but a pragmatic visionary; in his designs form follows function, but it stops to smell the roses. Unlike Le Corbusier, who could subordinate the practical to the abstract, Aalto put them on the same level and blurred the line between them (witness his experiments at laminating wood for furniture, which yielded branching, curved forms that double as abstract art). This allowed him to employ the same form in different ways, as when the fan-shaped curve at the top of his elegant "X" furniture leg reappeared as part of the vaulted ceiling of the Heilig Geist Church in Wolfsburg (1960—62). "The chair leg is the little sister of the column," he remarked.

The architect was known as a sociable wit, fond of his stories and drink. "He was a delightful person with an exceptional sense of humor, who could be charming but on occasion arrogant," recalls Pallasmaa. In the mid-'30s, on his first visit to America, he won over every audience with only a 300-word English vocabulary—and with the cockiness and charisma of his genius.

Aalto's postwar work offers a multitude of sublime architectural moments. Many are in places of assembly: the floating balconies of Helsinki's Finlandia Hall (1962-71); the baroque interplay of light and sculpted walls that dematerializes the altar of the Church of the Three Crosses in Vuoksenniska (1955-58); the Helsinki University of Technology amphitheater that steps from the fan-shaped form of a lecture hall (1953-66). Säynätsalo Town Hall (1948-52) is a welcoming bastion of democracy, its splayed trusswork a modern echo of medieval timber framing. At M.I.T. (where he once told students designing a window to imagine it framing the girl they loved), Baker House, Aalto's brick dormitory (1946-49), curves like a sine wave to maximize views of the Charles River.

"He produced brilliant buildings but never at the expense of human needs," says Kenneth Frampton, Ware Professor of Architecture at Columbia University. "For Aalto, modernism wasn't a dead end but an organic, evolving process. His work addresses the current issue of how to maintain a modern culture that doesn't constantly oscillate from one extreme to another."

Aalto had the good fortune to be ready and able at the moment when both modernism and Finland were in the throes of self-definition. The man whose picture is on his country's 50-mark note was proud to be known as a Finnish architect, and the traditions and landscape of his homeland resonate in his designs. "Nothing old is ever reborn," he wrote, "but it never really disappears either. And anything that has ever been always reemerges in a new form." Now—at the end of the modernist century—is a fine time to rediscover a designer who could find the universal in the national and the timeless in the contemporary.

"Alvar Aalto: Between Humanism and Materialism" is an illustrated collection of essays published by Abrams for the MoMA exhibition. $55.

Los Angeles-based Jeff Book wrote about the new Getty Center in the November/December issue.