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Alvar Aalto with his first wife Aino
Alvar Aalto with his first wife Aino. © Aalto family/Euphoria Film. Foto: ARTE

Alvar Aalto is considered one of the most influential modernist architects and designers. He was also ahead of his time in his working partnerships with his first and second wives, Aino and Elissa. Now, ARTE is showing the documentary “Aalto – Architect of Emotions” by Virpi Suutari.

By Thomas Wagner.

Virpi Suutari’s documentary “Aalto – Architect of Emotions” was filmed in 2018. In its most mysterious and visually striking scene, we find ourselves on board the steamer Patris II, travelling from Marseilles to Athens and watching leading architects on their way to the fourth CIAM congress. Having accepted Alvar Aalto (1898–1976) into their number, the group of prominent European architects organised by Le Corbusier and secretary-general Siegfried Giedion is crossing international waters in a highly symbolic fashion. Then we cut to another scene. Suddenly, we seem to be in thick fog. Gradually, we realise that we are looking down on a long building. At first it looks like footage of a model, but it turns out to be Paimio Sanatorium in a snowy landscape. Hazily, like a mirage, the building emerges from the twilight as brass music plays.

A sanatorium for the “horizontal man”

In 1929, Aalto won the design competition for the vast site of the tuberculosis sanatorium. The white, seven-storey building consisting of several different wings was officially opened in June 1933. Beneath a rather short flying roof, decks allowing patients to recuperate in the fresh air stretch the full length of the wing housing the wards. In the film, the architect Juhani Pallasmaa comments that Aalto was a modernist through and through – but only for a few years. He subsequently found his own style with the tuberculosis sanatorium and Vyborg Library (completed in 1935). “Having spent a few days in hospital himself shortly after he started planning,” says Pallasmaa, “he realised that a patient in hospital sees the world from a different perspective than a healthy person.”

He must have had a very winning personality

The film seeks to portray Alvar Aalto as a man and an architect. With the exception of occasional flashbacks, it proceeds in chronological order, covering both biographical events and the buildings designed by Aalto. “As a man,” emphasises architectural historian Nina Stritzler-Levine, “he was certainly complicated; he must have had a very winning personality and been magnanimous and intelligent. He also had an excellent knowledge of human nature. He was obviously very charming.” Of his first wife, she says: “Aino Marsio-Aalto was quite the modern woman: a mother, an architect, a designer – and the wife of Alvar Aalto. She had different identities. There were hardly any couples in the modernist movement, so the Aaltos were very unusual – and, in my opinion, pioneers.”

The Maison Louis Carré in Bazoches-sur-Gyonnes
The Maison Louis Carré in Bazoches-sur-Gyonnes, France, was designed by Alvar Aalto and his second wife Elissa for the art collectors Louis and Olga Carré. © Euphoria Film. Foto: ARTE

Personal and professional partnership

Alvar allowed the rooms to speak for themselves, while Aino added light, fabrics and atmosphere. They worked as a team, not just designing buildings but also inventing a whole new design language with their bentwood furniture – a refreshing alternative to the tubular steel pieces of the Bauhaus style. Their furniture quickly became popular around the world. The first person to promote it in America was Lawrence Rockefeller. In fact, the Aaltos’ designs were the most successful brand of modern furniture in the USA until the late 1940s. An exhibition at MoMA in 1938 made Alvar and Aino famous throughout the country; their popularity then reached unprecedented levels courtesy of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Following Aino’s death in 1949, Alvar later shared his life and work with his second wife Elissa, also an architect and designer.

Aalto's modern interpretations of Romanesque forums or Venetian amphitheatres
Using materials such as glass, wood, concrete and brick, the Finnish master architect Alvar Aalto created his modern interpretations of Romanesque forums or Venetian amphitheatres. © Euphoria Film. Foto: ARTE

Building with nature, not against it

Aalto never defied nature: he always built in and with it. His curved roofs are legendary, emphasising the organic rather than the constructive and keeping the atmospheric energy inside the space, as it were, by halting the eye and guiding it back into the space. Aalto’s layouts and use of materials clearly illustrate that he did not pander to nature, but he strived to reconcile rational principles – an essential trait of modernism – with organic, natural characteristics. In the film, we hear how future occupiers or users should feel as welcome and comfortable as possible in the spaces he created – which paves the way for empathic architecture almost as a matter of course.

Overall, the documentary is both an in-depth biopic and an introduction to the work of Alvar Aalto and his collaboration with his first and second wives. However, the individual aspects are only examined briefly. The film often rushes through time in short sequences, as if we were whizzing through a very full life in much the same way as we might hop over stepping stones to cross a fast-flowing stream. One moment, the war is on with Russia, Alvar is sorting footwraps and his friend Rockefeller donates $100,000 to Finland at Alvar’s request (Alvar talks about 1 million) – then suddenly we hear about post-war home building and the standardisation office, only to move on rapidly to something else altogether. The whistle-stop tour is nevertheless enlightening. At the end, it says: “Architecture was life for the Aaltos. Not just in their designs but in their day-to-day life; it was really the essence of who they were.”

The library in Vyborg, Russia, today bears Aalto's name
In the 1930s, the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto designed a library in Vyborg, Russia, which today bears his name. © Euphoria Film. Foto: ARTE

Alvar Aalto – Finland’s Great Architect (“Alvar Aalto – Finnlands großer Architekt”) is available in German and French language in the Arte media library until 11 March 2021.

Aalto with his first wife Aino
© Aalto family/Euphoria Film. Foto: ARTE

Documentary: 52 min.

Online from 3 February 2021 to 11 March 2021

TV broadcast
Wednesday, 10 February 2021 at 10.00 p.m.: first broadcast

Sunday, 14 March 2021 at 6.00 a.m.

Sunday, 21 March 2021 at 7.20 a.m.

To the ARTE media library

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