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Published 18/01/2013 email E-MAIL print PRINT

Aalto and America

Edited by Stanford Anderson, Gail Fenske, and David Fixler (Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 2012)

Reviewed by LORENS HOLM

According to Sarah Williams Goldhagen (‘Aalto’s Embodied Rationalism’), who is one of the contributors to this impressive new text on Aalto’s encounter with America, we can understand Aalto’s position within the modern movement as an other form of rationalism imbued with humanism.

This rational humanism appears in Aalto's work as Aalto's signature appeal to trees, local materials, handling of light, and the like; it must be understood as a form of embodied rationalism, in which mind is inflected by its essential condition as body. This embodied rationalism is evinced in the body metaphors with which we describe mental states (I have been to the mountain top). She aligns this position with the findings of cognitive psychology; and finds its roots in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology which is grounded in the body – to be distinguished from Heidegger’s rather more mystical phenomenology, which has been the basis for much recent phenomenological thought in architecture.

In the paper following, Dörte Kuhlmann (‘Floating Signifiers: interpreting Aalto’), looks at how Aalto's work signifies within the architectural field. If we want to assess Aalto's work within a discursive field (modern/not modern) as opposed to simply describing the features of his work, we must treat these features as signifiers for ideological positions: she argues that these same signature features - the unfolding plan, the tree column – function as floating signifiers, a form of signifier whose purpose – according to Claude Lévi-Strauss – is to accommodate excess signification. There is too much meaning in the world and every society has a stock of floating signifiers to deal with it. This explains why the relation  of Aalto's work to international modernism or to Finland is so difficult to pin down, and also shifts the discussion away from explaining it as effects of functional determinants. She argues that Aalto's rationalism goes – not toward repetition of the same or standardisation (eg, the Le Corbusier Unités) – but toward repetition that leads to variation or particularisation. Every flat in the Neue Vahr apartment block (Bremen 1958-62), is different, not because it is a response to different sunlight conditions or views as it is often claimed (how could it be?) but simply to be different. Along the way, she points out that most of the other modernists also had humanist interests in nature, difference, the local. But she never to my mind adequately explains how the floating signifier works or binds this very interesting idea of excess to Aalto-esque variation.

Kuhlman and Goldhagen thus take opposite approaches to the question of Aalto’s relation to the modernist canon. For Goldhagen, Aalto is a member of the canon because he is a rationalist as well as a humanist; for Kuhlmann, Aalto is a member of the canon, because rationalists are also humanists. Most of the papers in this collection address this question in one way or another. There was a triumvirate, Le Corbusier, Mies, and Gropius; and then there was the other tradition (cf. Colin St. John Wilson, ‘Aalto and the other tradition’). There is a canon – dominated by the kind of rationalism that leads to standardization – and Aalto is always something else, not non-rational or irrational, nor even particularly Finnish, local as opposed to international or ideological, but always unhinging modernist binary distinctions.

There are many excellent papers in this collection. The papers on Aalto's American works are arranged chronologically beginning with the Finland Pavilion for the 1939 New York City Worlds Fair, Baker House at MIT, two lesser known interiors at Harvard and the United Nations (Kari Jormakka ‘Poetry in Motion: Aalto's Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard’ and Matthew A Postal, ‘Alvar Aalto and the Edgar J Kaufman Conference Rooms’), and finally Mount Angel Library. Sarah Menin’s ‘Embracing Independence: The Finland Pavilion New York 1939’, looks at the role of the forest in the cultural imaginary of Finland. This project, with its wooden wave and multi media projections, caught the eye of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Michael Trencher returns to the question of Aalto’s humanism in ‘Baker House: the Individual and Mass Housing, a Delicate Balance’, which looks at the relation of the individual to the collective in Aalto's work and thought. Lawrence W. Speck returns to the idea of organic humanism in ‘Baker House and the Modern Notion of Functionalism’. In ‘Baker House and Brick: Aalto’s Construction of a Building Material’, Ákos Moravánszky recounts how Aalto selected a brick from a factory with rather lax quality control in order to achieve the desired variation in texture. David N. Fixler (‘Illuminating Aalto: the Renovation of Baker House’) puts Baker House in the context of Aalto's other work; he describes a façade option for Baker House involving planted trellises running up the side of glass elevations, which recall what he did at a smaller scale at Viipuri where he raised greenery up the glass wall of the stairwell. Finally Paul Bentel – a former classmate of mine at Harvard – argues that the enduring spatial and physical experience of Baker House, exceeds the interpretations we bring to it. I start to enjoy collections when I see how they address each other; this paper takes a position opposite to Kuhlmann’s: material experience vs the play of signifiers. This section includes a portfolio of photographs of Baker house as recently restored by Perry Dean Rogers & Partners, Boston, an office with a substantial education practice where I worked as a newly qualified architect in the mid 1980s.

Michael Spens tells us that when Colin Rowe saw Mount Angel Library, he commented that he never much liked Baker House, but the library moved him. In the final paper in the collection (‘Mount Angel Library and the Path from Viipuri’) Spens tells the story of the Library at the Benedictine Abbey of Mount Angel. Almost 20 years after Baker House came Mount Angel. The Benedictines looked at Kahn, opted for Aalto. He designed most of it before he saw the site, and when he got there he shifted the location slightly to save a stand of trees. The site was more suitable for Aalto than the sites of previous projects because it is on an overlook that suited its fanning form. Spens argues convincingly that this library culminates a formal and programmatic theme beginning with Viipuri, that threads his whole career. Viipuri is the “proto-type”. Now that it is restored and functioning and viewable, it can play a larger role in research and assessment of Aalto.

Spens argues that it is not merely that these two library projects deserve belated critical acclaim, but that there is a kind of cultural amnesia which refuses to see the formal and programmatic narrative that emerges when they are placed together. Along the way, Spens applies the biological concept of phenotype to architecture. The phenotype treats the species and its constructions (the beaver and its dam) as a single extensive embodied unit. It is the first time I am aware of its use in architecture (Stanford Anderson also mentions it in his introduction). It adds weight to Goldhagen’s discussion of a rationality that is embodied. This is the other paper – besides Kuhlmann’s – to intentionally position itself against the prevailing discourse. Where Kuhlman chose to challenge a prevailing attitude to Aalto critique that focuses on the material features of the work, Spens’ aim is to rescue the Mount Angel Library from its peripheral position, an aim made especially poignant by being placed at the end of a collection in which five of the 16 papers are on the Baker Dormitory at MIT.

This book will be of interest to Americans because America is always struggling with its European influences (indeed, this may go some way toward explaining the enduring reception of Colin Rowe in American schools). There are also very good discussions of particular aspects of the mid-century American architectural scene, as for instance the discussion of the “politics” of international modernism at the time when the Museum of Modern Art was defining its position on modern architecture. Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen’s paper ‘Aalto goes to America’ documents the pre-war discovery of Aalto by MOMA, the MOMA exhibition of his work (Architecture and Furniture: Aalto, 1938), the conflicts between internationalism and isolationism, modernism and regional identity in America and in Aalto's work. Gail Fenske, (‘Aalto, Wurster, and the “New Humanism”’) documents Aalto’s relationship to William Wurster, Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning at MIT when Aalto was a design professor, and the circumstances surrounding the commissioning of Baker House. She has an illuminating discussion on the development of a language of regional architecture in America, an interest which Aalto and Wurster shared (Wurster was a modernist and California regionalist). Fenske also co-edited this volume.

But what about Britain? Aalto’s humanist modernism fit British agendas. He had a significant following in UK, beginning with Leslie Martin in the 1950s; he had an influence in schools of architecture, in particular Cambridge. Aalto’s characteristic forms and the stairs at Baker House and elsewhere can be glimpsed in Leslie Martin’s Harvey Court at Gonville and Caius College, and the William Stone Building, Peterhouse. In my opinion, Aalto’s stairs can also be glimpsed in the work of the Smithson’s. And his legacy can be seen in Colin St. John Wilson’s British Library in the 1990s.

UK academic readers will be particularly interested in the accounts, in several papers, of Aalto's design research in timber technology, the housing industry, and American city planning which was planned and initiated at MIT but unfortunately not carried through due to war and Aalto's commitments at home. Aalto also failed to get support for a research institute. In 1940-41, Aalto and his students produced a number of timber house prototypes and studied their performance in different orientations and configurations. This was design research, ie research using design as a research method, supported by student teaching (this design-based research/teaching model is currently being implemented at the University of Dundee). In Aalto's case, it combined technology and the psychology of well-being – the physical and spiritual – so that although it had a technological component, it acknowledged architecture’s embeddedness in humanism. This research program is comprehensively described by Pekka Korvenmaa in ‘A Bridge of Wood: Aalto, American House Production, and Finland’ and Juhani Pallasmaa in ‘Aalto’s Image of America’, but it is also treated in other papers, including Fenske’s and Pelkonen’s.

The book is a keystone in the debate about the role of humanist thinking in architecture at a time when the built environment in the UK, USA, and elsewhere, is increasingly regarded as little more than an investment opportunity available for plunder. That this debate is timely is evidenced by Peter Buchanan’s ongoing “Big Rethink” papers in Architectural Record, and slightly farther afield, by the psycho-geographic work of Iain Sinclair and the author Will Self. That this debate here goes through the humanism of Aalto, makes this frequently nebulous architectural discourse quite focused. All the authors refer to it. The reason for spending so long with Goldhagen and Kuhlman is that their papers seem to be the fulcrum of the debate, even if they do not altogether satisfactorily treat it. Humanist thinking in the humanities addresses questions concerning the conditions for being a subject of human experience. In her support for cognitive psychology and neuroscience (which seem to have become the two tickets of choice by which theorists of architecture demonstrate their scientific credentials), Goldhagen dismisses psychoanalytic theory rather too quickly. Psychoanalysis is one of the few places where humanist discourse is defended against the technocracy that rides the rails of brain science and monetary rationalism. It is the only discourse which attempts – systematically, and empirically – to deal with the unconscious. The unconscious, and not the more easily side-lined id (as Goldhagen would have it), is the lasting contribution of the psychoanalytic theory that follows from Freud, and it is the enduring presence of the unconscious which undermines any discourse based solely on the cognitive. At the level of the individual, the unconscious is precisely the excess of signification that Kuhlmann touches on. This excess has to do with the fact that everything we do exceeds what we intend; something always escapes the experience of experience, no cognitive or rational accounting captures experience in its totality.

The book opens with an excellent timeline of Aalto’s life focusing on his trips to America. The book is laid out in three sections each with a clear purpose, clearly described in the comprehensive introduction by its editor Stanford Anderson and in the introductions to each of the sections: the first puts Aalto’s particular brand of humanism in relation to European modernism; the second, Aalto's attitudes and relations to America; the third, the American projects. While this seems like an eminently sensible way to organise the material, I would have liked the introduction to discuss the strategic decisions involved in carving up the material this way. Were there historiographic reasons? theoretical reasons? I would also like to know how this book fits in relation to other texts on Aalto, or other texts that put architects in relation to America, of which there are a number (‘Le Corbusier in America’ (2001), ‘Mies in America’ (2001), ‘Rossi in America’ (1976), ‘Palladio in America’ (1976), ‘the Bauhaus and America’ (1999)).

The book republishes two key papers by Aalto from the 1940s. In ‘The Humanising of Architecture’ (1940) which is referenced by the authors in this volume in support of Aalto's humanism, Aalto addresses the comfort of the body (heating and lighting at Viipuri and Paimio). These are, however, physiological and not psychological needs. In the terms of Vitruvius’ triad: commodity, not delight (why is delight so difficult to talk about? to objectify?) Aalto’s paper does not therefore substantiate the claims made by most of the authors for Aalto's humanism. In ‘The Intellectual Background of American Architecture’ (1945), Aalto argues that the resilience of American architecture is due to its formal attributes like asymmetry which allow it a flexibility to respond to different programs, climates, etc., and an ability to grow incrementally. Aalto sees in America, the formal attributes of his own work. It is important that papers by Aalto are accompanied by papers by Juhani Pallasmaa and Colin St. John Wilson (one of his last), two consummate practitioners who were influenced by his forms, his details and materials, and his humanism.

The book is copiously illustrated which is important given the visual nature of the arguments put forth by the authors, even though many of the images are familiar to people interested in Aalto. The publishers, Yale University Press, have clearly invested considerably in the production values and format of this text. In only a couple of places is the visual program disappointing – in Jormakka’s otherwise good paper on the Harvard poetry room, it was not clear where the room was located in the Lamont Library plan. The papers draw on key source material including as expected the Goran Schildt compilation, Aalto in his own words, but also less well known and less accessible sources like the William W Wurster archives.

It is my understanding that this book was a long time in the works. It was worth the wait. This new text on Aalto shows that the modern movement is still alive in the imaginations of contemporary architectural thought and practice.


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