by Michael Spens
Symposia have been held here on important topics, both practical and theoretical, on every second year, and so have run as a sequence for all of two decades. Key individuals such as Glen Murcutt from Australia, Sir Colin St John Wilson RA (see a review of his Pallant House gallery design in Chichester, England, also on this website) and many others have been invited to the platform to address the symposia on a wide variety of subjects, not many of them directly related to the great Aalto himself or his work.
This symposium, entitled (with a dig at Mies van der Rohe) 'Less and More' (ie not 'Less is More' in the famous saying of Mies), was subtitled 'Extending the Rational in Architecture'. This year, there was an extremely interesting selection of invited speakers. The English composer Gavin Bryars gave a highly inspirational talk on his work using both sound and locational images. The presumed affinity between creating music and creating architecture has never been in dispute, but Bryars revealed how close the conceptual process between the two media disciplines can be.
The Australian architect Sean Godsell described recent houses he had designed around Melbourne and also his now famous Future Shack housing prototype exhibited in 2004 at the Smithsonian Institute's Cooper Hewitt Design Museum in New York. The margins for experimentation in housing design were advanced significantly by this project. Danish architect Dorte Mandrup-Poulsen demonstrated how inspiration can be applied to inner city rehabilitation projects. Of particular interest here was a Seaplane Hangar, which she had converted into offices very elegantly while still maintaining the ethos of the large span original building by the water.
The Portuguese architect Manuel Aires Mateus would claim to be engaged in a process of poetic experimentation and, like Sean Godsell, develops his work through a protracted series of complex moves, yet maintains the purity of the original concept throughout. A well-established couple of architects usually involved in a dialogue with the past are the Spanish partners Fuensanta Nieto and Enrique Sobejano. They were formerly editors of the well-established architectural journal, Arquitectura. In their work on an ancient Arab city of Madinat al-Zahra, Córdoba, they literally excavated in the landscape expanse of the site, preserving whatever remains they found, 'working like archaelogists; trying not to construct a wholly new building, but instead to discover it below the surface, as if the passage of time had kept it hidden right up to the present day'. The young Helsinki group JKMM were also featured, and showed that, as with other visual arts in Finland, architecture continually regenerates itself. Architect Samuli Miettinen demonstrated on the group's behalf the full range of work now on the drawing board or already built.
A particular draw at the symposium was the architect Florian Beigel from London Metropolitan University, who described his current work, including the remarkable Paju Book City near Seoul in South Korea. This is an outstandingly original scheme (parts of Beigel's revised master plan are under way) and it seems to hail straight from Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities - although this one is highly visible. The emerging publishers' city is also now very much a 'sustainable' and green product. How is it that South Korea repeatedly gets it right, and we tend always not to?
The speakers and a few invited guests were fortunately treated to what is now a regular tradition of the Aalto symposia. This was a voyage on the opening day (27 July) up the lake in a steamer, towards Jyvaskla, after meeting in Helsinki first thing. The steamer had a bar, too, ceremoniously opened by Kristian Gullichsen architect and son of Aalto's great clients the Gullichsens. The steamer dropped us at the lakeside before reaching Jyvaskyla. All clambered at best up the granite slope to see ahead Aalto's superb 'Experimental House', Muratsalo. This site is best approached as Aalto always intended, from the lake. After the visit all found the way further up through the forest, to a waiting bus.
This was all superbly managed in true Finnish style, and no one, not even your correspondent, got left behind for the night. The Aalto symposia are perhaps the best possible means of commemorating this great European architect. Their Agenda has developed and evolved through the two decades and ten meetings since their founding. Clearly the organisers will be well able to ensure that Aalto's humanist design ethos can be kept alive, but also that the sharper edge of contemporary architecture continues to feature through the speakers engaged every couple of years.