Sunday, May 4, 2014

Influences: Alvar Aalto

Interior of the Mount Angel Abbey Library, Alvar Aalto, architect (photo source: University of Oregon Libraries)

Last month’s meeting of the Construction Specifications Institute’s Willamette Valley Chapter featured a presentation by University of Oregon associate professor Virginia Cartwright about the development of luminous themes in the work of Alvar Aalto. The relationship between light and form in Aalto’s work has been a long-standing focus of Virginia's research. I personally regard the 20th century Finnish modernist as one of my influences, for many of the reasons Virginia would touch upon, and more.(1)

A central theme of Virginia’s investigations is Aalto’s enduring interest in harvesting and manipulating daylight. His abiding attention to natural lighting as a functional determinant for design was attributable to its scarcity in the northern latitudes of his homeland. His concern for the relationship between light and form would become a discernible thread evident in the majority of his buildings, most notably his library projects. Arguably, it is one of Aalto’s commissions outside of his native Finland—the Mount Angel Abbey Library here in Oregon—that represents the pinnacle of his library achievements.

Virginia detailed how the lessons Aalto learned during his education and early years of practice resonated throughout his career. For example, before moving toward the modernist vocabulary he would become famous for, Aalto absorbed the tenets of Nordic Classicism. Virginia cited Gunnar Asplund’s Stockholm Public Library as a key example of Aalto’s capacity to assimilate and adapt concepts and strategies particularly well-suited to the clime and culture of Scandinavia.(2) In the instance of the Stockholm Library, it was Asplund’s use of an encircling ring of clerestory windows high up on the wall of a central rotunda (among other features) that would lastingly influence Aalto’s library designs. The clerestory windows capture the sunlight entering at the low angle of incidence typical of the northern sky, while the unadorned walls of the rotunda reflects and diffuses the light before it reaches the floor levels below.

Stockholm Public Library, by Gunnar Asplund (photo by Andreas Ribbefjord via Wikimedia Commons)

Asplund’s work directly influenced Aalto in his design for the municipal library in Viipuri (now Vyborg, Russia). Evident at Viipuri are the same reliance upon top-lighting, orchestrated progression of spaces from the exterior through the interior, and the nesting of sunken levels within a tall, primary reading room Asplund used in his much more monumental design for the Stockholm Public Library. The gestation period for the Viipuri project was a lengthy eight years, and it was during this time that Aalto would begin to move from Nordic Classicism toward his own highly personal brand of Modernism.  

Viipuri Library (photo by Maija Kairamo/The Finnish Committee for the Restoration of Viipuri Library)

If you’re familiar with Aalto’ mature portfolio, it’s easy to see why many architects of my generation are so attracted to his work. Much of his architecture’s appeal lies in its sense of tradition (despite its modernity), its reverence for the landscape, its materiality, as well as its idiosyncrasy. Virginia presented images of projects like the Finnish Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Wolfsburg Cultural Center, and Seinajoki Library, which increasingly displayed his use of organic forms, natural materials, and free handling of space. All served as precursors to the Mount Angel Library.

The Library at Mount Angel Abbey, located a couple miles north of Silverton(3) here in Oregon, is the quintessential example of Aalto’s library designs. We’re incredibly fortunate to have one of the only two U.S. buildings Aalto designed (the other being the Baker House dormitory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) so close by and available for visits. If you haven’t already done so, you owe yourself a trip to the Abbey to experience the library firsthand.

In his lavishly illustrated monograph entitled Lasting Aalto Masterwork: The Library at Mount Angel Abbey, the late Donald Canty wrote that if one had to pick a single building to elucidate Aalto’s design approach, it might well be the Mount Angel Abbey Library. The building epitomizes everything about the work of Alvar Aalto that set him apart from the other masters of modern architecture.  

The Mount Angel Library, especially when first approached from the central lawn within the abbey, is remarkably modest and unassuming in appearance. Aalto’s keen attention to the shaping of light and the experience of encountering, entering, and coming to understand the building is immediately evident. The library visitor’s path is alternately compressed and expanded spatially, culminating in a top-lit, atrium-like space that extends vertically both upward to an arcing band of clerestory windows and downward into a multilevel well of reading areas. The expressive sculpting of the building’s section exemplifies Aalto’s philosophy of “optical geometry,” while its mix of rectilinear and free plan forms clearly reflect the library’s internal organization.

Virginia explained how Mount Angel typified Aalto’s obsession with providing optimal natural lighting for reading by. Indeed, it’s possible to sit most everywhere on any level of the curving well and not cast a harsh shadow on the book being read, so effective is the dispersal of the sun’s rays.  

Interestingly, for all of his fascination with light as a form-giver in architecture and the settings in which he placed his buildings, Aalto was seemingly indifferent to the potential of using windows to not only bring light in but provide views out as well. At Mount Angel, he decidedly limited the marvelous views of the valley below and the mountains beyond the hilltop abbey to three small windows. These appear like framed paintings on the walls in which they occur; in this respect, they are more precious and surprising than views through generously arrayed walls of windows would have been.  

Ultimately, it may be best for us to not attempt to closely emulate Aalto’s highly individual and distinctive architecture. The portfolios of several contemporary designers (I’m thinking of Shim-Sutcliffe Architects, among others) do contain impressive projects that sometimes superficially resemble Aalto’s humanist, experiential, and tactile strain of modernism; however, these talented architects undoubtedly have assimilated what they want and choose to use from a panoply of influences, which may include but is not limited to the Finnish master. As Virginia demonstrated, Aalto handed down to us much to learn, but Aalto’s own experience likewise illuminates the value of adapting and building upon precedent as we each develop our personal notions about architecture.

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Attendance at the April meeting was, to say the least, modest. If you missed Virginia and her insights about the evolution of Alvar Aalto’s highly personal brand of modernism, you passed up something special. The Willamette Valley Chapter’s programs are uniformly excellent, so reserve the last Thursday evening of each month to attend your WVC/CSI meetings. Besides continuing education, chapter gatherings offer plenty of networking opportunities, collegiality, great food, and the best views in Eugene (from the top floor of the Eugene Hilton). I hope to see you at a meeting soon!

(1)  An earlier blog entry of mine, “Genealogy of Influence,” promised a series of posts about the architects and theorists who influenced my architectural world view. This is the fifth post in the series.

(2)  While still a student, Aalto sought work in Stockholm with Asplund but ended up in the employ of Arvid Bjerke. Nevertheless, Asplund would become a friend and mentor to Aalto. 

(3)  The Oregon Garden in Silverton is home to another modern masterpiece—Frank Lloyd Wright’s Gordon House)

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