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The nature of a modern man

Alvar Aalto 1898-1976. Organic Architecture, Art and Design_The nature of a modern man

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A general view of the Alvar Aalto´s laminated plywood chairs and lamps. Photo by Fernando de la Cruz

Following the success in Barcelona, CaixaForum Madrid presents the exhibition Alvar Aalto 1898-1976. Organic Architecture, Art and Design, an interesting retrospective that traces the life and work of the Finnish architect. Organized by the Alvar Aalto Museum and the Vitra Design Museum, with the support of the ”la Caixa” Foundation, it is an invitation to discover every aspect of his artistic process thanks to the 350 exhibits featured, among them period models, original drawings, furniture, lamps and glassware. It is on view up to January 10th.

Alvar Aaalto ((Kuortane 1898 – Helsinki, 1976) was the most important Finnish architect of his generation and a leading exponent from a humanistic perspective. Aalto conceived and designed projects thinking of people as the central element, this is why he had in mind the way we perceive our surroundings. In his projects, the senses of sight and hearing played an important role, subtly guided by the choreography of space and light, but how the mixture of materials makes individuals feel. A clear example are his buildings such as the Paimio Sanatorium (1933) for patients suffering from tuberculosis, the Viipuri Library (Vyborg) and Villa Mairea (1939) that embody a masterful organic interplay of volumes, forms and materials. Thus, Aalto’s constructions became a kind of “second nature” for their inhabitants or users.

For Paimio Sanatorium, located 150 kilometers from Helsinki, created the first lift of glass in the world, to make nature come into the hospital and have a therapeutic effect. The reproduction of one of the rooms of the sanatorium can see how nature beyond the walls, the green color of the walls and the rounded shapes of the furnishings reminiscent tree trunks.

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The reproduction of one of the rooms of the Paimio Sanatorium, one of his masterpieces. Photo by Fernando de la Cruz

The display is complemented by the work of the German artist Armin Linke, who was commissioned to produce new photographs and film footage of particular buildings. Through Linke’s images we can see how Aalto studied in their projects to the smallest details, such as large skylights Viipuri Library (Vyborg) that allow natural light to flood it all.

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Above, Alvar Aalto´s drawing of the large skylights,Viipuri library that allows natural light to flood it all. Bellow, Viipuri (Vyborg) City Library, Vyborg, Karelia (today Russia), Alvar Aalto, 1927-1935. Photo by Armin Linke, VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2014


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Viper library (Vyborg), Carelia (today Rusia), Alvar Aalto, 1927-1935. Photo by Armin Linke, 2014. Villager Gallery, Pescara

The curve is beautiful

Alvar Aalto 1898-1976. Organic Architecture, Art and Design takes a new, more contemporary look at Aalto. Whereas previous exhibitions and publications have regarded Aalto’s organic architectural language as deriving directly from Finnish nature and landscape, the exhibition at CaixaForum Madrid shows how Aalto’s affinity for organic form was mediated through a close dialogue with many artists of his time, such as László Moholy-Nagy, Jean Arp, Alexander Calder and Fernand Léger. Works by these and other artists are juxtaposed with Aalto’s designs and buildings in order to highlight his significance as a figurehead of the international art and architecture Avant-Garde from the 1920s onwards.

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Above, Echelon, Family of stars and Leaves IV, by Hans Arp. Below, Composition and The flower, by Fernand Léger. Photos by Fernando de la Cruz

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Biombo Screen 100, ALvar Aalto, Finland 1936. Photo by Fernando de la Cruz.

Better things for everyday life

For many of his buildings, Aalto also designed the interior fittings, including furnishings and light fixtures. The earliest interior objects were individually fabricated, but in the late 1920s Alvar and Aino Aalto (his wife, also architect) began design pieces for series production. In 1935, Aalto founded Artek, conceived as both an international furniture company and as a gallery, with his wife Aino and two collaborators in order to produce and promote his own furniture designs. Artek’s growth reflected Aalto’s extensive international network, which also guaranteed him influence in social and political debates and led to commissions in countries such as Italy, Switzerland, France, Germany and the USA in the post-war period.

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A general view of the famous Alvar Aalto chairs. In front, Tea trolley nº900, Alvar Aalto, 1937. Mitra Design Museum. Photo by Fernando de la Cruz.

Undoubtedly, this is the room that catches our attention because art is still alive today in each of the furniture and glassware designed by the Finnish artist. Aalto’s laminated plywood chairs made him one of the 20th century’s most famous designers, and his Savoy Glass vase is today considered the icon of Finnish organic design.

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Highjack chair, Alvar Aalto, Finland 1932. Savoy vase, 1936. Vitra Design Museum. Photo by Fernando de la Cruz.

Aalto developed the ‘principle of flexible standardization’, taking his inspiration from nature.  One of the central modular parts of his furniture was the L-shaped leg, which could be used for chairs and stools, but also for tables. Aalto regarded it as the “little sister” of the architectural column, since the elements that join the horizontal and vertical surfaces are a characteristic component of both furniture and architecture.

Any of these items could decorate our house. For example, the Stool 60, consisting of a three bent legs and a round seat, created in 1933, considered one of the milestones of modern furniture is sold worldwide in the multinational Swedish IKEA, with the difference that instead of a three legged stool is four.


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One aspect of Aalto’s buildings that is unfailingly admired is the successful combination of daylight and electrical lighting. Aalto generally used lamps to intensify natural light by mounting them, for example, above or inside skylights. In this area of Aalto’s work, he was highly influenced by the Danish lighting designer Poul Henningsen, whose credo was: the light source should not be directly visible and lamps should disperse the light around the entire space by means of reflections, ensuring no bright spots.

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A general view of different lamps designed by Alvar Aalto. Mitra Design Museum. Photo by Fernando de la Cruz.

Better things for everyday life

Over a period of fifty years, Aalto planned almost five-hundred buildings and projects, most of them in Finland but about a hundred in eighteen other countries, except Spain. Among these are official constructions for cultural use, private houses and exhibition pavilions, as well as industrial installations, office buildings, terraced housing and prefabricated dwellings.

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Alvar Aalto developed countless types of prefabricated houses based on the principle of flexible standardization. Photo by Fernando de la Cruz.

Many of his creations are Gesamtkunstwerke or “total artwork” for which Aalto also designed furniture, lighting, fabrics and even building materials. Exaltation of the everyday through art and culture was a subject that engrossed him throughout his entire life.

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Alvar Aalto designed furnishings, lamps, and also fabrics and building materials. Photo by Fernando de la Cruz. Below, living room of Maison Louis Carrè, Bazoches-sur-Guyonne, Frnace, Alvar Aalto, 1956-1961. Alvar Aalto Museum. Photo: Heikki Havas.

The cosmopolitan Aalto, who was keenly interested in cinema, film, photography and theatre, quoted Fernand Léger by calling himself an “orchestra conductor”, conducting all the arts to synthesize a harmonious, symphonic whole. Aalto was very interested in the media associated with international culture. In an article published in 1927, he asked “What is modern man’s scale of values?” and commented “modern man’s retina is beleaguered with images from morning to night”. For the exhibition commemorating the seventh century of the city of Turku (1929), Aalto covered the surfaces of the fair pavilions with eye-catching publicity graphics in bright colors, anticipating the advertising aesthetic of the Stockholm Exhibition (1930).

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Photo by Fernando de la Cruz

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Alvar Aalto anticipating the advertising aesthetic of the Stockholm Exhibition (1930). Photo by Fernando de la Cruz.

Architecture of synthesis

The final space is dedicated to Aalto’s international ascent in the post-war period and his large-scale projects in architecture, city and master planning. “The balance in our environment – between cities, towns, highways, nature and all the other natural elements that make up the surroundings in which we live – is a true expression of culture”, Aalto wrote in 1955. In keeping with this principle, throughout his career Aalto advocated the development of local hubs in Finland, a country of a marked rural character, in a bid to avoid centralization and migration to cities.


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Aalto created a diverse range of projects, such as standardized and prefabricated housing systems in Finland, an apartment block in the Interbau housing development in the Hansa quarter (now the Hansaviertel area) in Berlin, constructed for the International Building Exhibition in 1957. His prolific output over the course of his career, spanning a period from the early 1920s to the 1970s, and culminated in large scale commissions such as the Finland Hall congress and concert venue in Helsinki, completed barely a year before he died, and the Essen Opera House, on which work finished in 1988, after his death.


Alvar Aaalto in Spain


The exhibition ends with Alvar Aalto’s visit to Spain. Aalto made two trips to Spain in 1951 to give talks in Barcelona, Palma de Mallorca and Madrid. He saw Gaudi’s work and visited El Escorial, the symbol of Spain’s official architecture. On his return in November, he toured Andalusia and northern Morocco. While in Granada, he visited the Alhambra, which he described as “an architectural stimulus”. His contact with young architects in Spain was a crucial factor in the founding of the Group R in Barcelona in 1951 and in the drafting of the Alhambra Manifesto in Madrid in 1953, which revived the spirit of the Modern Movement in Spain and propelled it into the future.

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Alvar Aalto and Antoni de Moragas in La Monumental de Barcelona. Photo by Historic COAC Archiv. Photo by Alvar Aalto, VEGAP, Barcelona, 2015.

“Alvar Aalto loved to play between interior and exterior design. He played with the art because the artist and architect were the same person”, said Jochen Eisenbrand, exhibition curator and chief curator of the Vitra Design Museum. And I think the same.

Do not forget to visit this exhibition. It is a unique opportunity.

Jochen Eisenbrand, exhibition curator and chief curator of the Vitra Design Museum, talks about the exhibit in this interesting video.



Elena Trujillo Hervás

Alvar Aalto 1898-1976. Organic Architecture, Art and Design
CaixaForum  Madrid. Paseo del Prado, 36. Madrid.
Till January 10th, 2016.
Price: 4€.



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