07 December 2006

What's Showing at the Alvar Aalto Museum

I live in one of the world’s great museum cities, which is I why a strict accounting of the number of hours per week, or month, or year, I manage to log in the museums of Washington, D.C., would be profoundly embarrassing. Somehow, the regular round of errands and chores fills every minute of every day.

As a Fulbrighter in Finland, however, I have plenty of time, after fulfilling my duties as teacher, housekeeper, and self-improvement faddist, to hit the museum trail, and I have been taking careful notes.

This is the fourth installment of a series on museums in Finland.

At every turn, I have benefited from the generosity of the Finnish people, and also of Americans living in Finland. In mid-November, I enjoyed the hospitality of a former Fulbrighter and his family in Jyväskylä. I had told him that I was interested in visiting the city because I saw it as a way of learning more about Alvar Aalto (1898-1976), the great Finnish architect. Somehow, he arranged an audience with Markku Lahti, the Director of the Alvar Aalto Foundation, who introduced us to a member of his staff for a private tour of the Museum.

During the 1920s, Jyväskylä was the base of operations for Aalto and his wife, the celebrated designer Aino Marsio Aalto, which is why the city sometimes, to quote from the Lonely Planet guide, “is crawling with architecture buffs, curiously pointing wide-angled lenses at every Alvar Aalto building.” One of the most celebrated of the Aalto buildings here, the Jyväskylä Workers’ Club, is a good example of Aalto’s early classicism. The main campus of the University of Jyväskylä was designed by Aalto, who spent the years 1946-1948 at M.I.T., and so knew about U.S. campus planning traditions. The building that currently is home to the Alvar Aalto Museum also is one of the great man’s own, and it is quite an interesting place.

The permanent exhibit highlights a number of Aalto’s most famous works, as well as others that may be less well known but that reward close study. For me, one of the main virtues of this museum is a timeline that runs throughout the exhibition, showing the visitor not only the chronology of Aalto’s life and works, but also providing context by showing the contemporary work of other architects. It’s one thing to be told that Aalto was something of a classicist as a young man, and that he had a life-long infatuation with Italy. It’s quite another to see for oneself the Tuscan columns on the Jyväskylä Workers’ Club, or the loggia of Muurame Church, and then to be shown what Le Corbusier or Walter Gropius were doing at the same time. The timeline is more than just dates, though dates tend to be underrated, in my humble opinion.

Alvar Aalto was inclined not just to design buildings, but everything in them as well. In this Aino was his partner, not just a muse, and the exhibit does her justice. That is another of its virtues.

Aalto had a way with chairs, and I have read that the key to this was his innovative wood-bending techniques. Again, it’s one thing to read that in a book, but at the Aalto Museum there is a demonstration of the process, which involves cutting slender strips of wood, dipping them in glue, binding them together in a kind of fasces, and then applying steady pressure and steam (here you have to use your imagination) to bend it to your will.

Some of these techniques were employed early on at Paimio (1929-33). Here, everything springs from the principle that a tuberculosis sanatorium should be designed to facilitate the patient’s recovery. He designed the office equipment and furniture, the bathroom fixtures, and even the landscape to provide for the patient’s needs, which included the need for serenity and repose. The Museum has a small exhibition that makes this abundantly clear.

Paimio, which is not far from Turku, is under consideration as a possible UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the argument for inclusion is put forth below by Margaretha Ehrström and Sirkkaliisa Jetsonen of the National Board of Antiquities, Department of Monuments and Sites:
Finland has proposed Paimio Hospital to be inscribed on the Unesco World
Heritage List. The nominated property covers the entire Paimio Hospital area, including the residential buildings, the water supply and purification plants, and their surroundings. The scope of the buffer zone is circular, extending from the main building as the centre point. This ensures that the view from the roof terrace of the hospital towards the forested landscape is preserved.

Paimio, a tuberculosis sanatorium designed by Alvar Aalto and built in 1930-33, enjoyed acclaim around the world during its construction and influenced the breakthrough of Functionalism and its spread through Finland and Scandinavia in general.

Paimio Hospital combines a new approach to sanatorium design with the breakthrough of modern architecture. Aalto’s chief aim was to promote the well-being and recovery of patients through architecture. He availed of the potential in new architecture to meet the demand for standarisation and hygiene. He
combined these with artistic creativity and a personal touch. Experiments with innovative technical solutions and advanced interior design, especially regarding wooden furniture, can be seen in the hospital. A humanism that is distinctive of Aalto’s design, and has enriched modern architecture, can be found there.

The spirit and key features of the sanatorium period are still strongly evident. Paimio’s significance lies in it continuing role as a hospital. The buildings and their immediate surroundings form an integral whole. The ambience and the hierarchy of spaces have been preserved despite the many changes. The relationship between buildings and landscape still endures.

Paimio Hospital represents a synthesis that is characterised by a milieu formed by buildings in harmony with nature, the functionality of a ‘medical instrument’, the innovation of both buildings and building methods, the design of details and appropriate materials, and harmony of the colours used. These properties are the foundation of the hospital’s continued use in the future.

Paimio Hospital meets many of the criteria required for a building to be inscribed on the World Heritage List. It represents a unique example of human creativity, exhibits an important interchange on development in architecture and is an outstanding example of a type of building and architectural ensemble which illustrates a significant stage in human history.

The proposal of Paimio Hospital to the World Heritage List accords with the recommendation that Finland concentrates on cultural heritage from underrepresented categories of the global strategy. One of these is e.g. the twentieth century architectural heritage. The proposal was prepared by the National Board of Antiquities. Contributing parties and experts were Turku University Hospital, Paimio Hospital, Paimio Municipality, the Alvar Aalto Foundation, and the Finnish Museum of Architecture. The earliest possible occasion for decision on Paimio Hospital nomination will be at the World Heritage Committee Session in 2007.

Click on the title of this post for a link to the Alvar Aalto Museum.