Alvar Aalto: Architecture, Modernity, and Geopolitics

September 29th, 2010


The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (JSAH) always yields some book reviews that peak my interest and one in particular seemed relevant to my recent lecture topic. Studying in the UK has made me more aware of the politics, national pride, and border tensions that shaped much of the architecture of the 20th c. Alvar Aalto is the unequivocal modern architect of Finland and academics have long referred to his architecture as Finland in built form. The organic fluidity of his buildings, vases, and furniture do resemble shorelines and such, but as Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen asserts in her book, Alvar Aalto: Architect, Modernity, and Geopolitics, geography and politics are at the base of Aalto’s modernism, meaning nationalist cultural politics are firmly entwined within modern architectural design rather than free from it.

Beginning before WWI and gaining strength exponentially afterward, countries throughout Europe tied nationalist pride into cultural monuments and historical architecture. The built environment became the true embodiment of the people, leading to a competitive relationship between countries that were still scarred from the war. The reasons leading up to the Second World War are complicated and deep, but it’s worth noting that the imperialist pride of nations became a tangible target through cherished historical structures and towns. Much like a bully kicking over your Lincoln Log house in preschool, Britain (with the help of the United States) and Germany used bomb warfare not only for the destruction of the opponents wartime stations, utilities and ammunition, but to emotionally scar and rob a nation of its most cherished cultural structures.

On the surface, modern architecture may seem to have absconded from any and all of these pre-war nuances with cultural history in favor of a less complicated clean slate. True, there was the international movement, which sought to create an architecture suitable for all mankind, regardless of borders. Yet, even in its neutrality, it is making a statement about the nationalist philosophy in design. If one looks a level deeper, it can be said that modernism is embedded with strong nationalist notions, though in a refracted and abstracted approach and representation. Knowing this, it is only superfluous to look at inter- and post-war architecture without looking at the political and geographical influences which weighed so heavily on the minds of the designers. Pelkonen's research into Aalto's library, writings, and correspondences reveal that he was highly interested in national and international politics. He subscribed to around 30 art and architectural journals from around the world and stocked his shelves with architectural and philosophical books that he no doubt took influence from, and others that he most likely did not agree with politically, like those of socialist or Italian fascist architects. Aalto was well aware of how political expression was shaping modern architecture across Europe, and through Pelkonen's thorough research, we may now understand his intentions on a whole new level.

For further reading on Alvar Aalto, Pelkonen suggests Goran Schildt's biography, Alvar Aalto – His Life. Schilt knew Aalto personally and was able to interview him for the 3 volume book, which has lead it to be called the most insightful reference on his life, personality, and mind.

Caroline Engel for Danish Teak Classics

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