The main building of the Jyväskykä University in Seminaarinmäki.

Architecture at a human scale – Alvar Aalto as told by documentarian Virpi Suutari

The film Aalto is about two masters of modernism, the architechts Alvar and Aino Aalto, and their works around the world. Jyväskylä, the world’s Alvar Aalto capital, is in a major role in the film directed by Virpi Suutari.

A person taking photographs inside the Muurame Church
Photo: Tero Takalo-Eskola

As you walk into the building, the airy, dramatic entranceway will impress you. The glass-clad lobby sheds a softly filtered outdoor light upon thousands of students every day. Its red bricks may have seen countless trends come and go, but the building itself has always remained timeless, constantly current. Yet it can still surprise you. The next atrium in the building is already much more enclosed and stout. It’s almost like stepping into a medieval castle, even though the building was completed in 1955. We are in the University of Jyväskylä Main Building on the Seminaarinmäki Campus, one of the designs Alvar Aalto executed at his very peak.

– The great thing about Aalto’s architecture is that the spaces are built to be experienced. There’s all these wavy shapes, and whenever you come around a curve you’ll find something new and interesting. The materials make you want to touch them. A University of Jyväskylä employee once told me that whenever they’re out of the sight of others, they hug one of the columns in the building. That’s one of the very finest Aalto works I’ve seen during this journey. I lost my heart to it, says Virpi Suutari, director of the documentary film Aalto.

That’s one of the very finest Aalto works I’ve seen during this journey. I lost my heart to it.

Virpi Suutari

Person drawing the Muuratsalo Experimental House from outside.
Photo: Tero Takalo-Eskola

The film Aalto is about two masters of modernism, the architechts Alvar and Aino Aalto, and their works around the world. The Seminaarinmäki Campus is one of several Jyväskylä region Aalto-built environments highlighted in the film. In the beginning of the film, viewers get to know the Jyväskylä Workers’ Club house and the Muurame church, examples of the Nordic Classicism the Aaltos practiced at the beginning of their careers. The film is a weave of the Aaltos’ architectural and personal biographies. Among its source materials were a thousand pages of digitized letters. The family’s photo albums were also mined for the film, as were the interview tapes made by Göran Schildt for his Aalto biography, which include chats with many of those who knew the Aalto couple. Virpi Suutari says she wanted to find out who the human being behind a “great man of history” like Aalto was, and how he managed to create such diverse works.

– In this case, the most important person for the development of the Aalto design language from the very beginning has been Aino Aalto. The two young creators set out to build their own artistic vocabularies together. Initially their architecture was more conventional, but after getting in touch with European trends and architectural masters, they set out on their own. Starting with the Paimio Sanatorium and the Viipuri Central Library, Aalto’s personal touch is becoming more clearly visible, and that’s something he developed jointly with Aino, says Suutari.

Virpi Suutari, the director of the Aalto documentary film.
Virpi Suutari. Photo: Euphoria Film

Alvar Aalto, still one of the world’s most recognized architects today, made several hundred trips abroad during his life and career, at a time when tourism was developing and changing in Finland and abroad. As early as in the 1920s, the Aaltos would travel to Europe to seek inspiration, and benefit from new technological developments. Their first journey together was their honeymoon to Italy, which included a jaunt to Vienna on an airplane. The honeymoon also contributed to a lasting attachment to Mediterranean culture and architecture, seen in many later works, including in the Jyväskylä region. Their international career also absorbed influences from many 1930s trips to Europe and later the Americas.

– In going through the Aaltos’ letters to one another, I gained more access to Aino’s inner thoughts as well. They were deeply in love, but also out of balance. Alvar was very confident and intent on charming everyone he met. When criticized, Aino was often prone to blaming herself.

Suutari says Alvar Aalto would send Aino letters from abroad, exhorting her to seek adventure and be independent. Alvar said he loved her as a person, not as a moral creature. The documentarian says this was Alvar’s way of absolving himself of guilt over his own misadventures.

– It’s become clear that the Aaltos were an extremely charismatic and fascinating couple. They were capable of turning the heads of powerful European movers and shakers. Where the leading lights of the architectural and arts world shone, there were the Aaltos. I’m quite impressed with this early effort towards international networking and intellectual openness. That’s something anyone could learn from even today.

It’s become clear that the Aaltos were an extremely charismatic and fascinating couple.

Virpi Suutari

Aino Aalto’s health took a turn for the worse in the middle of the 1940s. Aalto, then teaching at MIT in Boston, wrote letters telling her he missed the early connection the couple had shared living in Jyväskylä and other cities thereafter. Alvar said he missed their time taking over the world together, and lamented how commercial everything had become.

– One of the things Alvar wrote is, the only thing that matters is you and me and what we’ve created. These are beautiful letters. Aino Aalto has had a very significant role in shaping this architectural thinking, design language and common foundation. Even researchers can’t always tell which element was designed by Alvar, which by Aino, says Suutari.

Aino Aalto died in 1949. Despite his grief, Alvar was able to keep working. These years mark the beginning of one of the most important periods in Alvar Aalto’s creative career, the red brick period. In the Jyväskylä region, red brick period buildings include the University, the Säynätsalo Town Hall and the Muuratsalo Experimental House. As the works of this period are closely connected with upheavals in Aalto’s private life, they play a large role in the film as well. Quite some time is spent looking at them.

– A feature of this period is the remarriage. Alvar Aalto married Elissa Aalto in 1952. She came around in a rather different stage of Alvar’s life. Elissa’s role and influence can be seen in how she acted a a liaison between Alvar and his agency as his strength begun to fail. After Alvar’s death, it was Elissa who finished their incomplete projects, says Suutari.

Two persons in front of the Alvar Aalto Museum
Photo: Julia Kivelä

Over several decades starting from the 1950s, the Alvar Aalto architectural office designed buildings in 16 different locations around the globe. The documentary was shot in seven different countries and seven languages are spoken in it. Jyväskylä, the world’s Alvar Aalto capital, will gain a measure of international exposure from the film. The film has been sold to several countries as of this writing and will receive a theatrical release in Japan, Australia and elsewhere, as well as being shown on television in France and Germany. The film’s international financiers were particularly interested in the Aaltos’ story, their collegial equality and the ideas of sustainable development that underpinned their architecture.

– There was a demand out there for this film. We’re constantly getting more interest from abroad. For so-called ordinary people, the first thing they’ll encounter is Aalto design. For example, in Japan, the Aalto lighting fixtures, vases and chairs are very well-known. Aalto is one of the world’s great modernists, and we in Finland may not always fully grasp what that means.

Suutari thinks it’s been a natural development in this time to study the more human side of things, casting a curious look at the people called Alvar, Aino and Elissa Aalto. At the same time, she’s been able to see the Aaltos’ lives and architecture interact, and understand the reasons why particular works were created at a given moment.

– The heart of the Aaltos’ architecture is that they built at a human scale, they want to understand the human psyche. They used such materials and created such spaces as to make human beings at home in them. The Aaltos understood genuinely natural materials, and that’s something modern architects find appealing.

Alvar Aalto statue inside Alvar Aalto Museum
Photo: Tero Takalo-Eskola

Many of those working in the office told Suutari that despite his stringent vision, Aalto could also be flexible and willing to alter his plans to the client’s wishes without losing their core ideas. Suutari herself was influenced by Aalto’s working methods while crafting her own cinematic narrative. She says the production crew had the daring to work with the vast amount of material in an intuitive and playful manner. Aside from the strictly sourced research, some of the material has been remoulded freely, organically. The organic playfulness is particularly apparent in the sound design, which plays a large role in the film. The experimental soundscapes bring the subjects and the story of the documentary to life. Among the sounds heard in the movie are an Aalto vase being bowed and blocks of marble slamming together.

– Faced with this huge swathe of material, we tried to tap into a certain Aalto calmness. His employees described Aalto’s working method as being very intuitive right from the first sketches. The first lines he drew on something often ended up being amazingly similar to the final result. Aalto has said that a house isn’t like a clockwork, if the facade is a bit off, it doesn’t matter as long as you can hang some vines on it, laughs Suutari.

Aalto has said that a house isn’t like a clockwork, if the facade is a bit off, it doesn’t matter as long as you can hang some vines on it.

Virpi Suutari

The filmmaker offers her sincere thanks to Jyväskylä’s Alvar Aalto Museum and university for the huge help and great sources they could provide. Suutari says she tried to make the film as entertaining as it it educational.

– The film has something to give to a lot of different people. Those without a lot of advance knowledge of Aalto architecture can take the personal story as their guide to it. And those who are already Aalto buffs still have many things to learn from the archival material and the letters.

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Sources used in the article:

University of Jyväskylä
Alvar Aalto Foundation