If I had read this book in the winter of 1965-66, would I have still chosen to become an architect or architectural historian after completing my university studies? In a pre-exam test during my freshman year in Florence, when Palazzo Strozzi was holding an Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) exhibit, I was given an assignment to imitate the Finnish master's sketching style, aided only by photocopies of Leonardo Mosso's catalogue. His hand was unmistakable, and proved inimitable for me.
After reading some of the twenty-three conversations with Aalto's staff that make up a large part of the volume edited by the Charrington — an Englishman — and Nava — an Italian —, I discovered that Aalto's drawing style was a common feature among many of his collaborators; imitators, perhaps, but without the kädenjälki that the English phrase of the book's title, the mark of the hand, translates only literally.
The book is full of recollections of the 64 projects undertaken in the fifty-year history of the Aalto office, exemplifying — in more plastic terms — the aura that rendered unique the hand of the Maestro (as he liked to be called), when compared to his collaborators. One episode among the many: a model-maker once showed Aalto a clay sketch of a perfectly circular commemorative medal and saw him deform it with his thumb. "Now it's ok," commented Aalto, reaffirming simultaneously his authority and his authorship.
From the office annexed to the Aalto home in Riihitie 20, open 1944 through 1955, to the candid space in Tiilimäki 20 in Helsinki, open 1955 through 1994 — the location of Nava's detailed and subtly melancholic narrative —, the collaborators of Aino, Alvar and later Elissa Aalto adhered to the method that Charrington and Nava also experienced during their tenures, working for Alvar and Elissa in diverse periods and lengths of time.
In the Helsinki neighbourhood of Munkkiniemi, even the very form of the atelier, with its amphitheatre-like space, converged on the key figure of the actor/master/high priest. Nor was work activity exempt from the rituals and rules of a monastic community, whose members were required to wear formal dress and forbidden to wear beards. Above all, the spaces dedicated to work — none, however, reserved exclusively for the Maestro —, meetings, display of models, as well as the tavern and garden, were settings for the perpetuation of a myth. This myth was constructed and maintained not only thanks to the devotion of the Maestro's followers, but also to the faith that he was able to place in his employees. Aalto would say, "remember, when I'm away, you're Alvar Aalto," but would later reject formal solutions that were not to his liking.
Like Mies' students at the Bauhaus and in Chicago or Wright's apprentices at Taliesin, members of the Aalto atelier were trained during an apprenticeship, a practice already firmly established by the Academy: learning by copying the master
And here is where one of the difficult tasks of future historical research can be identified: separating Aalto's work from that of his collaborators. A new edition of the Maestro's drawings could thus become smaller and more reliable. After I read the book with great curiosity and interest — and I can recommend the volume to architecture students because of its new information and importance —, I was struck by a nagging doubt: in my freshman year, was I trying to imitate my friend Nava's sketches instead of Aalto's? aaltino