Aalto and his collaborators

A book of recollections on Alvar Aalto sheds light on his office's atmosphere, personalities, and the era's context, signaling the importance and decisive role of the Maestro's collaborators.

Alvar Aalto. The Mark of the Hand , edited by Harry Charrington and Vezio Nava, Rakennustieto , Helsinki, 2011. (427 pp., €47,00)

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.
Harry Charrington e Vezio Nava, <em>Alvar Aalto. The Mark of the Hand</em>,  Rakennustieto, Helsinki, 2011, page detail. Left, the Alvar Aalto medal. Right, Villa Schildt, Ekenäs, 1:10 plasticine and plywood working model of a living room fireplace
Harry Charrington e Vezio Nava, Alvar Aalto. The Mark of the Hand , Rakennustieto, Helsinki, 2011, page detail. Left, the Alvar Aalto medal. Right, Villa Schildt, Ekenäs, 1:10 plasticine and plywood working model of a living room fireplace
What emerges from the conversations patiently collected by Nava for more than a decade and translated into English by Charrington, is, among other things, that the process of identification by the "slaves" — a description employed ironically by a collaborator — is not reduced to the mere imitation of outward behaviours. Dressing, speaking, moving and above all drawing just like the Maestro — with numerous, always sharp, 6B pencils on white Tervakoski tracing paper (I was not aware of these facts during the winter of my discontent) — was encouraged and perpetuated.

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.
Harry Charrington e Vezio Nava, <em>Alvar Aalto. The Mark of the Hand</em>,  Rakennustieto, Helsinki, 2011, page detail. Tilimäki 20, Munkkiniemi, 1954-55, views from the street and the atelier
Harry Charrington e Vezio Nava, Alvar Aalto. The Mark of the Hand , Rakennustieto, Helsinki, 2011, page detail. Tilimäki 20, Munkkiniemi, 1954-55, views from the street and the atelier
As Charrington recalls in his rich essay — the result of extensive research, filled with new facts — "rather than being instructed in the 'atelier's method', new members would be expected to assimilate its kädenjälki from more senior members and through reference to the archive of the atelier's works." 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.

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
Harry Charrington e Vezio Nava, <em>Alvar Aalto. The Mark of the Hand</em>,  Rakennustieto, Helsinki, 2011, page detail. <em>Baker House Dormitory</em>, MIT, Cambridge, 1946-49
Harry Charrington e Vezio Nava, Alvar Aalto. The Mark of the Hand , Rakennustieto, Helsinki, 2011, page detail. Baker House Dormitory , MIT, Cambridge, 1946-49
Wary of teamwork, Aalto posed himself as the undisputed leader of a rather well-mixed orchestra; his despotism, vulgarity, bragging and even cruelty, especially under the influence of alcohol, was sometimes tolerated, later to become a recollection in many conversations. Here, it is neither important to know that he toasted Le Corbusier's death so that he became "the best architect in the world," nor to see Aalto's other human miseries and grandeurs. After all, much of his hypertrophic and glossy bibliography is, unfortunately, based only on these episodes.
Harry Charrington e Vezio Nava, <em>Alvar Aalto. The Mark of the Hand</em>, Rakennustieto, Helsinki, 2011, page detail. Left, Helsinki University of Technology, Otaniemi, 1948-64, view of main auditorium with timber wall relief. Right, Nordic Bank Extension, Helsinki, 1960-65, marble wall relief depicting the landscape and development of southeast Finland
Harry Charrington e Vezio Nava, Alvar Aalto. The Mark of the Hand , Rakennustieto, Helsinki, 2011, page detail. Left, Helsinki University of Technology, Otaniemi, 1948-64, view of main auditorium with timber wall relief. Right, Nordic Bank Extension, Helsinki, 1960-65, marble wall relief depicting the landscape and development of southeast Finland
What this book on Alvar Aalto illuminates is not only the personalities, the office's atmosphere, the working conditions (including union pay) or the era's context against the backdrop of considerable numbers of works that have rarely been studied by Aalto historians, but, and I might say for the first time, it sheds light both on how a work of architecture is conceived (from sketches, even by employees — some of which are reproduced in the book — to working drawings always studied in models) as well as on the importance and sometimes decisive role of his partners and small staff in the results achieved, not to mention the great specialization of his artisans.

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

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