Architectural Details, The Australian, September 94

Architectural Details

What makes for a great house in the twentieth century? A combination of functionality, attention to detail, and domestic harmony no doubt. A good house must give its inhabitants refuge from the toils of everyday life, while still providing a connection to the fast-paced social and technological world outside.

Many still wonder whether the advancements of contemporary architectural design match our more primal demands for comfortable, practical living. Though some remain deeply suspicious of the benefits of “modern architecture”, there’s no doubt that the challenge to traditional form has changed our everyday living environments” for the better.

I was twice reminded of this recently: once on a visit to the Villa Maire (in the west of Finland, built by the renown Finnish architect Alvar Aalto in the late thirties); and secondly with the release of another batch of books in Phaidon’s “Architecture in Detail” series. Both occasions confirmed in my mind that even the most avant garde architecture of this century can be sensual, surprising, warm and full of intriguing details” the complete opposite of one prevailing view of International-Modernism-as-glass-shoebox.

The monograph series prompts the reader to think about such matters in relation to some seminal buildings of the last hundred years. The volumes on Frank Gehry’s recent Schnabel House in Los Angeles, Californian Charles and Henry Greene’s turn of the century Gamble House, and three contemporary houses by Australian Glenn Murcutt are an excellent introduction to the interplay of regional and modern architecture. (I should mention that Glenn Murcutt was also recently in Finland to speak at a conference on Aalto, and to receive a prestigious Alvar Aalto Foundation Award for Architecture.)

Providing the general reader and specialist alike with a generous spread of colour illustrations, technical specifications, plan drawings and an informative commentary, each book is a comprehensive visual survey of influential moments in contemporary architecture. Up to twelve volumes are to be produced each year. The series already includes contemporary reappraisals of extremely well-known landmarks such as Walter Gropius’s seminal Bauhaus in Dessau, Le Corbusier’s controversial Unite d’Habitation in Marseilles, and Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s baronial Glasgow School of Art.

But it’s Richard Weston’s monograph on Aalto’s Villa Mairea that really caught my attention. Like Frank Lloyd Wright’s spectacular house at Fallingwater, the Villa Mairea is a virtuoso demonstration of how to combine the innovative stance of modernism with a passionate attention to human form and scale. Taking his cue from the cubists (Aalto was also a painter), the architect renounces central perspective to create a luxurious living space based on a variety of shifting vistas and sightlines.

Using a large unbroken room space as the main part of the plan, Aalto’s house effortlessly unites interior with exterior. The dense conifer forest that surrounds the villa is echoed inside, by the main staircase and rhyming wooden columns especially. One never feels shut out from the external light, air or surrounding velation that pours into the house. (Aalto went so far as to devise a ventilating system that would distribute purified air through 52,000 pine strips in the ceiling year round!) Never cold or austere, Aalto’s villa harmonises its steel and cellular concrete structure with thin red slate floors, rough cast rendering, sliding external walls and windows, and Finnish teak and pine trimmings. In short, the house creates a veritable “inner landscape”.

Situated on the summit of a hill in the middle of a forest near the small Finnish town of Noormarkku, the Villa was completed in 1939. Aalto was fortunate enough to be given what was virtually an open brief by clients Maire and Harry Gullichsen. The only proviso was that the summer villa should reflect their modern attitude to life in the new age. According to Maire, “We told [Aalto] that he should regard it as an experimental house; if it didn’t work out, we wouldn’t blame him for it.” Needless to say Aalto had nothing to apologise about.

Indeed, the relationship between the clients and architect tells us something about the early support modern Finnish design found in some of its leading industrial families. As informed and enthusiastic patrons of the arts, the Gullichsens saw this project as an experiment that would also provide lessons for mass produced housing. Naive as this may seem to us now, there’s no doubt that they believed “in the possibility of a social utopia based on reason and technological progress, and in Alvar Aalto found a designer who shared their ideals”.

Although these ideals may not have been realised, Aalto did in fact help Maire establish the art gallery/interior decorating firm in Helsinki that eventually became a world-famous maker of mass- produced domestic goods: Artek. They never made it into housing, but the company continues to manufacture and distribute Aalto’s laminated wood furniture and organic-looking glassware products to this day.

After visiting the Villa, I couldn’t help but wonder why so many of the architect’s simple yet effective innovations never really found their way into the formal repertoire of many modernists. Perhaps only now, half a century later, we can begin to understand how this house retains such “a remarkable capacity to challenge and inspire the contemporary search for an humane, regionally- inflected and ecologically-responsive Modern architecture.”

Ross Harley