Merging Architecture, Industry, and Nature

It seems that 1998 is well on its way to becoming the Alvar Aalto year.

To commemorate the centennial of the birth of one of this century's most influential architects, a myriad of exhibitions, conferences, TV documentaries, and books are appearing around the world.

Among the most important of the Aalto exhibitions is the Museum of Modern Art's "Alvar Aalto: Between Humanism and Materialism." The New York show is the first large-scale retrospective in the United States of the Finnish architect's work. It includes original drawings, models, furniture, and glassware, giving the visitor a solid overview of Aalto as architect, designer, and town planner.

Aalto's design was grounded in his intense need for nature and his wish to merge architecture and landscape. But it was also greatly influenced by a number of sociohistorical events happening in Finland during the 1930s and World War II. Having recently freed itself from centuries of Russian and Swedish dominance, Finland was experiencing a rise in nationalism, and architects became active participants in "nation building." Industry was booming as well.

The country's vast forests provided most of the export industry at the time, in the form of sawmills, cellulose plants, and other related factories. Aalto established relationships with leading industrialists, which led to commission after commission.

The Sunila Cellulose Factory, 1935-39, a perfect example of Aalto's marriage of art with industry, was an overall plan for the community. The factory buildings are on an island, interlinked by conveyor belts, while residential areas for both directors and workers are set in greenery on the mainland.

The Finnish Winter War of 1939-40, in which Finland lost 11 percent of its territory to Russia, gave Aalto an opportunity to experiment with the issues of standardization and humanism. The acute need for housing for refugees led the A. Ahlstrm Corp. to manufacture Aalto-designed houses on an industrial scale.

It was, again, the link with industry that resulted in Aalto's commission to build the Villa Mairea (1938-39) for Maire Gullichsen (nee Ahlstrm) and her husband, Harry. Villa Mairea gave Aalto the possibility of using the natural elements he so loved. The villa has been described as a forest, "architecturally transformed."

Villa Mairea is one of several buildings seen on video in the exhibition, which gives visitors a feel for the light and complexities of Aalto's structures. The Church of the Three Crosses at Imatra (1955-58) is another, and one of Aalto's most complex, projecting a mix of exuberance and intensity.

The exhibition also includes some of Aalto's lesser-known projects built in Finland and Germany, as well as the Mount Angel Abbey Library in St. Benedict, Ore. (1964-70), his last building in America.

* The MOMA exhibition closes May 19. It will travel to Italy, Aug. 23-Nov. 29, and then Japan, Dec. 19-Feb. 15, 1999.

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