Architecture | Richard Rogers on Alvar Aalto

Elissa & Alvar Aalto c 1957
in Studio Aalto (1954 > 56 /
1962 > 63), Helsinki
Photo Heikki Havas,
Alvar Aalto Museum



Alvar Aalto: Architect
By John Stewart
Foreword by Richard Rogers
Merrell Publishers
Hardback with jacket,
272 pp, 130 illustrations,
Available from 23 March 2017



Internationally celebrated architect, Richard Rogers supplied the foreword to John Stewart’s comprehensive and highly accessible biography of Alvar Aalto (1898 > 1976) – the first in more than 30 years. Roger’s complete text is published for the first time on The Blog:

‘Among the streams and tributaries of modern architecture, Alvar Aalto’s sensitivity forms a bridge between organic contextualism and the cleaner lines and stark classicism of such architects as Le Corbusier.

Aalto’s architectural language is very much his own, clear in its intent, and quite different from the majority of modern architecture in the machine age. All the great classical architecture of the past 2500 years comes from the Mediterranean, whereas the North has always been more sensitive, you might call it more intuitive. There is also a Nordic approach to building that is very responsive to its site.

A double spread from
the book showing
Aalto’s Säynätsalo
Town Hall (1952)



Aalto had a great sense of place. His Säynätsalo Town Hall, completed in 1952, is a wonderful piece of urbanism that extends the external public space inside the walls, as I later did in such buildings as the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Law Courts in Bordeaux. And his Rautatalo office building in Helsinki, completed in 1956, is arranged round a raised inner courtyard. Where you draw the line between urbanism and buildings is a matter of judgement, but Aalto’s buildings were more affected by the place than were the more classical buildings of Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe, or even the great buildings of classical Athens, and so are more urbanistic.

Aalto had a hard time from the critics in his lifetime – as did Frank Lloyd Wright, who shared his organic approach. Pevsner more or less ignored him, because Aalto did not fit in with his theories of modernism. Even Aalto’s strongest proponent, Sigfried Giedion, was originally cool, perhaps because at the time Le Corbusier was so dominant, so mainstream. But Giedion came round and wrote to Aalto in 1933, inviting him to the CIAM [Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne] Marseilles-Athens cruise: ‘Athens is expecting a lecture from you. Kindly bring not only your genius but also suitable slides.’ And in the fifth edition of his book Space, Time and Architecture (first published in 1941), Giedion dedicated more space to Aalto than to Le Corbusier or any other of the modern greats.

Alvar Aalto in the 1930s
Photo Aino Aalto (?)
Alvar Aalto Estate /
Alvar Aalto Museum



Alvar Aalto in the 1910s
Photo Alvar Aalto



Aalto put together materials – glass, brick, wood – in a sensitive way, and it all had a tremendous harmony. And there is a feeling of love in whatever he does, particularly in the small things, like cups and saucers, doorknobs and handrails; they are all very much about the hand. In all his work there is a powerful relationship between the smallest things and the largest thing, between his interiors and his exteriors, between his buildings and their context.

For me, Aalto’s architecture is personal, because my cousin Ernesto Rogers met Aalto through CIAM and they became close friends, corresponding and staying with each other in Finland or Italy. Ernesto shared with Aalto an interest in continuity and a scepticism about the extreme view of a clean break with the past, the claim that modernism should have no relationship with the past. On one of Ernesto’s visits to Finland, Aalto was showing off his newly completed Säynätsalo Town Hall, smashed the neon sign and was charged for it.

A double spread from
the book showing
Aalto’s Finlandia Hall
(completed 1971)



Alvar Aalto at
Frank Lloyd Wright’s
Fallingwater with his
children in 1940
Photo Alvar Aalto Estate /
Alvar Aalto  Museum



When, in the early 2000s, I did a travelling exhibition called From the House to the City, Deyan Sudjic, who at the time was editing Domus (which Ernesto had also edited, decades earlier), pointed out that Ernesto had written an article called ‘From the Spoon to the City’. Like Ernesto, Aalto really did think from the spoon to the city.’ © Richard Rogers 2017

Merrell Publishers‘ Alvar Aalto: Architect includes previously unpublished picture material  drawn from the archive at the Alvar Alto Museum and from the Alvar Aalto Estate, a small selection of which is reproduced here.

Richard Rogers foreword text and all images courtesy Merrell Publishers


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