Dezeen Magazine

Alvar Aalto

"Can Aalto's international acclaim really be down to self-promotion?"

A recently released feature film about Alvar Aalto presents the Finnish architect as an expert in self-promotion but Laura Iloniemi questions if this skill was the key to his success.

The recently released Finnish movie Aalto directed by Virpi Suutari places a great emphasis on Alvar Aalto's ability to market himself, suggesting that the critical international acclaim this celebrated architect won was down to self-promotion.

Can this really be why Aalto is placed alongside Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright as one of the great modernist architects? Or is this more of a reflection of the fact that it has become almost second nature today to explain away an architect's success by focussing less on the work and more on personal attributes and the power of PR?

The Aalto movie trailer plunges straight into this way of thinking. In it, the film's narrators describe with relish how Aalto knew how to charm the press and how to woo the infinitely rich Rockefellers.

Aalto was clearly a great communicator as is clear from his journalistic abilities when writing about urban planning and housing. He was also known to be good company. A rarity perhaps in Finland, a country known for its introverted and unassuming culture, Aalto was a man of true wit and real charm.

Even if Aalto had been a reticent figure, his work would have drawn critical attention far beyond his native Finland

But, what drew Aalto to the attention of the architectural press and caught the eye of Le Corbusier and other great European and American talents and clients in the first place was not these qualities, but those of his inventive and accomplished architecture. His Paimio Sanitorium was truly a breath of fresh air. Even if Aalto had been a reticent figure, his work would have drawn critical attention early on and far beyond his native Finland.

His milling with the great, the good and the media was what happened when the cultural avant-garde adopted him early in his career. His was evidently an original talent. Who couldn't be impressed? Who didn't want to meet him?

And yet, as the Aalto movie narrative implies, the architect's international break was more about his being an ambitious individual who grabbed opportunities as they came than it was about the sheer accomplishment of buildings. We might argue that all go-getting architects in search of commissions are necessarily highly driven and hungry for work and that it goes without saying that some hustle better than others.

Having researched Aalto's archives, it is clear to me that Aalto was certainly well aware of the value of introductions. He worked, for example, with the art historian Nils Gustav-Hahl to make his first forays onto the international stage including London where the Architectural Review magazine became an instant and avid supporter of his work.

We might argue that all go-getting architects in search of commissions are necessarily highly driven and hungry for work and that it goes without saying that some hustle better than others

I wrote my masters dissertation on this very topic as I am interested in how architects promote their work. Looking back, though, I feel this doesn't help to understand the essential creative spirit that gave Aalto the edge that made him special.

Architect and writer, Juhani Pallasmaa, one of the film's narrators, has a particular empathy with Aalto, an insight into his craft and sensibility that helps us to get closer to his expressed desire to "ennoble" life. Everyone's life. Pallasmaa goes so far as to say: "If there is nothing to ennoble, there is no architecture".

This gets to the heart of why architecture mattered to Aalto and why it mattered more to him than perhaps anything or anyone else. His close collaborator and first wife, the architect Aino Marsio Aalto suggests this in archive footage. His second wife, Elissa Aalto, architect and posthumous head of his studio, confirms it.

Jim Richards, the editor of the Architectural Review, was another close observer of Aalto. While relishing tales of drinking binges and sailing adventures, Richards knew how special Aalto was as an architect. He also observed that Aalto was quite aware of what his contribution to architecture would be. Everything else followed from this charismatic artistic volition, Aalto's full-hearted dedication to architecture and his ability to make a compelling polemic from a non-dogmatic approach to design that challenged the rationalist modern movement giants.

Aalto was, as Colin St John Wilson wrote perceptively, the exemplar of "The Other Tradition". It was this that gained him increasing credibility within his profession, at first internationally, if only slowly in cautious Finland. It was not for nothing that Aalto named his boat Nemo Propheta in Patria (no-one is a prophet in their own country).

He sought neither to create a money-making brand nor a signature style

Given that we live in a world where so much that relates to creative identities are reduced to the notion of "brand", it feels important to remind audiences who watch the film that by the standards of today's starchitects he was a modest person, living a comfortable, if not lavish, life. He sought, to put this in contemporary language, neither to create a money-making brand nor a signature style. Could it be that in our fascination with brands and celebrity that we are missing something essential?

And yet, the footage of Aalto's buildings in the movie does capture their essence beautifully taking us from early works like the ground-breaking Paimio Sanatorium in south-west Finland to his undulating MIT Baker House Dormitory in Massachusetts and, towards the end of the film, to his posthumously completed and much loved Riola Church near Bologna.

The cameramen, Heikki Färm, Jani Kumpulainen and Tuomo Hutri make a silent but all the more important contribution by revealing Aalto's artistic intent to audiences and making us feel in the presence of Aalto, the practising architect.

The quietude and near tactile beauty of these scenes makes the talk of promotional tactics, lucky breaks, intimate relationships and branding seem like so much chatter and noise. It made me sad to think of how imaginative, individualistic and talented architects can be happily written off as folk who just know how to push ahead and brand themselves.

It would be unfair to say the new Aalto movie does this, yet it does raise the important question of how in layman's terms can we properly explain what exactly it is that makes a figure like Alvar Aalto so exceptional.