Architecture

Juhani Pallasmaa
FUSION OF UTOPIA AND TRADITION

The executed design for Villa Mairea was a refinement of a series of projects which had evolved around a few basic ideas: a courtyard differentiated from the natural pine forest of the site, a cluster of residential spaces connected with a more domestic service, bedroom and sauna wing, the social and private aspects of the house, the articulation of living spaces and the integration of art exhibits with residential functions. The architectural style of the preceding projects follows the standard line of the Modern Movement whereas the final design turns into a very personal credo and, as it were, a mocking criticism of the narrowness and orthodoxy of the prevalent modernist manner.

The foundation work had already begun at the site on the basis of a design dated early 1938 when Aalto, dissatisfied with the design, suddenly and hurriedly produced a new project which he persuaded his clients to accept regardless of the embarrassingly late phase. At last the design seemed to satisfy Aalto’s aspirations for the articulation of the various functions of living and the integration of art collections with the pattern of daily life. While the earlier projects had provided separate rooms for various residential functions, the final design is based on the concept of a continuous 250 square metre living space which accommodates all the collective functions of the house as well as the owner’s art collections. The undivided living space of the luxury villa had returned back to the idea of undifferentiated living space of the traditional Finnish peasant house. At the same time Aalto had shaken all modernist precedents off his shoulders and reached a scheme which was relaxed and open enough to incorporate all his variations, improvisations and whims.

Whereas the idea of continuous space of modern architecture had usually been purely an ideal of architectural space, the spatial character of Villa Mairea seems to have pantheistic and metaphorical overtones – Aalto’s flowing space is associated with the limitless space of nature, which is turned into specific localities only through human experience. The building is bound with the notion of nature on many levels: the use of natural materials and textures, forms suggestive of natural processes and rhythms as well as explicit metaphors of nature.

The abundance of motifs, rhythms, textures and materials is astonishing. The composition is developed in a painterly manner rather than an architectural elaboration of tectonic ideas. In his description Aalto makes an explicit comment on the relation of painting and his architectural approach: “The special form concept associated to the architecture of this building is included in the deliberate connection attempted here to modern painting.”

Aalto keeps adding motifs and textures as a painter works on patches of local colour, light and shadow. The whole is not integrated by a commanding architectural idea. The conglomeration of ideas, moods and associations is rather held together by a sensuous feeling in the way that the multitude of elements in a painting are integrated by a consistent light. The design is a deliberate collage which amalgamates standard  imagery of the Modern Movement, personal inventions and suggestions of anonymous vernacular tradition. Instead of worshiping “the spirit of the time”, Villa Mairea is oriented simultaneously towards the future and the past and due to this dual time focus achieves an assuring foothold in history. The collage principle of Aalto allows the shameless fusion of contradictory elements, images of modernity and the peasant past, continental avant-garde and primordial constructions, primitive simplicity and extreme sophistication of details.

The collision of the twentieth century utopia and the peasant past epitomizes the contemporary cultural situation in Finland at large. Finland was transforming from a rural agrarian and craft society to an urbanized industrial nation. The cultural avant-garde was passionately oriented towards continental modernity, which was regarded as a symbol of progress.

The reason why modernity was accepted in Finland with surprisingly little resistance was the dual meaning of the style: modernity symbolized both an exciting and optimistic future and a safe return back to the aesthetics of peasant simplicity, the ideals of “noble poverty”.

The collage technique is visible in a multitude of juxtapositions. Through the vertical screen of tall pine trees the entrance view introduces the white-washed outline of a modernist building with a stereotype white-painted staircase spiraling to the roof terrace. At a closer range, however, this image is turned into a rustic entrance canopy which with its unbarked spruce poles and asymmetrical structure gives an impression of a haphazard shelter. Towards the left hand corner even the image of a single house begins to break down in the juxtaposition of white-washed stone volumes and wood-faced surfaces, fragments of protruding concrete beams and wood lattices.

On the courtyard side the mandatory sliding glass wall of modernity (which altogether has been opened only a couple of times) is juxtaposed with a primitive stone fireplace and stair leading up to the lower roof terrace. The flat roof of the main building, a standard modernist gesture, is contrasted with the turf roof of the sauna wing, and the white-painted ocean-liner handrails at the top of the roof, with the irregular balustrade of the lower roof terrace compiled of slender tree trunks in a manner reminiscent of traditional farm fences. The stone wall delineating the sauna terrace has an exaggerated thickness which echoes the stone walls surrounding old churchyards. Although the courtyard space as a whole is rather symbolically enclosed the primitive strength of this stone wall achieves a calming sense of protection.

A particular aspect of the collage approach is the distinct Japanese atmosphere, which is evident in the combinations of materials and refinement of details, the juxtaposition of regular and irregular rhythms, the bound columns, etc. A number of facts and recollections confirm Aalto’s interest in Japanese architecture at that time. In a lecture (Rationalism and Man) held in 1935 he had spoken very enthusiastically about the Japanese virtuosity of creating variety within limited materials and forms.  In the mid-1940s he was a personal friend of the Ambassador of Japan in Finland and he was one of the founding members of the Finnish Japanese Society. His assistant in the Mairea project, the Swiss-born architect Paul Bernoulli has recalled that in hose times Aalto used to appear in the office dressed in a kimono. He also recalls that Aalto brought a book on traditional Japanese houses to the office to be consulted in designing the sliding door to the garden room and the main entrance. In an early sketch of the main stair the vertical poles are made of bamboo, another Japanese impression. The decorative connections of the wooden poles in the final design obviously derive from images of bamboo textures.

In Aalto’s own words “an attempt has been made to avoid artificial architectural rhythm in the building” (Arkkitehti, Finnish Architectural Review 1939). To Aalto the notion of “artificial” seems to imply mechanically tectonic and one-dimensional logic. The rhythmic arrangements of the Villa have the character of the irregular rhythms of nature. In addition to their organic associations the irregular intervals of units create s strong continuity from one space or situation to the next. The vertical poles in the main space suggest virtual surfaces which flow through the actual architectural spaces. Aalto blurs the distinction between various spatial units, the indoors and the outdoors and even of architectural hierarchies by treating decorative poles and structural columns as elements of the same rhythmic progression.

The building is thoroughly composed and regardless of the numerous surprises and incongruities the whole is firmly held together by a coherent atmosphere. The whole is reflected in its parts: the folding mass of the atelier and the skew entrance canopy anticipate the freely rhythmic arrangement of the interior space.

In a later article (Muuratsalo. Arkkitehti 1953) Aalto wrote about the “mentality of play” as an important element in design in our calculating and utilitarian age: “Only when the structural parts of the building, the forms derived from them through logic and our empirical knowledge are embellished by what we call the art of play, are we on the right track. Technology and economy have always to be combined with the charm that enriches life.”

Villa Mairea stands out as Aalto’s most passionate legacy of poetic inspiration, personal dedication and the art of play. It is frequently listed as one of the most important one-family houses of the 20th century along with the Villa Savoye (Poissy 1929) of Le Corbusier, the Tugendhat House (Brno 1930) by Mies van der Rohe, the Glass House (Paris 1932) by Pierre Chareau and Bernard Bijvoet and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Kaufmann House (Bear Run, PA 1939). It is remarkable that these masterpieces of modern residential design were all conceived within a single decade of enthusiasm and optimism.

Abridgement of the article Villa Mairea- Fusion of Utopia and Tradition, published in Yukio Futagawa, ed: GA: Alvar Aalto: Villa Mairea, Noormarkku, Finland, 1937−1939. A.D.A. Edita, Tokyo 1985