“In order to achieve practical goals and valid aesthetic forms in connection with architecture, one cannot always start from a rational and technical standpoint- perhaps even never.” Alvar Aalto
Alvar Aalto embraced many nuanced dualities throughout his career. He did not try to suppress the dual nature of the architect (the disparity between rationalism and the spiritual will). Instead he found a way to create spaces that served people on a very sensual scale, all the while being purely aesthetic about it.
Paimo Sanatorium 1929. Rational and playful elements on the facade of the patients wing. Plan showing separation of program.
An early example of this embraced duality can be found at the Paimo Sanatorium of 1929. The functionalist aspects manifest themselves in the shape of the building, which is splayed by function into very distinct entities where the main connecting element between the wings is the entrance lobby and the main vertical circulation. (This dissected building was no doubt influenced by Duiker’s Sanatorium) The locations of these separated functions of the building are arranged according to solar considerations as well as creating adjacencies meant to be programmatically logical as well as noise reductive. Exterior aesthetic functionalism is expressed in the banishment of ornament and the use of clean white walls. On a more human scale, the patient’s rooms are rigorously designed with an obsession for comfort and well-being. The windows and the placement of the patient’s bed were designed with strict solar consideration. The ceilings are painted in tranquil colors, and the light fixtures are designed for no glare. The list continues with; noiseless sinks, easy to open door handles and unfortunately, wardrobe cabinets that looked like coffins! Conversely, all of these designed elements, while achieving comfort, were ultimately dictated by aesthetics (I’m sure the coffin thing was a case of hindsight saying “what the hell was I thinking with that one?”). Aalto did what many master architects do, and that is design with the total union of aesthetics and function in mind. The more aesthetically functional elements of the Sanatorium include, multi-colored canopies, a sinuous front desk, a trademark kidney shaped entrance canopy etc. These elements weave through the building and prevent it from being a cold and truly functionalist space.
Aalto is a complicated architect and a difficult one to read. He seemed to belong to neither the camp of the modernists or to the camp of the spiritualists. He was not a Modernist because it seems the demands of abstraction did not interest him. He was not a Spiritualist or a “Biological” architect because his forms were not mastered by that metaphor either. He was a little bit of both, but his tendencies in the end always were dictated by aesthetics, which is only as arbitrary as particular individual taste. This is something that I don’t like about Aalto, this arbitrary element, although to his favor it seems that he acknowledged this, framed as a general problem of the architect, by inducing violent contrasts between freedom and restraint in his work and separating these differing elements like oil and water. Perhaps this is a more appropriate approach to the duality of the architect than the exaggerations of both the Rationalists and the Spiritualists. The dual demands expected of a master architect are clearly and symbolically seen in his work.