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    aalto's paradise
by Donald Kuspit
Frank Lloyd Wright's
Guggenheim Museum
Mies van der Rohe's
Seagram's Building
MoMA's Aalto catalogue
Alvar Aalto
ca. 1935
Savoy Vase
Villa Mairea,
Noormarkku, Finland
Paimio Tuberculosis
Paimo, Finland
Paimio Chair
Town Hall
Experimental House for
Elissa and Alvar Aalto,
Muuratsalo, Finland
Architecture is the most visible and usable art, and the most important. It comes at us, surrounds us, and the shelter it affords is necessary to life. We don't have to seek it out, the way we have to make a deliberate effort -- go into a particular building -- to see a painting or hear a musical composition. Buildings are unthinkingly present in our lives. Architecture creates public space -- daily space.

Often, when we do think of the architecture that is everpresent -- when we let ourselves wake up to it -- we become nauseated. In New York, most of it is uninspired, or if inspired -- for example, Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum and Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building -- it is so indifferent to the needs and feelings of the human beings who use it that it seems, for all its abstract splendor, subliminally vacuous.

Alvar Aalto's architecture seeks to counteract this ahuman effect, inseparable from so much modern architecture -- this sense that the building exists for its own structural sake, which may be intellectually edifying, but is hardly emotionally satisfying. Most of it is not even adequate to the purpose for which it was built.

Wright's building does not serve the art it exists to display; its spiraling interior is not conducive to establishing intimacy between the viewer and the art -- to furthering engaged perception with a particular work of art. One needs to be able to "level" with oneself, in order to "level" with a work of art, especially modern ones that are not always level-headed. Wright's tilting floor may be in unwitting ironical complicity with modern works of art, but its precarious balance hardly helps the viewer strike a balance with them.

Mies' building is even more indifferent to the people who use it -- more dumbly universal. Beyond its imposing grid facade -- and I think it is more imposing because of its height and the way it stands apart from its surroundings than because of the vertical black I-beams with which it is constructed (they emphasize its isolation) -- it is a blank space, to be filled in any way one wishes. No doubt that maximizes its possibilities, but in a way that bankrupts its actuality.

Neither Wright nor Mies built with human beings in mind; they built for the glory of building -- they built to show their mastery of space and materials. They built to take their place in architectural history, not in human experience. They built to outdo their predecessors, not to enhance the experience of their contemporaries. Their self-contained buildings are supposed to be experiences in themselves, not facilitators of experience that originates outside them, and can exist apart from them.

How does Aalto counteract this ahuman integrity? He has the marvelous notion that a building is a potential "paradise." "Each house, each product of architecture that is worthwhile as a symbol is an endeavor to show that we want to build an earthly paradise for people," he said. How is this to be accomplished? By making a building that will facilitate the gratification of basic human needs. Every aspect of it will be biorealistic, to use Kenneth Frampton's term -- ergonomically inflected. "A dwelling," Aalto argued, "is an area which should offer protected areas for meals, sleep, work and play.

"These biodynamic functions should be taken as points of departure for the dwelling's internal division, not as an out-dated symmetrical axis or 'standard room' dictated by facade architecture" (such as Mies' Seagram Building, one might add). Instead of developing a mechanically fixed plan, the humanistic architect develops an organically fluid plan. The point is that the building must be emotionally satisfying, and it cannot be emotionally satisfying unless it responds to the organic needs of human beings. What sounds like idealism -- a paradise -- is in fact a matter of survival and inner necessity.

It is this concern for psychobiological gratification that sets Aalto apart from other modern architects, who seem more interested in the innovative autonomy of their structures than in their value to the human beings who use them. Does the structural fundamentalism of modern architecture necessarily imply indifference to fundamental human needs? Must they be sacrificed to the greater glory of pure structure? No, Aalto thinks; they can be reconciled. The question is how Aalto does so, and whether this reconciliation of abstract form and naturally given needs works.

Let me state more fully what I think is at stake in this reconciliation before I try to determine whether Aalto succeeded in achieving it. Thanks to modern technology, architecture was able to transcend the idea that a building is essentially a cave, protecting its inhabitants against enemies and the elements. The building was opened to the outside, which modern man conceived in a more friendly way than the cave-dwellers did. Instead of being a more or less hermetic enclosure, an area of absolute safety and warmth, and thus a sanctuary apart from the threatening outer world (however judiciously the building is open to the dangerous outside by way of windows, also necessary for light), and also the model of the self and interior life, as George Steiner suggests in Real Presences (1991), his analysis of Freud's structural model of the psyche (id hides in the basement, ego resides in the rooms on the main floors, and superego haunts the attic), the building becomes an abstract form whose character and relationship to the outside is limited only by the constraints of construction, the laws of physics and the nature of the environment and climate in which it is built.

The modern building tends to lose its symbolic and literal interiority -- and symbols institute what they represent, as much as they represent what is already instituted -- or insular separateness becomes more or less integrated with the surrounding world, while retaining its abstract integrity. This occurs because it tends to be more window than wall, and because it no longer seems planted in the earth and continuous with it -- it is no longer of earthen materials such as stone and brick and mortar and wood -- but rather stands poised on top of it. It may be anchored in the earth, but it does not seem to grow out of it. In short, it can no longer be fantasized as a creative extension of nature, offering a haven from the threatening world, but is explicitly manufactured, artificial and open to the world.

The question that Aalto's architecture raises is whether a building can both be a safe haven in a harsh world -- a space offering an organic sense of warmth, intimacy and privacy in a public world of cold "otherness" -- as well as an integral, orderly part of the world, conveying a sense of civic responsibility and rationality. Can a building be a kind of organism, however mechanically made? Aalto is faced with the familiar problem of reconciling opposites -- resolving tension and contradiction -- in new terms.

The need for a space apart from the world -- a certain distance and separateness from others, signifying one's individuality and difference -- is as strong as the need for sociable togetherness and a harmonious relationship with the world. Does Aalto's architecture strike a wise balance between these needs, or do we see in his buildings any signs of tension between them? His professed aim is "to arrive at a more and more humanely built environment," which he thinks can be accomplished by "expand[ing] the concept of the rational" to "include psychological requirements." Does he succeed: Are his architectural environments more psychologically attuned to their inhabitants than other modern architectural environments, and thus more humane?

Not exactly, because I don't think he has an adequate sense of human psychology, and thus of the psychological requriements of architecture. He is blind to the prevalence of irrationality in human beings, or else he is deliberately indifferent to it, as disruptive of his particular version of techno-rationalist architecture. He does not seem to comprehend it, and his architecture does not offer an adequate way of dealing with it.

Aalto's buildings are famous for the organic warmth of their natural materials, but all the enriching warmth, "personality" and intimacy they acquire by their use of wood and brick do not amount to an admission of the biologically given irrationality of human needs and existence. Sometimes his buildings are more open to the world, sometimes more closed in on themselves, and perhaps they successfully balance the deeply human need for self-containment, and the equally deep human need for openness to the environment. But they are peculiarly beside the larger psychological point: the acknowledgement of human irrationality, and the need of human beings to find a way to deal with their own fundamental irrationality.

Aalto's buildings have an implicit healing purpose -- this is signalled by the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium (1929-33), one of the three canonical works of Aalto's career, as Frampton says -- but health is preconceived as rationality. The Experimental House he built for himself and his wife Elissa in Muuratsalo (1952-53) may be beautifully integrated into its forest environment -- the red and whitewashed brick are in eloquent harmony with the surrounding brown and green pine trees -- but what is most striking about it is its foreordained, engineered rationality. Aalto may have wanted to avoid a fixed, axiomatic idea of architecture, as he says, but he ends up with one because he has a fixed, axiomatic conception of reason.

Like all of Aalto's buildings, his Experimental House has a preconceived serenity, perhaps appropriate for a summer residence. But like so much modern architecture, this personal building, like all his buildings, uses a geometrical model of rationality -- assumes rationality is geometrical, that is, axiomatic -- that guarantees serenity. Aalto does not realize that rationality may mean different things -- take a different (nongeometrical) appearance -- in different situations.

This implies that Aalto's buildings advocate and frame an idea of health -- of a humane environment -- without really understanding what sickness is -- an inhumane evironment. To me, this means that his buildings exist to deny sickness and inhumaneness rather than to overcome them. It means that Aalto does not grasp the inhumanity and irrationality that lurk in human beings, indeed, that are endemic in human life, as history demonstrates.

He assumes that a humane environment is necessarily an organically rational environment, as it were, that is, one which seems naturally rational: the role of nature in his architecture is to buttress rationality. But this is an illusion: rationality is an achievement -- it is always a struggle to be rational -- rather than a foreordained conclusion. To think otherwise is naive utopianism.

Instead of being a dialectical triumph over irrationality, Aalto's architecture, like modern architecture in general -- the modern architecture he is apparently critical of -- begins and ends with a foreordained rationality. It is through and through rational in its structure and meaning, whatever materials it is built of. In contrast, traditional architecture shows the struggle to be rational, more particularly, performs the seemingly miraculous transformation of the irrational into the rational -- the proccess in which irrational impulse becomes unexpected harmony, as in the Gothic arch and the Roman dome.

This kind of reconciliation of opposites, or Aufhebung -- irrationality is subsumed in rationality, impulse in intelligence, the former giving the latter energy and spirit, the latter giving the former shape and direction and thus stability -- rarely exists in modern architecture, and not in Aalto's modern architecture, for all its "impulsive" organic trim. The outcome is never predictable -- foreordained -- but seems to be unexpected. It is a surprise that must be worked at, and the work must be shown.

In a sense, modern architecture is too enlightened for its own good. This is true even of Aalto's organically "modified" architecture. I am saying that it is not really as psychologically adequate to the human beings it claims to heal because it does not understand, let alone embody, the healing process, and because it does not understand the most basic psychological need of human beings, namely, to master irrational impulse to survive and flourish. Rationality is this difficult process of healing mastery, rather than a Procrustean bed one must fit into, however beautiful the bedsheet.

"Alvar Aalto: Between Humanism and Materialism," Feb. 18-May 26, 1998, at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, New York, N.Y. 10019.

DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.