Forest Dreaming with Alvar Aalto
Assistant Dean and Professor at Yale School of Architecture Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen explores the relationship between the wood designs of Alvar Aalto and the forests of his native Finland, as part of Serpentine’s ongoing design research with Formafantasma.
An image of virginal boreal forest pops up whenever Finnish architect Alvar Aalto is mentioned. The connection is well warranted: Finland is Europe’s most forested country and historically, wood has been its most dominant building material. Aalto’s ascendancy to international fame in the 1930s went hand in hand with the transformation of Finnish forest industry into a behemoth that is now behind 80% of Finnish exports. This essay takes a closer look at the complex cultural, historical, and geopolitical scripting that defined that relationship.
The chapter dedicated to Alvar Aalto in the second edition of Sigfried Giedion’s seminal book Space, Time, and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition (1949) hints at the transversal relationship between Aalto and the forest industry, albeit in a manner that eludes many factual details. In it, the author establishes a curious homology between three related, yet distinct phenomena – Finnish geography and its resources, the mechanics of country’s forest industry, and Aalto’s personality. He begins by musing about the abundant resources and how they came into being: ‘Finland, covered with its network of lakes and forests, suggests in its structure the days of the Creation, when water and earth were first separated,’ and goes on to explain that ‘[m]etals, water – these are [the country’s] principal resources.’ He then turns to a description of the process of sourcing wood for industrial purposes, highlighting its movement across the country: ‘Finland’s chief raw material is wood. The trees are felled …[and after] drying in the forests for six months, they start a year-long journey over lakes and rivers, hundreds of miles, down to the sea. There in large cellulose plants at the rivers’ mouths they are converted into pulp.’ To re-enforce the shared destiny between the architect and his home country, Giedion characterises his persona as follows: ‘Aalto is restless. He does not always remain in the pine and birch forest of Finland.’ Two photographs allude to the fate of many trees: an aerial view of virginal Finnish lake landscape with no sign of human occupation (see the banner image above) and an image of loggers floating logs along the same waterways to the factories (fig. 2). The actual act of harvesting trees is left out of the frame.
Most of the photographs in Giedion’s forty-two-page Aalto chapter – note that Mies van der Rohe got only twenty-three – depicted commissions Aalto received from various forest companies: Metsä [forest] pavilion, housing an exhibition of forest industry in Lapua in 1938, as well as Sunila Pulp Mill and Housing in Kotka (1937-39) and Terraced Workers Housing in Kauttua (1938) for A. Ahlström company. Other projects feature products of the industry: we can see large newsprint rolls lying on the floor of the printing facility at the Turun Sanomat Building (1928-30) and a range of wooden products from Aalto furniture to wooden cross-country skis included at the Finland Pavilion at New York World’s Fair (1939-40), many of which were housed in structures using wooden building components. Paimio Sanatorium (1933) suggests yet another use for the bountiful forests – as places of repose and healing. All in all, the carefully curated set of black-and-white photographs masterfully reconcile the two seemingly conflicting relationships that Finns have with forests: as a material resource commonly referred to as ‘green gold’ and as a site of recreation and forest dreaming.
While Aalto was certainly not the only architect designing paper mills and other facilities for the expanding industry, he was certainly the best known after his designs for Paimio Sanatorium and wooden furniture launched him to the international stage in the early 1930s. To be sure, apart from American Albert Kahn’s ties to American auto industry, it is hard to think of any architect as closely connected with a particular industry. Yet, unlike Kahn, who ran a 600-person office and designed more than a thousand commissions for Ford Motor Company, Aalto maintained a relatively small practice and was often brought into mill and factory projects as a formal consultant after engineers had already figured the layout and massing.
Aalto in turn came to the realisation that his own contribution to modern architecture and design might well rely on turning wood into a modern – that is to say, technologically advanced and aesthetically resonant – building material. This ambition becomes apparent in a series of experiments he began conducting around 1931, together with the furniture maker Otto Korhonen, in an attempt to design a wooden variant of tubular steel furniture he had begun designing in the late 1920s, which had failed to gain traction in the international market. Photographs depict a tri-partite approach to materiality based on the modernist idea that material processes should be evident in the outcome: the first stage features a twisted tree branch and highlights the internal structure of the material (Struktur); the second stage features a splintered piece of birch wood ready to be exposed to the external force of bending (Texture); and the third features an L-shaped bent wood table leg, which had been subjected to the mechanical process of lamination (Faktur or Index) (fig. 3).
The sequence suggests a continuum between the organic material and a technological product. Birch proved to be not only extremely pliable and strong but had the additional benefit that it could be locally harvested.
To be sure, Aalto did not invent the technique of wood lamination. He and Korhonen built on a method that Michael Thonet developed in the late nineteenth century for his first chair, the Boppard Chair, where ‘several sheets of thin veneer were glued together and pressed into a [wooden] mould’. However, Aalto and Korhonen’s method differed from Thonet’s in two important ways: rather than using steam and heat to manipulate the wood, they employed moisture and glue; and Aalto also decided to expose the side of the laminated wood, making the process visible in a manner true to his modernist principles. The new method was straightforward: birch plywood veneer sheets were clamped for few minutes, then bent into shape, after which the bent members were placed in a hot-air chamber to set. Lastly, they were left to cool for several days. A whole series of seats could be manufactured at the same time by placing a sheet of paper in between each form. For the Paimio Chair (1933), named after his sanatorium, Aalto developed a wooden frame where layers of bent wood were staggered in a manner that enabled it to form a curvilinear, continuous loop. (Fig. 4)
However, Aalto’s wooden furniture was critically acclaimed for reasons that extend beyond its material and structural mastery alone. It is worth remembering that Aalto’s furniture appeared on the international market during the same year that the Nazis came to power and closed the Bauhaus. By that time, so-called international style modernism had been replaced by a revival of classicism in the two countries that gave it birth, Germany and the Soviet Union. For Giedion, Aalto provided an answer to the burning question: what would post-international style modernism look like and how could it compete with the classical revival? To be sure, the architecture of this period could no longer rely on ideas about universality and technological progress alone; it had to resonate with the increasing demand for national identity, without abandoning the promise of a shared international language of forms. Not only was Aalto’s furniture built of locally-sourced materials – its form bore resemblance to shapes appearing in contemporary art, such as Jean Arp’s wooden reliefs, which added to their international appeal.
So how did Aalto manage to be quintessentially Finnish without resorting to provincialism or bombastic nationalism? The photograph of the Finnish lake-landscape proved useful in this regard. The image first appeared as a large photomural, mounted on a wall element hung from the exterior of the Finnish Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair in 1937 (fig.5).
This building presented Finland as a biological narrative free of the ideological and political disputes that were dominating international politics at the time. Economic nationalism seemed harmless compared to the political nationalism on display at the neighbouring pavilions. Christian Zervos, the editor-in-chief of the influential Cahiers d’Art magazine stated at the time: ‘The initial plan of the pavilion was based on the forest industry, the most important in Finland,’ hence ‘the Pavilion has all its visible surfaces covered with wood.’ In other words, using wood in architecture made sense for a country covered with forests.
The aerial photograph subsequently took centre stage at the Finnish Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, where it was mounted on a tilted, curvilinear wall made of vertical wooden slats made to resemble the northern lights. Aalto’s statement reveals his knack for visual communication: ‘A true image of the country cannot be conveyed with individual objects alone; it can be done convincingly only by the atmosphere such objects create together, that is, only by the overall effect perceived by the senses.’ The exhibit illustrated this by including products of forest industry displayed as though in a constant state-of-becoming. The constellation highlighted repeating undulating lines in different scales, from the aerial photographs to the wood laminates used in Aalto’s furniture, which was presented in its pre-assembly state.
The exhibition opened just weeks before the outbreak of the Finno-Russian Winter War in November 1939 and opened for its second season in April 1940, shortly after the war’s end. Information about the scope of destruction and reconstruction efforts were added. In an article published in Architectural Forum the following summer, Aalto distanced Finnish architecture from any ideological constraints by stating that true Finnish modern architecture – which presumably included his own – was based on ‘the country itself, its climate, resources, topography and ways of living.’
As American literary scholar and media theorist W. J. T. Mitchell has remarked, images can ‘relay connecting theories of art, language, and the mind with conceptions of social, cultural, and political value.’ They ‘speak for themselves by persuading, telling stories, or describing.’ Indeed, if Mitchell were to comment on these period images of Aalto’s architecture and furniture, he would no doubt point out that their resemblance to actual physical phenomena is only one dimension of how they operate. This ability to tell stories that adapt to changing times has guaranteed Aalto’s design a perennial status.
The winning entry by Jan Čtvrtník for a 2007 design competition on climate change organised by the Dutch design collective Droog proves my thesis of the versatility of functional applications and stories his curvilinear forms can entail. Čtvrtník took a vase designed by Aalto in 1937 (which itself won best design at the 1937 Paris World’s Fair) and altered it slightly. The external shape of the vase, which remained the same in both versions, was taken from the shape of a Finnish lake in 1937 (fig.6). The internal shape of this later vase was much smaller, however, to reflect the fact that the same lake was much reduced in size by draught caused by global warming. Aalto’s curvilinear forms seems to be enjoying an additional, ecologically self-conscious, life.
 Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time, and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition, 2nd edition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1949), 569.
 Ibid., 567.
 Jochen Eisenbrandt, ‘The Organic Line: Aalto’s Furniture and the International Market,’ Alvar Aalto: Second Nature (Weil-am-Rhein: Vitra Design Museum, 2014), 159.
 Christian Zervos, ‘Le Pavilion de la Finlande,’ Cahiers d’Art 8-10 (1937) Special issue: Souveniers d’Exhibition 1937, 269-270. Quoted by Fabienne Chevallier, ‘Finland through French Eyes: Alvar Aalto’s Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition of 1937,’ Studies in the Decorative Arts vol. 7, No. 1 (FALL-WINTER 1999-2000), 68.
 Alvar Aalto, ‘Maailmannäyttelyt: New York World’s Fair, The Golden Gate Exhibition’ (World’s Fairs: New York’s World’s Fair, The Golden Gate Exhibition) Arkkitehti 8 (1939): 113. Translation from Göran Schildt, Alvar Aalto: Decisive Years (New York: Rizzoli, 1986), 121.
 Alvar Aalto, ‘Finland,’ Architectural Forum (June 1940), 399.
 W.J.T. Mitchell, Iconology, Text, Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 10.
 Ibid., 10.