The Greek Thread in Alvar Aalto’s Works
The great Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto (1898 – 1976) was so fascinated by ancient Greek architecture that in 1925 he designed a classic Mediterranean atrium for his brother’s house (“Casa Väinö”) in Alajärvi. This is just one of the curious facts that the Greek architect Konstantinos Xanthopoulos cites in his richly illustrated book, Alvar Aalto and Greece: Trailing Ariadne’s Thread (MELISSA Publishing House), which is a fascinating study of the life and quests of the Finnish genius.
The relationship between the author and the great Aalto is not only professional. The Greek architect, who divides his time between Athens, Helsinki and Sofia, is the husband of the Ambassador of the Republic of Finland to Bulgaria, HE Mrs. Kristiina Kuvaja-Xanthopoulos, and knows well the culture of the northern country. Mr. Xanthopoulos points out that he made something like a “pilgrimage” around Finland to get to know Aalto’s masterpieces in person. He admits in the preface that he was asked by Professor emeritus Tom Simons of Aalto University to write a short presentation on the relationship between Aalto and Greece, which could reveal another of his cultural affinities. Mr. Xanthopoulos obviously took this task to heart, which cost him a lot of digging through the archives, but the result is interesting even for non-specialists.
It turns out that Aalto came only twice, and for a short time, to Bulgaria’s southern neighbour – in 1933 and 1953. However, he had access to the travelogues and impressions of Greece of his fellow countrymen Georg Theodor Polychron Chiewitz ( 1815-1862) and Jacob Ahrenberg (1947-1914), Usko Nyström (1861-1825) and Hilding Ekelund (1893-1984). Mr. Xanthopoulos traced a number of their drawings of the Acropolis and other ancient Greek buildings and sites that Aalto became acquainted with. In 1916, he shared how excited he was to study the art of ancient Crete and Mycenae from morning to night. “We are flying in bright sunshine – the first Hellenic day of my life,” wrote the then young architect.
Unfortunately, the great Finnish artist did not keep a diary, which complicated the task of his Greek researcher. From the title of his book, it can be concluded that tracing the travels of Aalto was almost as difficult as finding the Minotaur in the famous labyrinth of Crete. Fortunately, Mr. Xanthopoulos found a number of documents in Greek and Finnish archives and libraries that allowed him to reconstruct the route of the guest from the North. Aalto first participated in the Fourth International Congress of Contemporary Architecture (CIAM), held in 1933 in Athens, which is considered a cornerstone of modern architecture and urbanism. At that time he had already carried out some of his landmark projects, such as the Viipuri (Vyborg) City Library, the Turun Sanomat building (with columns arranged as in an ancient Greek temple), the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium, etc., which brought him fame even beyond his homeland. Aalto was very busy and therefore missed the first stage of the congress – sailing from Marseille to Athens. Nevertheless, although he was absent, in their speeches, the participants praised the genius of the “mage of the North.” Aalto sent Nils-Gustav Hahl as his representative on the ship. In a letter his envoy described the Congress in rather gloomy colours. It was not until the beginning of August 1933 that the Finnish architect arrived in Athens by night train from Thessaloniki. On the train, he met a beautiful girl with a plastered leg. The plaster strangely reminded him of his “dreams” for ancient Greece. A few days later, Aalto sailed with the other delegates back to Marseilles. Mr. Xanthopoulos was able to find pictures of him taken aboard the Greek ship Patris II. The researcher also found the text of a speech of his in German, in which Aalto criticized the draft resolution of the Congress. But, as his biographer Göran Schildt writes, instead of participating in the debate, the Finnish genius chose to “sit in the shadow of the Parthenon.” It was there that he decided, instead of designing monotonous, sterile cities in the spirit of the Congress, to create modern urban centers with the same monumental dignity and practical functionality as the Acropolis once had. As he wrote in a letter to his first wife and supporter, Aino Aalto (1894-1949), “Yesterday and today I spent all morning on the Acropolis… Sitting on the shady side of temple ruins has proven quite sympathetic after all compared to meetings and museums. I photographed a lot, we will see how they come out. ”
At the time, the Finnish architect did not wear a sketchbook or make drawings, as he did on his second visit to Greece 20 years later. In the meantime, however, he probably kept in touch with several of his Greek colleagues, whom he met at the congress in Athens, and especially with Stamo Papadaki, who, like him, worked in the United States in the 1940s. Mr. Xanthopoulos also found correspondence between Aalto and Christian Zervos, who became friends after the Athens Congress. When the Finnish architect visited Paris in 1937, Zervos introduced him to a number of avant-garde artists such as the sculptor Constantin Brancusi. And the Greek sculptor Michalis Tombros presented Aalto’s work extensively in his 20ός Αιώνας (20th Century) magazine, with the help of the Northern architect himself.
According to Mr. Xanthopoulos, the Finnish artist’s second voyage to Greece was influenced by his acquaintance in 1952 with Göran Schildt, who often sailed around the Greek coast. In addition, Jean-Jacques Baruël, who worked in Aalto’s office, visited the Mediterranean country in 1951 and probably showed his sketches of Delphi to his boss. Baruël himself also wrote in a Danish magazine 12 years after the death of the Finnish genius that Aalto once called him to his office to talk to French archaeologist Georges Daux, who was then director of École Française in Athens. According to Baruël, Aalto and Daux became good friends. After the Finnish artist married his second wife, Elissa, in 1952, Baruël sent a telegram to Daux informing him that the “newlyweds” would go to Athens and want to visit the École Française. Mr. Xanthopoulos doubts the depth of the “friendship” between Aalto and Daux, but points out that it is likely that the French archaeologist advised the Finnish artist to visit Delphi and the island of Delos. The researcher emphasizes that the data on the second visit of the genius from the North to Greece are scarce, but he cites a very interesting finding. A report on the 50th anniversary of the National Pensions Institute (NPI) in Helsinki in 2006 said that the park of the iconic building was influenced by “Italian or Greek villages or temple sites”. The same document cites an application from Aalto to the Board of the Bank of Finland, in which the artist asked for funding for his research mission to several countries, including Greece, in order to find inspiration for the NPI project. It states that on April 17, 1953, he was to depart to Switzerland, Northern Italy, Greece and Denmark. During this trip he was to do architectural research in Delphi, Mykonos and Epidaurus especially for the architectural details of the main building of the NPI. Telegrams sent by Aalto’s secretary, as well as a letter from Elissa, show that the artist and his wife spent ten days in Greece (late April and early May 1953). They visited Athens, Delphi, Olympia, Mycenae, Epidaurus and the islands of Mykonos and Delos. Fortunately, Aalto made a number of sketches and drawings, which are preserved in his archives in Jyväskylä.
So far, no researcher has found direct evidence of the influence of the second trip to Greece on the work of the genius from the North. However, as pointed out by Mr. Xanthopoulos, in 1955 Göran Schildt alluded to a quote from Aalto, in which the great architect connected the founding of the Museum of Finnish Architecture (MFA) with an idea originating from the ancient Greek institutions. And the artist himself, in a speech delivered in 1963, said in connection with the MFA: “Those of us who have visited Delos, the main political and religious center of the Athenian Alliance, know that it did not directly serve this purpose – well that too, for it was the alliance’s clearinghouse – but it served as exactly the kind of cooperative institution that I am talking of.”
The Europe and the World Foundation team