Alvar Aalto's sketch for the Riola church and parish centre. Bologna, Riola di Vergato, Piazza Alvar Aalto. 1966–69, 1975–80, 1984–85. © Alvar Aalto Museum.
Alvar Aalto's sketch for the Riola church and parish centre in Bologna, Italy (1966–69, 1975–80, 1984–85). Image: Alvar Aalto Museum.

Aalto loved Italy and Italians love Aalto

Once again Italy pays tribute to the famous Finnish architect and designer, Alvar Aalto. In 1964, the Milan Polytechnic awarded him an Honorary Degree in occasion of its centenary. This year, it organized an international seminar entitled “Alvar Aalto e l’Italia”, Alvar Aalto and Italy. The 2-day conference was held on 13–14 January, 2016 in the Rogers lecture hall of The Milan Polytechnic, and in the 146 lecture room at Milan’s IULM University.

Arianna Callocchia interviewed some of the speakers at the seminar to understand the subjects, the objectives and the results to shed light on some of the key aspects in the relationship between Aalto and Italy.

Aalto and Italy – a love affair

The curators Michele Ugolini, associate professor, and Stefania Varvaro, visiting professor at the Milan Polytechnic: How did the idea for the seminar come about? 
– The idea emerged when we attended the Alvar Aalto Researchers’ Network conference “Aalto beyond Finland” organized by the Alvar Aalto Academy in February 2015 in the Finnish city of Rovaniemi.

What were the objectives of the seminar?
— During those workshops, we noticed that there were quite a number of Italian speakers, and that suggested a renewed interest in the works of the Finnish Maestro. We decided to organize a seminar to examine in more detail the many relationships that Aalto developed with Italy; we also wanted to investigate the meaning and the importance of his interest for the architectonic culture of our country.

Affinity and reciprocity

Esa Laaksonen, director of the Alvar Aalto Academy and speaker at the seminar, what is your opinion on the relationship between Aalto and Italy?
— The core factor was Aalto´s numerous trips to Italy. During his lifetime, he visited the country dozens of times, sometimes as often as three times a year. He really loved the atmosphere: the food, the wine, the people, and particularly the rural architecture.

What did Aalto take from Italian architecture? 
– Many of his ideas were inspired by the country’s classical architecture, especially during the early part of his career.

Aino Niskanen, professor of architecture history of Aalto University Department of Architecture and member of the Board of the Alvar Aalto Foundation, What was the core theme of your speech?
– I wanted to discuss the differences between Aalto’s research in Finland and on the international scenario, and why the international research began decades earlier; and I wanted to highlight the differences between research in Finland and the international research.

What was your opinion about the seminar in Milan?
– I was happily surprised that Italians are so active in Aalto-research at the moment, and that so many people – more than 300 – came just to take part into the conference. And I repeat, Aalto loved Italy.

The Aalto and Italy seminar opening on 13 April, 2016. Milan Polytechnic awarded Alvar Aalto the Honorary Degree in occasion of its centenary in 1964. Photo: Isa Andrenius.

The Aalto and Italy seminar opening on 13 January, 2016. Milan Polytechnic awarded Alvar Aalto the Honorary Degree in occasion of its centenary in 1964. Photo: Isa Andrenius.

Why do you think Aalto loved Italy?
– Aalto loved the small Italian towns and their relationship with the surroundings, the 15th-century paintings, the buzz and energy on the Italian piazzas, the layers of history and the lifestyle – including the food and wine.

Why do you think Aalto is so popular in Italy?
– Aalto reiterated themes that are familiar to Italians but he added a new twist. Several Italians worked in his office and of course, he had designed two buildings and completed many other projects in Italy.

Do you think that thanks to Alvar Aalto, Italian architects take more interest in Finnish Architecture? 
– Yes. Many Italians started out with an interest in Aalto and then became interested in other Finnish architects like Reima Pietilä and others that appeared on the scene at a later stage.

What could Aalto teach Italian and international architects?
– He can teach them to connect with the context – basically, how to development buildings that have an active relationship with the territory and the landscape, it’s a question of feeling.

architecture, true architecture, exists only when Man is positioned at the center

Alvar Aalto: Italian projects

A discussion panel during the seminar focused on the eight projects designed by Aalto in the 1950s and 1960s. Only two of these projects actually materialized: the Parish Church of Santa Maria Assunta in Riola of Vergato, Bologna (1966–1978/2006) and the Finland Pavilion at the Venice Biennial (1955–1956). Architects Federico Marconi and Glauco Gresleri shared their own professional and personal experiences with Aalto.

Architect Federico Marconi, when did you meet Aalto?
– It was in 1956, during a visit to the building site of the Venice Biennial. Carlo Scarpa – who was constructing the Venezuela pavilion – introduced me to the Finnish architect and I immediately asked if I could join his studio. My dream came true in the Fall of 1959.

On which of Aalto’s Italian projects did you work?
– I was responsible for the executive project and works direction for a church near Bologna, the Chiesa di Riola di Vergato.

What did you learn during your professional experience with Aalto?
– Aalto allowed me to comprehend his vision of architecture that can be summarized in the following statement: architecture, true architecture, exists only when Man is positioned at the center. And this humanist vision of life is the common feature in all of Aalto’s public and private architecture projects.

When anyone asked Ernesto Rogers who he considered to be the best Italian architect, he answered “Alvar Aalto”.

What do you think Aalto loved about Italy?
– Everything… Aalto really loved Italy, he loved its cities made to measure for Man, in a single material – brick. The Mediterranean world was a constant source of inspiration for him, particularly the Riva degli Schiavoni in Venice that inspired his plan for Helsinki City Centre.

How would you describe the best memories from your experience with Aalto?
– I can remember the wave of emotions every time the Maestro brought sketches for a new project to the studio, and then when he would call me and the other apprentices to design a project for a competition. I was also thrilled and delighted when he invited me to Riihitie with Architect Leonardo Mosso to leaf through his family photograph album during the Exhibition held in the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence.

Do you have an anecdote/or funny story that you could share with me?
– When anyone asked Ernesto Rogers who he considered to be the best Italian architect, he answered “Alvar Aalto”.

Michele Ugolini, Glauco Gresleri and Stefania Varvaro. Photo: Isa Andrenius.

Michele Ugolini, Glauco Gresleri and Stefania Varvaro. Photo: Isa Andrenius.

Architect Glauco Gresleri, when did you meet Alvar Aalto for the first time?
– I met him when I was 27 years of age, at his home in Munkkiniemi on 15th August, 1957.

When did your fascination for Aalto commence?
– It started back in 1954 with the book Atelier Alvar Aalto published by L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui.  What I noticed about Aalto was how naturally he designed his architecture, how he used the local materials and his sensitivity for light and how he managed to create just the right amount of shadow.

What was in the wooden case/box that you sent to Aalto in 1966?
– Earth, stones, rocks, pieces of bark, plants, images of Etruscan tombs and old farmsteads, photos of the women and men who were working in the fields. When Aalto opened the box, he was stunned and touched; he sent me a short note saying that no-one had even sent him “the spirit of the place” in such a tangible way.

Alvar Aalto's sketch for the Riola church and parish centre. Image by courtesy of Alvar Aalto Museum.

Alvar Aalto’s sketch for the Riola church and parish centre. Image by courtesy of Alvar Aalto Museum.

What can you tell me about the project and construction of the Church in Riola?
– I can tell you that such a complex laborious project, that lasted 20 years, cannot be sorted simply with a contract and an agreement. Such an enterprise requires strength, enthusiasm, common desire, faith (in friendships, in the architecture, in spirituality, in God) that can move mountains. We were young architects, with no experience, with no funds, with no contracts, but we were driven, we crushed everyone… we did it!

What aspects of Aalto’s creativity affected the project for the Church in Riola?
– His ability to interpret the space and to perceive its intrinsic energy! These qualities are essential for “real architecture” and were part of Aalto’s philosophy. He designed buildings produced with environmental and spiritual continuity between a place of worship and a familiar place for living.

How did the local community feel about the Church designed by Aalto?
– They accept it for what it is. Particularly the general public – they observe it, they try it, they use it with an open mind and an open heart and ultimately they love it.

Architect Alvar Aalto and the Alvar Aalto Pavilion in 1956. Photo: Museum of Finnish Architecture.

Architect Alvar Aalto and the Alvar Aalto Pavilion in 1956. Photo: Museum of Finnish Architecture.

Sixty years as a temporary structure

Architect Gianni Talamini, you coordinated and supervised the restoration of Aalto’s second project built in Italy, the Finland Pavilion at the Venice Biennial in 2012. How did Aalto become involved in the design for the Pavilion?
– Aalto became involved through Maire Gullichsen, promoter of the project and a very close friend of the Maestro. Aalto stated that he wanted to create a work that was “a mixture of the battlefield altar belonging to soldier Švijk, a Lapland wigwam and the Pazzi chapel in Florence”.

What makes the Finnish Pavilion unique?
– The pavilion is a wooden structure constructed in the fairly difficult context of Venice; it possibly intercepts and amplifies the precarious nature typical of this unique city. And this is probably his secret, as he manages to capture the very nature of the surroundings and in this case, transforms the pavilion into a piece of architecture that is Venetian to the core.

Which is the image of Finland that Aalto would like to project through the Pavilion?
– I believe that the Pavilion speaks for itself: it commands a fairly central position in the Giardini, reflecting the new centrality of Finland on the international panorama. Its aperture to the outside, or rather the continuity between the outside and the inside, is synonymous with hospitable welcome. The fact that it is completely accessible and that every part of it can be visited, indicates transparency.
The absence of a powerful hierarchy between the entrances or between the various spaces of the building, could be interpreted as the metaphor of a democratic and horizontal society. The interiors ooze intimacy, or rather they pay attention to the private sphere. There is a close and respectful relationship with the surrounding garden, mirroring the image of the intense connection between the Finns and Nature.
Wood, “the affinity with man, the pleasant feeling that stems from the physical contact” (Aalto, 1956), is an emblem of solidarity and friendship. And if that is not enough to show that it represents Finland, for all the people who have not been there and who do not know the country, the national colors come to the rescue along with the sign stating ‘Finland’ designed on-site by Alvar Aalto.

How is the Finland Pavilion maintained and protected?
– Many people are responsible for the care of this pavilion and it is also protected as a Listed Building. Through its offices (Ministry of Finance), the Government of Finland constantly monitors the maintenance that is managed locally by myself and a group of trusty collaborators. The Alvar Aalto Foundation is an extremely important partner with regards the evaluation of any modification to the structure that may be suggested to protect the building or in regards the exhibitions housed in the Pavilion every year. Without this ongoing control and the necessary maintenance, the structure would fall rapidly and possibly irremediably into disrepair.

Architect Gianni Talamini at the Finland pavilion in Venice.

Architect Gianni Talamini at the Finland pavilion in Venice.

Alvar Aalto and the Milan Triennial

The seminar focused mainly on Aalto, the architect; however, the lecture by Tiziano Aglieri Rinella also presented him as a designer and illustrated his relationship with the Triennial of Milan.

Why did Aalto choose the Milan Triennial to present his new collection of furniture?
– The Maestro exhibited some of his furniture and projects at the 5th Triennial in 1933, the first held in Milan’s Palazzo dell’Arte, an event that echoed loudly around the world. From that time onwards, the Triennial became to make its mark as the most important event in Italy in the field of architecture and design. For this reason, Aalto opted for the Triennial as the prestigious platform for launching his company Artek at the 6th Triennial of 1936

How well were Aalto’s pieces of furniture accepted at the Milan Triennial?
–  The furniture from the Artek collections were positively accepted by the critics who appreciated the selection of the collection presented. The pieces focused attention on the innovative techniques for processing and folding green wood, with the creation of prestigious articles with their basic esthetic and functional characteristics demonstrated in a broader and more persuasive way.

How would you describe the relationship Aalto had with the Triennial?
– From 1933, the presence of Aalto was a constant at the Triennale. On numerous occasions he exhibited pieces of furniture and lamps produced with Artek, and he was also the curator on occasion and presented his architecture projects.

What key features of Aalto’s design continue to fascinate the public even now?
– There is no doubt that Aalto created articles that were ahead of their time. He was a pioneer of green ‘sustainable’ design a long time before the word ‘sustainable’ became fashionable. With his inimitable creations, he illustrated how to combine techniques, to respect for the materials, develop the esthetic and functional aspects with ergonomic research attentive to the comfort requirements of the end-user. Many contemporary designers were inspired and aspire to his research. However, the creations produced in those years – such as the armchair Paimio, Tank or the stackable stools that Ponti defined as the ‘classics of modern times’, today are still classed as iconic articles of contemporary design.

Conclusions

Thanks to the packed program of lectures, mainly by Italian speakers, this seminar was a great opportunity to examine in depth, through different themes, the relationship between the Alvar Aalto and Italy. Italy is a country that Aalto loved passionately; it was not only his favorite destination for holidays and business trips, it was also an invaluable source of inspiration for most of his projects. Several Italian architects who worked closely with the Finnish Maestro confirmed this and they spoke about their personal experience giving the conference a feeling of uniqueness and something special.

The large numbers of students, researchers, architects and professionals who attended the seminar was a clear indicator of its success of the seminar and of the fact that Alvar Aalto continues to generate great interest among Italians with his creative thoughts still considered to be extremely fashionable.

Alvar Aalto continues to generate great interest among Italians with his creative thoughts still considered to be extremely fashionable.

The Alvar Aalto e l’Italia seminar was organised by Michele Ugolini, Politecnico di Milano (Italy); Stefania Varvaro, Politecnico di Milano (Italy); Silvia Micheli, The University of Queensland (Australia); and Tiziano Aglieri Rinella, Al Ghurair University Dubai. The event parters were Politecnico di Milano (Milan Polytechnic), Dipartimento di Architettura e Studi Urbani (Department of Architecture and Urban Planning), Università IULM (University of Modern Languages), The University of Queensland (Australia), Alvar Aalto Academy and Artek.

Text by Arianna Callocchia.
English translation by Fiona Johnston.

Editor’s note: The article was updated on April 18, 2016; minor corrections in the captions and the Conclusions chapter.

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