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…Aalto is described as personally warm and humanist in his architectural approach, but the problem is, we don’t really get to know the man himself…
Architects as individuals are often something of an enigma. Theirs is one of the most ancient of human endeavours and has been in existence ever since we have built cities and designed our environment. Further, there is a potentially wonderful mix of art and science in their practice. And yet most people take buildings for granted and don’t think about how they were made. Consequently, few architects ever become notable enough to have a profile on the public consciousness. Finnish architect Alver Aalto might be one of the exceptions. The makers of this documentary certainly think so, and they take a pretty reverential stance towards him and his achievements.
Aalto had a long career spanning much of the twentieth century. He started to come to prominence in the 1930s when his clean lines and monumentalism fitted the emergent modernist aesthetic. He and his first wife garnered a reputation and soon they were able to attract bigger commissions. It was around the early 1930s and the emerging Nazi regime (so fond of BIG architecture of course) started to admire his designs. This could have provided the story with a bit of edge as it were, but the film largely glosses over the issues and the contradictions. To be clear, Aalto was perhaps flattered but he was no collaborator. In fact, it was during this time that he deliberately decided to diversify into furniture design. In that capacity his studio at the time made those iconic bentwood chairs that are so redolent of the modernist era in design.
The doco traces his whole life and how he became a world figure in his field. We learn of him teaching in Paris and other cities, and influencing American modernism as well. A hinge moment came for him when his first wife died. He then remarried another woman (who looked remarkably like his first wife) and this new spouse also proved an able creative collaborator.
The film is mostly static and relies on either still photos or short historic film clips. Half a dozen talking heads offer praise and commentary. Aalto is described as personally warm and humanist in his architectural approach, but the problem is, we don’t really get to know the man himself from this treatment. The fault is not that the film is hagiographic (which it is), it is more that we don’t sufficiently get to understand the man and his work in any depth. It could just as well be an illustrated lecture. Still, at least we have some of his rather splendid buildings to ponder.