Documentary director Virpi Suutari was reading love letters sent between Alvar and Aino Aalto at her summer cottage. These and numerous other sources and film shooting trips around the world were the basis of her latest documentary, Aalto.
DOCUMENTARY DIRECTOR Virpi Suutari had a rare opportunity in the summer of 2019. She was given permission by the family of Alvar and Aino Marsio-Aalto to read the couple’s correspondence. They were not just any letters, but personal ones, giving a glimpse of the architect couple’s life, both professionally and domestically.
Virpi Suutari often portrays ordinary people dealing with basic life questions in her films. This time, however, her film is about the world-famous architect Alvar Aalto.
Virpi is sitting on her summer cottage terrace at a long table. She’s wearing a white T-shirt and Samuji Toto trousers. Next to him is her husband, actor Martti Suosalo, in a black T-shirt and casual jeans. The couple’s dialogue about buying the summer cottage seven years ago is a lively one.
The summer cottage is an important place for Virpi and Martti. For a long time, they had no plans of buying a summer cottage. Martti loved boats and Virpi wasn’t into summer cottages, either. But then Virpi’s back could no longer take sailing, so they decided to buy a summer cottage. It is located in the Turku archipelago on a rocky southern plot.
The modern, rectangular wooden cottage is designed by architect Katja Maununneva. They are not connected to the grid and have no running water, and rely on their solar panels for electricity. Interior architect Hanni Koroma helped to make minor changes to the interior: the discolored pine floor was painted light gray and the L-shaped kitchen was made straight and moved to the end of the lounge area. The couple also had a new sauna built, doubling as a place where their children can stay.
The cottage is surrounded by a wide wooden terrace turned gray by the sunshine. It continues all the way to the boat jetty with steep stairs and intermediate platforms. The stairs are lined by a gray cliff dotted by turquoise-green lichens and small pines that have endured the relentless winds of the archipelago. They are an important part of the landscape, reminding her of the oil paintings his father used to paint.
The cottage interior is cozy and simple. There are only a few elements and they also include a suitable amount of Aalto. For example, hanging over the plywood dining table are two A110 lamps. Aalto’s A333 pendant, also called the Turnip, hangs above the kitchen counter.
“Aalto’s lamps are design items that suit a variety of locations. They won’t mind being shifted from place to place. They don’t require a flashy modern interior, because they’ll gently blend in anywhere,” says Virpi.
Virpi studied the live and work of the Aaltos in great detail. She interviewed dozens of their old colleagues, studied the literature, saw their private photo albums and searched the archives. Doing the background work for the film included some memorable moments and meetings, which Virpi remembers with warmth.
For example, staying in the bedroom in the top floor of Villa Mairea, under a piece by Pablo Picasso, was so exciting that she had trouble sleeping that night. Or the memory of her discovery of a film by László Moholy-Nagy, in which Alvar snoozes in a deck chair on a boat trip from Athens to Marseille in 1933, which Virpi still finds moving.
Virpi was given permission by László Moholy-Nagy’s daughter to use the footage in her film. She has an unusual first name, with a reference to Finland: Hattula. Virpi smiles and says that Hattula Moholy-Nagy’s parents had visited the Aaltos and during the same visit seen the stone church in Hattula. They loved it so much that they named their daughter after it.
The architects, Alvar and Aino, are also at center stage in the Aalto film. The film shows how they together created the style and toolkit for their architectural firm, and what an international network they had. For example, they became friends with many influential people of their time, such as the Rockefellers in the United States or the Gropiuses in Germany.
Aino Aalto’s significance didn’t become obvious to Virpi Suutari until this film. “Aino was a shrewd businesswoman,” she says.
Alvar was famous for his charisma and charm. But Aino’s significance didn’t become obvious to Virpi until she made this film.
“She was Artek’s artistic director and later also the managing director. Aino was a shrewd businesswoman,” says Virpi. “Aino’s forte was creating atmosphere. She studied various materials in detail and entered her observations in her notebooks when travelling abroad, for example about zebra fabrics and rattan chair weaving”.
Aino was also a talented photographer and the film includes photos that have not been seen previously. Although Aino was later overshadowed by Alvar, her contemporaries valued her highly. This is obvious from a newspaper article in the 1930s as the Aaltos visited the United States.
“According to architectural scholar Nina Stritzler-Levine, the press was super interested in Aino. She was the quintessential modern woman. She was an architect, but also a mother, designer and wife to a famous architect with whom she worked,” says Virpi.
Atmosphere is important in architecture. Virpi paid attention to it already as a child. When she was living in Rovaniemi, the city library designed by Alvar Aalto had a big influence on her. The various details – wing-like shape, recessed reading rooms, leather chairs, brass lamps and the iconic front door handle – still come back to her after decades. Virpi spent most of her weekdays in buildings designed by Alvar Aalto.
Although Virpi admires the Aaltos tremendously, she doesn’t sugarcoat things. Her film also includes criticism of Aalto’s buildings by his contemporaries. Neither has she made any attempt to brush aside his drinking problem or his attempts to affect or “control” his second wife Elissa Aalto.
Virpi is sitting on the white sofa at the cottage. Martti is sitting in the rocking chair, rocking away gently. There’s a fire in the fireplace. The temperature can vary a lot in the archipelago in early summer.
Martti participated in making the Aalto film, too. In addition to being one of the two executive producers, he also joined her for filming trips to Russia, Italy and Australia, and is the voice that reads Alvar’s letters, with actor Pirkko Hämäläinen providing the voice for Aino.
Virpi and Martti work in close cooperation in their Euphoria Film production company. Aalto was the first film in which Virpi directed Martti.
Aalto was the first film in which Virpi Suutari directed her spouse Martti Suosalo.
“It worked out all right. She didn’t ‘talk too much’,” says Martti with a twinkle in his eye. “Virpi could hear right away if a take was good and that was it. I could rely on that as an actor.”
“Do you remember how we first tried to make your voice a bit more like Alvar’s, which in old radio recordings was high-class and theatrical?” asks Virpi.
“Usually the kind of voice that is closer to your natural voice is better. You have to find the nuances within you, and you don’t think about it consciously. Once you’ve done it one way, you’ve got to do the rest the same way, if that’s the way it’s been agreed to be done,” answers Martti warmly.
“Alvar used to put in the odd foreign and big word for effect, which was the thing do to at the time. It was the way he spoke pedantic and kind of fun. It was easy to read out the letters.”
When Alvar writes to Aino, his handwriting is large and fluid, while Aino’s letters are neat with smaller handwriting. The difference between their characters and lifestyles, but on the other hand their mutual respect and love, is apparent in the letters.
“Alvar was always writing tongue in cheek. Aino’s letters were more serious and sometimes sad. On the other hand, it is touching to notice how close they were and how they loved doing things together, which they did a lot in their early years,” says Virpi.
“Later Alvar clearly yearned to go back to this state when they had experienced a lot, and with the marriage problems and separation,” says Virpi.
The successful Aalto film premiered last autumn in Finland. It’s a fascinating dive behind the scenes and a chance to learn more about the person that was the world-famous architect Alvar Aalto. The picture painted of him, with his human traits, is very lovable.
Text: Anna Varakas Images: Kreetta Järvenpää
This story was originally published in Asun magazine's issue 29.