Virpi Suutari’s documentary film ‘Aalto’ looks beyond Alvar Aalto’s artistic myth: “No one is great alone”

Director Virpi Suutari's documentary ‘Aalto’ examines Alvar and Aino Aalto not only as talented architects and modern cosmopolitans, but also deeply human characters. Design Stories interviewed Suutari about the film’s premiere.

Alvar and Aino Aalto
Virpi Suutari's documentary film ‘Aalto’ depicts Alvar and Aino Aalto both as architects and life partners. Image: The Aalto family.

FINNISH DOCUMENTARY DIRECTOR VIRPI SUUTARI became fascinated by Alvar Aalto's architecture already at a young age. After school, she often spent time in the Rovaniemi City Library, completed in 1965, where the feel of the curved door handles, the warm glow of the brass lamps, the luxurious leather seats, and the overall milieu of the fan-shaped hall left an indelible and tangible imprint in her memory.

The idea of Suutari's documentary film was, in fact, inspired by the sensual experiences evoked by the spaces created by Aalto. Suutari describes Aalto as an architect of sensuality and emotions, who designed the buildings not only to be viewed but also to be touched – and to be touching.

Villa Mairea
Located in Noormarkku, Finland, Villa Mairea is considered as one of the most beautiful and skillful private residences of 20th-century architecture. Image: Euphoria Film.
Virpi Suutari
Documentary director Virpi Suutari developed the idea of the ‘Aalto’ film in her mind for a long time. Image: Euphoria Film.
Vyborg Library
The Vyborg Library, a fine example of Alvar Aalto's functionalist style, was completed in 1935. Image: Euphoria Film.
Artek Aalto chair 68
Artek's 68 chairs are an essential part of the Vyborg Library's interior. Image: Euphoria Film.

In Suutari's opinion, one of Alvar and Aino Aalto's most impressive works is Villa Mairea in the village of Noormarkku, completed in 1939, designed by the architect couple for their friends Maire and Harry Gullichsen. “It has been said that Villa Mairea is not just a house, but a love poem – that’s what it felt like when we got to stay there during the making of the film,” Suutari says.

“It has been said that Villa Mairea is not just a house, but a love poem – that’s what it felt like when we got to stay there during the making of the film.”

The architect couple’s work around the world was selected as filming sites for the documentary. In addition to the sites in Helsinki, Imatra, Jyväskylä, Rovaniemi, Seinäjoki and Säynätsalo in Finland, filming took place for example in the Aalto Pavilion in Venice, the Vyborg Library in Russia, and several American cities. Suutari says that the Aaltos were actually astonishingly international, which is why the documentary has been filmed in a total of seven countries.

“I chose the sites from different decades to describe the development of their particular style and different types of buildings: public and private, Finnish and international”, Suutari explains.

Aino Aalto
Aino Aalto (neé Marsio) graduated from the Helsinki Institute of Technology and qualified as an architect in 1920. Image: The Aalto family.
Aino Aalto
Aino Aalto was the Managing Director of Artek from 1941 until her death in 1949. Image: The Aalto family.
Alvar Aalto
Alvar Aalto's architecture derived from his strong relationship with nature. The photo is from the 1950s. Image: Elissa Aalto / Alvar Aalto Foundation.
Alvar Aalto
Alvar Aalto in 1956 at the building site of the Finnish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Image: Isa Andrenius / Alvar Aalto Foundation.

The film also strongly highlights the importance of Aino Aalto as an equal architect colleague and a visionary designer. The modern, sophisticated and liberal couple, who married in 1924, co-designed many buildings, and Aino Aalto's independent production as a designer includes classics such as Artek’s AMA 500 pendant lights and Riihitie plant pots, as well as Iittala's Aino Aalto glassware. She was particularly important for the development of the Finnish design firm Artek, founded by the Aaltos, Maire Gullichsen and Nils-Gustav Hahl in 1935.

“Aino Aalto had a strong social conscience, and she wanted to create sustainable and beautiful everyday items for ordinary people. Aino Aalto was Artek’s design director and later the managing director; she kind of created what Artek was,” Suutari summarizes.

Aino Aalto passed away in 1949, and Alvar remarried a few years later. His new spouse Elissa Aalto was also an architect. The Aalto documentary is not only a story about architecture and art, but about love and relationships as well: during the filming process, Suutari familiarized herself with a rich archive of material which had never been seen before, including love letters of the Aaltos and interviews recorded for Alvar Aalto's biography. The background work opened a perspective behind the myth of great artists.

“I realized that no one is great alone. The film highlights the key roles of Aino Aalto and Alvar Aalto’s second architect spouse, Elissa, and the artisans and other architects who worked in the office,” Suutari says.

Alvar Aalto with American architect William Wurster in California. Image: The Aalto family.
Maison Louis Carré
Maison Louis Carré, designed by Alvar Aalto, was built as a private residence close to Paris in 1959. Today, the protected building is open to the public. Image: Euphoria Film.
Elissa and Alvar Aalto
Architect Elissa Aalto (neé Mäkiniemi) and Alvar Aalto got married in 1952. Image: Euphoria Film.

There is one theme that often comes up when Alvar Aalto's production is discussed: he had a unique ability to incorporate a sense of harmony between man and nature in his architecture. According to Finnish author Göran Schildt, Aalto had “forest wisdom”, an in-depth understanding of the relationship between man and nature. The organic handprint is particularly pronounced in Aalto's later production, such as the Säynätsalo Town Hall, where the surrounding nature is also present indoors.

In most of the buildings designed by Alvar and Aino Aalto, the architecture and design are seamlessly intertwined.

In most of the buildings designed by Alvar and Aino Aalto, the architecture and design are seamlessly intertwined, and for many projects, they designed not only the actual building but also the interior design, lamps and furniture. For example, a whole host of classic furniture, including the Paimio armchair and Side table 915, was created when they designed the Paimio Sanatorium which was completed in 1933.

And does Virpi Suutari have some personal favorites among Aalto's designs?

Tea trolley 900, Stool 60, the Paimio chair and the Golden Bell lamp,” Suutari replies. “It's incredible that they were designed already in the 1930s!”

Virpi Suutari's documentary film ‘Aalto’ premieres in Finland on 4 September 2020, and will also be distributed internationally.

See also:

Products by Alvar Aalto >
Products by Aino Aalto >
Alvar Aalto and the colors of the Paimio Sanatorium >
Aino Aalto – the strict functionalist >

Text: Nora Uotila Images: The Aalto family, Alvar Aalto Foundation, Euphoria Film

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