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In Aalto, the Finnish documentary maker Virpi Suutari’s film about the modernist architect Alvar Aalto (1898-1976), there are lots of shots of water, lapping lakes, waterfalls, beaches and the sinuous forms of his buildings, furniture and interior designs. It’s not explicitly alluded to in the film, but Aalto in Finnish means ‘wave’ – a force of nature, a life-giver but also slowly eroding things around him…

Along with Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius, Alvar Aalto was one of modernism’s great pioneering architects. His organic, regional approach leavened all those formal boxes and straight lines with wood and warmth and his attention to detail was unrivalled. By implication the title – in excluding his first name – seeks to include the contributions of his wives, Aino and Elissa, whose work is more properly acknowledged here. As someone says of Aino’s input: “Regardless of how the drawings are signed, they clearly worked as a team.”

Aino and Alvar Aalto in the Finnish Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair
© Aalto Family

Many films about architects have tended towards the hagiographic – for example Sidney Pollack’s rather cosy film about his friend, Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005), and the Norman Foster biopic How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr Foster? (2011) – but Aalto is closer in spirit to Nathaniel Kahn’s moving and brilliant My Architect (2003), about his search for Louis Kahn, the father he barely knew, in that it has more of an intimate narrative, exploring Aalto’s marriages.

While celebrating his designs, Aalto is also a pretty melancholic film, with its sparse and often dreamy orchestration of piano, flute, oboe and clarinet. It’s shot through with 8mm home movies, photo albums and letters between him and his first wife, Aino, who was also an architect and the managing director of their furniture company, Artek, from 1941 until her death in 1949.

Suutari visits Aalto buildings in seven countries, from the innovative Paimio sanatorium in Finland designed to treat TB patients (“an instrument of healing”) to his exceptional church at Riola, Italy, built posthumously. But the hovering drone often evokes detached Kubrickian queasiness rather than spatial revelation. In one shot in the stunning Viipuri library in Vyborg, Russia the camera slowly approaches the lone librarian typing away behind her vast desk at the top of the stairs beneath a grid of circular roof lights in what could have been a modernist reimagining of the Overlook hotel.

The Maison Louis Carré in Bazoches-sur-Guyonne, France, as seen in Aalto (2020)

Aalto is strictly chronological and none the worse for that, but there is the familiar problem with architecture on film – the spatial apprehension is partial, too disconnected from a sense of moving through the buildings, of inhabiting them. A promising idea with Parkour runners at Aalto’s University of Jyväskylä building fizzles out far too quickly.

Another irritation is that there is a lack of attribution on screen for the many talking heads off camera. A few are named but even his grandchildren are unnamed and the context often isn’t enough to guess. An interesting theory that he processed his mother’s death through his art is stated but left unexplored.

Outside of the work, there is a lot on Alvar Aalto’s infidelity and his drinking. As someone says, “certainly he was a complicated personality,” and that comes across well enough here. He clearly had many human failings, suggested by a critical line in their letters where he tells Aino: “You need to commit a whole lot of sin before we’re even.”

Overall, there’s lots about his obsessive attention to design detail but a bit too much about how PR-savvy he was, as if his genius were about branding. The end credits are the word Aalto over one of his topographic sketches, a reminder that we have seen the contours of his artistic and emotional landscape from above rather than felt them on the ground.

Sight and Sound June 2022

In this issue, we join Mia Hansen-Løve on Bergman Island. Also, we speak to David Lynch and more on the digital revolution, take a trip to the movies with Joachim Trier, and hear from Terence Davies and John Waters.

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