Essay: In Search of a Hero – Stories of Aino Aalto
A woman in black and white, smoking blissfully in a photograph from the 1920s. Breasts heavy underneath a sleeveless slip of a dress, a scarf wound around her head to keep her hair tightly in place, she is holding the cigarette between her out-of-focus fingers. The photograph has been taken at an angle from below, making the unidentified building with its tower behind her – a church, maybe? – seem tiny in comparison to the figure in the foreground. The woman’s eyes are closed, and she is smiling. Aino Aalto, the very image of a milkmaid taking a ciggy break. I love it.
Aino Aalto was the other half of an exceptional love story.
She was also the other half of an ingenious partnership, whose career was so closely intertwined with that of her husband that her own part in it is almost impossible to discern.
Aino Aalto was an unrecognized talent overshadowed by her renowned husband.
My issue with stories about Aino Aalto is that they are all unsatisfying in a way that I cannot quite pinpoint. Of course, they are all just narratives and interpretations, stories that people tell. I don’t take them as gospel, but I also have nothing else to go by in terms of getting to know the real Aino Aalto. The stories are all we have. So, let’s talk about them.
The narrow-film recording makes all movements abrupt. Aino Aalto is exercising in a bathing suit. She is kayaking with her children, wearing a funny mesh cap, or leaning against the rounded side of a 1930s car. They travel. There are aeroplanes and international conferences. Buildings go up. Everything is shiny, modern and full of hope.
It is clear that the “Aalto” in Virpi Suutari’s documentary Aalto is Alvar, but Aino Aalto also gets a fair amount of screen time. The film depicts a modern, early 20th century power couple, whose love for one another materialises, as it were, into architecture and design. The work and personal relationship of the Aaltos are fused together as organically as vines that become passionately intertwined during the scenes of the film. As regards the roles in the design work, Suutari aligns herself with the views of earlier research on Aino Aalto. We hear about how Alvar used to sketch out the core concepts of a building in just a few lines, while Aino designed the interiors and “infused the whole with a final, human touch”.
All this talk about interior design and finishing touches is something of a disappointment to me.
Why is that, I wonder? Why do I not value furniture design or even Aino’s position as managing director of Artek, which have undisputedly been attributed to Aino Aalto and considered to be her domain?
During my studies at Otaniemi in the early 2000s, I learned that the most correct way to be an architect is to participate in a design competition and to win it. Between the lines, we were also taught the unspoken, but unquestioned, hierarchy of the disciplines within the department. The highest tier was occupied by the design of public buildings. Interior design, which was not taught at the same university at the time, did not even garner a mention. I feel as if the ideal of the hero architect, the superhuman individual credited with the creation of the overall work of art, continues to linger in the air that we breath at architecture studios.
Could it be that my lack of enthusiasm is merely symptomatic of values that I have swallowed without chewing?
A woman smiling, open-mouthed, with her head tucked under the arm of a man. Thin eyebrows and small teeth. The man’s face is shown in semi-profile, the top button of his polo shirt is open, and his head casts a shadow over the woman’s temple and cheek. The sepia-toned Aino and Alvar Aalto on the cover of a book gaze lovingly at each other, Alvar looking downwards and Aino upwards.
Rakastan sinussa ihmistä (“I Love the Human Being in You”) by Heikki Aalto-Alanen is the shared biography of Aino and Alvar Aalto. The common thread emphasised in the book, right down to the title, is love. In their letters to one another, which make up most of the book, “Mami” and “Papi” speak openly and warmly of their feelings. Alvar writes about the bedtime stories he has been telling the children. Aino responds by sending “lots of kisses on all the smooth places”. The film by Suutari also ends with a letter from Alvar to Aino. Considering the fact that the documentary proceeds chronologically from the early 1900s up to the 1970s – and that Aino Aalto dies midway through this period and a great deal happens after her death, including Alvar Aalto’s second marriage – the choice of this letter as the epilogue for the film stands out as an interesting, conscious framing that places great emphasis on the love story.
And yet, something about the love narrative bothers me. Love, as it is portrayed between the Aaltos, is far from symmetrical. There was clearly plenty of it, but there is something slightly awkward about the dynamics of a married couple from the last millennium. Alvar jet sets across the globe. Aino manages the office and the home.
In the autumn of 1933, Aino Aalto travels to Oslo to recover from a mysterious ailment (high blood pressure? overexertion?) or situation (her husband’s exploits during his European tour in the summer?). Her husband writes to her and urges her to pursue erotic adventures to cheer her up, telling her that he himself has managed to “more or less abstain from flirtations”, as it is, after all, his “turn to be celibate”.
Aino Aalto’s responses vary between false cheerfulness and striking flatness.
This is my interpretation, in any case.
Were they just teasing each other? Was it all just talk, like their grandson, Aalto-Alanen, seems to think? Or did they have a merry, open relationship where both were able to have their own adventures and then share naughty stories after the fact? Or were the escapades and teasing more Alvar’s domain, while Aino was the one who sent fed-up messages, saying please don’t drink too many cocktails this time?
Blah. This love story refuses to settle into the kind of image that my soul, as someone born in the 1970s, would like to see.
The Aaltos’ love story also has more serious rifts than the lack of equality, the greatest being the death of Aino Aalto.
I feel bad saying anything about it.
Because, you know, the children and the grandchildren.
Because it is such a sad and painful, recognisable hurt.
The rift was not that Aino Aalto developed breast cancer and died in her fifties, but rather the fact that the couple did not speak about it. In October 1948, Aino Aalto, having just learned the previous month that her cancer has metastasised, starts her letter by saying that she is tired, in poor constitution and exhausted by the treatment at the hospital, but then quickly moves on to discussing the architectural competition for the National Pensions Institute headquarters and the Poetry Room lamps. Alvar writes back from Boston, talking about a presentation he has given, a facade design and his downstairs neighbours, and does not return home until his daughter asks him to in so many words.
How did things end up at a point where Aino Aalto only hinted at her illness? Why did her husband not notice and understand her hints? Did Aino hope that things would take a turn for the better on their own? Did Alvar? Did they believe that the cancer would go away if they simply ignored it? How can theirs be a celebrated love story, if it contains something so dark? Does a relationship need to be classified as good or bad to begin with? Was breast cancer viewed as an embarrassing women’s ailment that one was not supposed to trouble others with? Were the Aaltos still living in a time when a woman would leave a note at her husband’s bedside to inform him that she had gone to the hospital to give birth and had not wanted to disturb his sleep? Or was it more to do with a medical practice of doctors not being frank with their patients and telling them that they were about to die? Is this just about me having trouble identifying with another time in history? Why should we judge the people and events of the past by current standards? What is the perspective that we should view them from? Does anyone truly have access to a point of view that is not their own?
The novel Aino A. by Jari Järvelä tells a fictitious story of how things may have been for the Aaltos, how things could have turned out and what it would have felt like. In the novel, Aino Aalto makes the conscious choice of staying in the background, behind her husband, believing this to be her opportunity to practice her profession. Over the years, however, the fictional Aino begins to feel like her backstage position is unfair.
In Aino A., the authorship of the works codesigned by the Aaltos emerges as the central point of contention. The book speculates on whose name was written on the corner of the plan drawings and which of the two Aaltos actually designed what. Fiction is an opportunity to challenge history, and Järvelä ends up making Aino be the one who designs the Paimio Sanatorium, the Savoy vase and a host of other works canonised as part of Alvar Aalto’s design trajectory.
I find the fabrication of the novel to be exhilarating, albeit not particularly convincing. On the other hand, I do not turn to fiction primarily for believability. I want literature to touch my intellect and emotions. I want to be shaken, and, in that sense, Aino A. definitely delivers. Yet, the fundamental question expressed in the book seems to be somewhat irrelevant. Anyone who has ever worked at an architecture firm knows that the title page of a design only has one name written on it. It is the name of the architect who may have drafted sketches and negotiated, perhaps even been in charge of the design team, while someone else has done the more painstaking design work, a third drawn up the finished plans, a fourth passed the ideas through a difficult engineer and a fifth supervised the construction work to make sure that the ideas are implemented beautifully.
Hanna Tyvelä has written an article on Suutari’s Aalto documentary as part of the histography of architecture. According to Tyvelä, the nature of an architect’s work as something that vacillates between creative artistry and a technically demanding craft has contributed to a narrative that highlights the heroic faculty of an architect. Viewed from this perspective, an architect is an auteur and the buildings the architect designs are unique works of art.
Tyvelä positions herself as a critic of the traditional Alvar Aalto narrative. She distinguishes two lines of research within the gender-critical study of architectural narratives. One highlights the biographies and work of women architects, thereby attempting to bring their stories up to par with those of their male counterparts.
The other line of research mentioned by Tyvelä, then, seeks to deconstruct the emphasis on the individual in architecture. Here, the criticism is targeted at the way in which the stories of individual architects tend to overshadow the essential character of architectural design as group work and the significance of design collaboration for architecture. Tyvelä writes that, while there is no disputing the power of individual stories, they should be told with an honest view of the actual nature of the work. In reality, high-quality architecture is most probably not the result of individual genius, but of successful cooperation.
Järvelä’s novel also raises questions concerning the definition of the nature of the work. In Aino A., architecture and design becomes a competition between spouses, which can be won by being the greatest auteur. In a way, the book suggests the same old heroism as the measure of success, only wrapping it up in a female package.
I’m not so sure about that. Is Aino Aalto’s story supposed to compete with Alvar Aalto? If the Aino Aalto narrative is summed up as mere resistance to the Alvar Aalto narrative, what is left out?
The story that Järvelä weaves about Aino Aalto is, in a sense, the story of a victim of the patriarchy. In research literature, Aalto’s career and life appear in a more conciliatory light. To me, it seems likely that, in addition to her talent and determination, a woman who was born as a railwayman’s daughter and went on to achieve an international career in design would have also received a great deal of support from both her husband and the structures of society.
But while Aino Aalto, as a historical figure, does not fit the bill of a victim, she also does not quite seem to fit the description of a hero, either. It is as if she positively resists being labelled a hero. She wanted to stay in the background! It was completely fine with her to run the office and let Alvar be the public face of the firm!
She was just getting on with her work and her life.
It is clear that Aino Aalto’s life was not as exciting as Alvar’s.
It is also clear that collaboration is at the very core of an architect’s craft.
Aino Aalto seems to be ill-suited for a starring role. She is not an uninhibited extrovert, she does not long for the spotlight, she does not dazzle and shine. The way in which she refuses the mantle of an idol that I keep trying to place on her shoulders is starting to feel downright passive-aggressive. She could at least try to wear it!
Historical stories do not seem to want to pass for modern ones. You always run into something awkward or inappropriate.
It feels as if a story in and of itself is not a very apt concept for examining anyone’s life. Or, indeed, architecture.
Maria Säkö’s afterword for E. L. Karhu’s play Eriopis deals with the problematics of storytelling. Karhu’s play is based on the ancient Greek tragedy of Medea, in which Medea, a woman abandoned by her husband and community, kills her own children. Several variations of Medea’s story have been written over the years, but Karhu focuses on Eriopis, Medea’s surviving daughter and an insignificant side character in the original story. Karhu’s Eriopis behaves incoherently. She says one thing, only to later contradict herself, often refusing to say anything at all. Eriopis does not fit the mould of a hero, neither does she come across as a sympathetic victim. She is simply an ordinary, annoyingly conflicted human being not really cut out to be a character in a story.
Kind of like Aino Aalto.
Säkö writes that a storyteller may be struck with an irresistible urge to force a character into a specific role defined by the norms of the canon, but, in the case of Eriopis, it is precisely her unsuitability for a leading role that is so pivotal. I am going to apply Säkö’s thoughts quite liberally and make the interpretation that the most obvious roles on offer for Aino Aalto in the stories about her are those of a hero architect, workhorse, loving wife and victim of a male-centred society.
According to Säkö, however, what is essential is not the story but the recognition of another voice. She applauds Karhu’s play for creating a space that allows for a multitude of voices, even those that have previously been silenced, instead of simply focusing on dismantling an existing story. Säkö writes that the most important thing is to be aware that a person boxed into a given role will, in fact, have their own free will that quietly starts to make itself known and their own personality that is free from external definitions. Visible expressions of free will do not place an individual into a predefined narrative, but rather force the audience to face a different voice that sends cracks through the previously intact portrayal, without taking a stance against the story, as such.
I conclude with a few suggestions for images to serve as starting points for future Aino Aalto stories; as quietly emerging expressions of free will that one is only able to glimpse here and there.
Aino Marsio: wide eyes, rosebud mouth and tousled hair; lacy collar with a pretty bow, a student’s white cap on her head and a flower wilting against her chest, matriculation photo.
Aino Marsio: sitting legs crossed in a gondola, wide shoelaces tied in a bow over the ankle and a frayed hat on her head, with a friend from university and, although not visible in the photograph, a brand-new diploma in her pocket; the Grand Tour.
Aino Marsio (or Aalto?) in a silky one-piece (or pyjamas?) on a flower-patterned sofa in a room with rose-patterned wallpaper; right ankle casually over left knee, a turban (or sleep mask?) wrapped around her head like a bandage, a vision of radiant happiness with a bouquet of light-coloured roses in her hands, a ring on her finger.
Aino Aalto, lying on a lounge chair for patients on the solarium terrace of the Paimio Sanatorium, perhaps demonstrating the use of the deck; again, wearing a turban, and a beautiful dark dress that I wish I could get for myself. ↙
Architect SAFA. Building designer by day and prose writer by night.
Aalto-Alanen, Heikki: Rakastan sinussa ihmistä. Aino ja Alvar Aallon tarina. Otava 2021.
Järvelä, Jari: Aino A. Tammi 2021.
Kinnunen, Ulla (ed.): Aino Aalto. Alvar Aalto Museum 2004.
Suominen-Kokkonen, Renja: The Fringe of a Profession. Women as Architects in Finland from the 1890s to the 1950s. Suomen muinaismuistoyhdistyksen aikakauskirja 98 1992.
Suutari, Virpi: Aalto [document]. Euphoria Film 2020.
Säkö, Maria: ”Jälkisanat. Älä anna tarinaa, luo yhteinen tila äänille”. In E. L. Karhu: Eriopis. Medeian selviytyjätytär kertoo kaiken. Ntamo 2021.
Tyvelä, Hanna: ”Virpi Suutarin elokuva tulkitsee Aalto-myyttiä uudistavasti”. 16.10.2020. Suomen avantgarden ja modernismin seura FAM.