arena | Aalto and the Italians

In Italy there are two buildings designed by Alvar Aalto, the Finnish Pavilion in the Venice Biennale park and the Riola Church.


Architect Alvar Aalto first visited Italy on his honeymoon with Aino Marsio-Aalto in 1924. The country made a huge impression on him. “For me, the ‘Rising Town’ has become like a religion, madness, call it what you will,” he wrote, describing his infatuation with the hillside towns of Tuscany. After marrying Elissa Mäkiniemi in the early 1950s, Aalto visited Italy increasingly often, and at times, he would run his office and participate in the design process by telephone from Lido. It has been said that he even called to Finland from Venice only to ask what time it was.

Italian inspiration was already reflected in Aalto’s work in the 1920s. Villa Väinölä (1926) designed for his brother was an interpretation of a Roman atrium house. The facade layout of the Jyväskylä People’s Hall (1924) bears resemblance to the Venetian Palazzo Ducale, and the semi-circular, decorated wall of the foyer imitates the Rucellai chapel and tomb designed by Leon Battista Alberti in Florence. Aalto’s entry in the Vyborg library competition (1927) also cherished the heritage of ancient Rome, but soon after that, Aalto took a sharp turn towards Modernism. Nevertheless, the Italian influence was still present in his work, albeit not as direct reflections but at a general level in the form of architectural synthesis, atriums, amphitheatres and campaniles, spaces with cosy dimensions and, of course, the use of Carrara marble.

Aalto gained recognition in Italy in 1936, when the Milan triennale showcased his bent wood furniture. Today, Aalto furniture, as well as glass products designed by Alvar and Aino Aalto, can be found in many Italian homes and offices. According to Marco Pretelli, Professor of Architecture from the University of Bologna, Aalto is well known in Italy as a designer, and it is fair to state that Aalto’s furniture has paved the road for Scandinavian design in Italy – even for Ikea.


It started in Venice...

Aalto wanted to build something in this country that was such a great source of inspiration for him, as it was for many others, too. He designed a couple of dozen buildings to be built in Italy. The first design was for a private house for artist Roberto Sambonet in Malpensa, near Milan (1955). In 1966, Aalto drew a monumental design for the Siena Culture Hall to be built in the middle of an ancient bastion fortress, and a plan featuring a bold townscape with curved buildings for the residential area of Patrizia for 11,000 inhabitants near Pavia. Villa Erica in Turin (1969) would have continued his track record of private houses such as Villa Mairea (1939) and Maison Carré (1959). However, despite his good local contacts and friends, Aalto was unable to have his Italian projects realised, apart from two buildings.

The first building designed by Aalto that was built in Italy was the Finnish pavilion in the Venice biennale park (1956). This was largely thanks to Maire Gullichsen’s contacts and persistence. The pavilion was assembled from wooden elements transported from Finland, and the requirements stated that it was to be suitable for dismounting and re-assembling and utilise indirect natural light. Neither of these architectural prerequisites was met: the pavilion was not dismountable, and skylight was not suitable for presenting artwork.


...and ended in Riola

One of Aalto’s most significant accomplishments in Italy was the exhibition held in Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, in November 1965. This was the most extensive showcase of Aalto’s work so far. The opening speech drew a parallel between Aalto and St. Francis of Assisi – a man who can master the forces of nature as well as wild animals.

The Riola parish church project started approximately at the same time with the Florence exhibition. Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro, an influential contributor to the liturgical reform of the Roman Catholic church, had already ordered church designs for the Bologna diocese from Le Corbusier and Kenzo Tange. In January 1966, Lercaro invited Alvar and Elissa Aalto to the small village of Riola di Vergato with one thousand inhabitants south-west of Bologna. Lercaro wanted Aalto to design a parish building in this village by the Apennines and river Reno.

Architecturally, the Riola church – Santa Maria Assunta di Riola – is related to the churches of Vuoksenniska in Imatra (1958), Seinäjoki (1959) and Lahti (1978), but far from the Italian church traditions. It was the first church building in which the reformed Roman Catholic liturgy was given expression in architectural terms. The reform strived to emphasise the close relationship between the altar, baptistery and the organ and choir loft, as well as the importance of the Holy Communion – which is why there are no page chapels in the Riola church – and to limit the architectural and interior design of churches to the essential. Modern architecture was an excellent channel to implement these goals. A further interesting point is the fact that the church was built almost entirely of pre-cast elements; only the gables were built on-site. The facades are clad with local, ivory-toned sandstone and the asymmetric roof features “felt coated with copper foil”.

Aalto never lived to see the completion of his second building in Italy. The basic plan for the church and the related parish premises was approved in the summer of 1966, but the construction project was not confirmed until the autumn of 1975, only six months before the death of Alvar Aalto. The project was completed under the management of Elissa Aalto and Vezio Nava, an Italian architect who worked for Aalto’s office. The church was completed in 1978, but the campanile, which was an essential element in the composition, and the presbytery were only finished in the 1990s. Piazza Alvar Aalto in front of the church, designed by Nava, was paved last year.


What is left

These two relatively unrecognised buildings – the 100 m2 pavilion and the large church complex – may not constitute a massive “heritage of Aalto” in Italy. However, as works of the maestro, they do arouse discussion and respect. The modest wooden pavilion in Venice, which Göran Schildt called a “prank”, was originally meant to be a temporary construction, but it stayed in the park permanently and became a serious restoration site and a protected building. The latest restoration (2012) was planned by the Italian architect Gianni Talamini. After the numerous, extensive repairs and restorations, the only parts of the pavilion still containing original materials are the roof structures and inner boarding. The biggest threat to the pavilion is the warm and damp Venetian climate; the building requires constant monitoring and maintenance.

The Riola church is about to reach a stage in which minor repairs are no longer enough; the church needs thorough restoration. It has been said that the vicar is already gathering funds for the renovation. Vezio Nava hopes that the future restoration project would make notice of the careless implementation of certain spaces and details in the complex, and changing these parts to comply with the original plan could be considered.

Authenticity and the recognition and interpretation of Aalto’s intentions play a key role in the Riola parish church restoration project. But, on the other hand, the Italians have even managed to preserve the Pantheon nearly intact, so why worry. The church may actually be in better hands in Italy than it would be in Finland, because in Italy, Aalto is seen as a master, not just a brand.

Näköislehti: Site Logic