Book Review: Alvar Aalto and the Future of Architecture – Guest Critic George Michelin 26.01.2024 – Posted in: Book Thoughts

Books are meaningless without readers. This blog post continues our book review series about interesting architecture titles viewed through a lens of a critical reader. Our guest critic George Michelin reviews Alvar Aalto and the Future of Architecture by Robert Cody and Angela Amoia and published by Routledge in 2023.

Text by George Michelin (b. 1990) who is a graduate of the Oxford Brookes School of Architecture and the Aalto University School of Arts, Design and Architecture. He is a Helsinki based designer and architect with an interest in understanding the interplay between creative theory and practice, as explored by his master’s thesis Towards a Culturally Durable Ultraviolet Architecture which investigated the notion of cultural sustainability in architecture. The thesis was awarded with the Oskari Vilamo Fund prize in November 2023.

Published in 2023, Alvar Aalto and the Future of Architecture is the most recent publication which seeks to provide an academic reading of the works of Alvar Aalto, highlighting his continued relevance to contemporary architectural discourse. The book is coauthored by Robert Cody and Angela Amoia, partners of Amoia Cody Architects based in New York. Both authors have taught at the New York Institute of Technology, with Cody having stood as the former associate-Dean.

Can architecture be made more responsive to its future?

The authors introduce the premise of their book by asking “Can architecture be made more responsive to its future?” Towards answering this question, as practising architects and educators, the authors take a commendably socially responsible and educational tone throughout, stating:

“Our motive is to expose and enhance the values of integrating history, theory, science, and technology in design…we negotiate countless conditions to connect ideas with physical reality. We engage research and inquire about the past to move forward through present. We explore the nature of materiality and its agency in making buildings equitable and responsible. Finally we develop comprehensive strategies that incorporate optimal uses of materials, fabrication options, and conditioning systems that are efficient and advance the health and well-being of the people who occupy buildings.”

Alvar Aalto and the Future of Architecture

With respects to the clearly future orientated focus of the book and the role played by Aalto, the authors refer to the architect as taking the role of either a mentor or guide, explaining that already in the 20th Century “Aalto researched planning and materials, incorporated data through experimentation, developed novel fabrication techniques, and provided intellectual discourse on the future through his writings and speeches. He identified the differences between social, technical, and behavioural types of progress. In addition, his practice and experimental methodology mirror contemporary architectural thinking and working models.” It is the author’s ambition that “…by reviewing architecture, not for its appearance but for its affect, we realise a fundamental analysis of Aalto that remains critically relevant today.”

Image showing the book Alvar Aalto and the Future of Architecture
Cover of Robert Cody’s and Angela Amoia’s book Alvar Aalto and the Future of Architecture, Routledge 2023.

The book does so by means of 5 chapters, presented as essays. Each chapter seeks to explore the premise of the book by means of five “meme” relationships, or, the 5 “T’s”; Topology (Design in light of place), Typology (Envelopments of space), Tectonics (Elements and atmospheres), Technic (Flexibility and the New Standard) and Thermodynamic (Health and Instruments of Sensation).

There exists several publications in which authors have sought to critically review the works of Aalto, many of which fall short owing to either a too limited or too broad a lens of enquiry. By limiting the books scope to the five chapters, the authors are able to deliver a concise and comprehendible reading of Aalto’s working methodology in parallel to an analysis of his buildings and designs.

Towards a socially responsible future for architects

Whilst the book is not extensive, it’s ambitions remain broad. In addition to educating the reader about the works of Alvar Aalto, it also provides a schooling in the fundamentals of creating architecture, curated towards addressing key societal issues such as the environmental crisis. There is a clear moral position and understanding of the responsibilities of architects to take action within this context by the authors, and although at times the common thread which intends to connect the multifaceted elements of the book may seem tenuous, it stands as one of the book’s most meritable attributes.

Another achievement of the book would be the author’s well balanced awareness towards many of the issues discussed. One example would be an understanding regarding the use of building certifications in achieving more sustainable buildings. The authors agree that such practices can lead to progressive outcomes, though also admit that there is the potential for greenwashing should architects non-critically follow such artificial standards and checklists. Rather, they advocate for an awareness towards design methods themselves, referencing Aalto’s comments that “The victory of formulas was not to be so dangerous, if it were not the kind of life boy, which every architect wants to use to achieve good results.”

A sourcebook for emerging practices of our time

One of the principle means the authors hope to address such issues is by incorporating advances in technologies available to architects in contemporary and future practice. The book provides a fairly extensive review of such technologies, discussing methods of digital fabrication, BIM modelling, computer simulations and point cloud analysis, amongst many others. The authors also speculate to future innovations and how this might shape building-user interactions, making the important distinction that in terms of experiencing architecture “…computational design frameworks can install more accurate parameters to make quantitive adjustments around our qualitative design decisions…”.

Besides the use of Aalto as a common reference, the authors also comment on the works of a number of other architects. Many of the works included are also of more recent completion by well known offices, which the authors make use to present realised case studies exemplifying the proposed technologies or methodologies discussed. In what is otherwise a richly intellectual book, it is helpful to have such examples to illustrate their points in practice.

As one of the main purposes of the book, it succeeds in enabling the reader to gain thorough appreciation regarding emerging architectural practices, however, one of the drawbacks in doing so is the nature in which such technologies are continually advancing at a rapid pace. Whilst this book is full of much wisdom and offers a very valid contribution to present architectural discourse, for the architect or student wanting to learn more about the issues it addresses, this is a book which needs to be read now to enjoy its full potential.

Text by George Michelin. Published by Bookmarchitecture Oy by permission of the author.

The feature image in this blog post is a close-up of the upholstered, black leather-covered chairs and black desktops in the Councelours’ Chamber in the Säynätsalo Town Hall designed by Alvar Aalto in 1949–52. Photo by Bookmarchitect.

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