Aalto, his row houses and their inhabitants

Rainier Hoddé

Working paper
Alvar Aalto Researchers Network 2012


Aalto's work is unique within 20th century architecture as it seems to have a double program. The first one is a quest for fully modern aesthetic forms, as acknowledged by both critics and contemporary colleagues, and in which R. Venturi (1966) will see an antidote to the pure modernist movement. But the second one is even more central to his work: it is a devotion to the common uses which makes his architecture welcoming, comfortable and self-evident, so far from the often uninhabitable architecture of his time. Aalto mixed so voluptas and necessitas (Alberti [1452]) and took the leadership of The other Tradition of modern architecture (C. St. John Wilson, 1995), redefining a modern way of design and the relationship of its result with the "little man". The design project becomes again a free adventure that doesn't have to abide by a fixed style even less by some aesthetic dictatorship (Aalto, 1957). The architect doesn't built for an abstract man, but on the contrary built bridges between moderns forms, the needs for functionality, and symbolism. This may come as an obstacle to the diffusion of Aalto's work, as the "would-be archistars" value simplification over a work of design manoriented which doesn't care for a stylistic orthodoxy.

The view I propose on Aalto's row houses meets an new interest in France for this type of housing, as a compromise between detached houses and housing projects. This typology being more common in northern Europeans countries. I have then decided to look closely at the large body of Aalto's row houses (some not well known, or almost unknown), hopping to learn what they might teach us about this housing type. Aalto, for instance, invent the fan row house among others forms, which are very interesting as they respond to an aesthetic as well as functional need. Built from 1930-32 to 1963-65, I have found that theses small houses incorporate many of the schemes of Aalto's more ambitious and well-known projects of his works. This will be the first aspect of my lecture.

But I have also work through interviews with the inhabitants of these houses, pointing out the qualities they enjoy in their everyday life as well as the problems they encounter, working on my long time theoretical interest for the relationship between design and reception in architecture (Hoddé, 2010). What do they think of Aalto's fan design, or of the waves shape roof of their houses, or of the relationship between terraces and roof, and even of some technical or architectural schemes in interior design? This would be the second aspect of my lecture: what spotlight they can give us on Aalto's inventions and creativity.

By the convergence of the academic view and the familiar view on a body of Aalto's work quite unknown or neglected, we can put to light what these houses have to tell to Aalto'specialist but also to the future builders of row houses. 

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Rainier Hoddé

Ecole nationale supérieure d'architecture de Lyon et de Paris la Villette, France

Aalto, his row houses and their inhabitants