An Agency of Endless Play: Alvar Aalto & Frederick Kiesler

Harry Charrington

Working paper
Alvar Aalto Researchers Network 2012


Recent coverage of Alvar Aalto has offered more and more detail of individual projects and his biography, as well as more and more suggestive interpretations. Yet, contrastingly, his agency has been neglected, reinforcing the social mythology of the architect as heroic genius – whose work we may admire, but whose behaviour we cannot emulate.

This paper presents a developing body of research examining Aaltoʼs agency: his concern and artistry in creating an environment in which socially beneficial patterns of behaviour are either encouraged to happen, or are represented, and thereby legitimized and encouraged. The research is predicated on a three-fold structure that examines its location, the impulses that informed it, and the processes he employed:

Where – the circumstances that frame Aalto's agency, and his capacity and genius for contingency. In particular placing Aalto back in his historical and political context, not just the post-war historiography of the Finnish Second Republic.

Who – the varied friends and acquaintances he was influenced by, as well as those he collaborated with. Finnish figures have often been overlooked because of their perceived international obscurity (for instance Sigurd Frosterus and Yrjö Hirn); while abroad celebrated figures are often mentioned as ciphers denoting Aaltoʼs cultivated and well-connected personage, rather than as key artistic partners (for instance Fernand Léger, László Moholy-Nagy and Ernesto Rogers).

How – Aalto developed a critical practice rooted in the freedoms and values of play, and he oft-stated his belief in the wider value of art and the artist. The research identifies three dimensions to this practice. Firstly, the mediations of distant sources, in particular those of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schillerʼs theory of the Spieltrieb (play-drive), as well as theorists such as Alois Riegl and Gottfried Semper. Secondly, the intimate working associations with Otto Korhonen, Moholy-Nagy and Yrjö Hirn and others in developing spatial and material play. Thirdly, his techniques of sketching, painting, drawing and making, as well as the iterative habits, skill and judgements of the Aalto atelier, in particular his partners Aino and Elissa Aalto.

By shedding light on these three areas of study and their interaction, the research aims to open up an understanding of Aaltoʼs synthesis, and makes his achievements available to all. In doing this it draws on personal experience of the Aalto atelier, and connections with its members, extensive knowledge of Finland, as well as archives, drawings and photographs and conversations with Finnish scholars.

By example, this paper examines Aaltoʼs agency in a single one instance: his relationship with Frederick Kiesler (1890–1965) in New York in the 1930s. Kieslerʼs conception of ʻcorrealismʼ in which interacting concepts, people, objects and space inform each other and evolve into constantly improving types would greatly influence Aaltoʼs concept of ʻelastic standardizationʼ, while his structuring of space as a modulated continuum, as with his later Endless House (1950–65), is strikingly close to many of Aaltoʼs later works, including the Seinäjoki Library (1960–65) which, with regard to the conferenceʼs location, the paper will discuss.


Kaarlo Leppänen and others, model room (garage), Tiilimäki Studio, 1960s (Vezio Nava).

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Harry Charrington
Phd (LSE), DipArch (Cantab), FHEA

Department of Architecture & Civil Engineering, University of Bath, United Kingdom

An Agency of Endless Play: Alvar Aalto & Frederick Kiesler