Responsive Cohesion in the Form Language of the Aalto Ateliers

Antony Radford

Working paper
Alvar Aalto Researchers Network 2012


The paper describes a study of the Aalto form language in relation to the concept of Responsive Cohesion. It has several components.

  • A study of recurrent form-patterns in the design work of the various offices led by Alvar Aalto. The study crosses boundaries of design fields (art, glass, furniture, architecture, urban design and planning) and time, and makes no distinction between realised and unrealised designs, or between exploratory studies and final designs. It includes a sampling of drawings in the Aalto archives, irrespective of whether they were drawn by Alvar, Aino or Elissa Aalto or staff. The form-patterns are taken 'as they are'; the research does not seek to explain their origins, the reasons for their selection or their historical development, although all of these issues are interesting. My paper with Dr Tarkko Oksala, 'Alvar Aalto and the Expression of Discontinuity' (The Journal of Architecture 2007, 12 (3): 257-280) reports an earlier aspect of this research, including a discussion of Aalto's form-patterns and their interpretation.
  • An examination of the way form-patterns are combined and connected, and how elements are related to their physical and functional contexts and possible interpretation. This examination is based on the concept of responsive cohesion as set out by philosopher Warwick Fox in A Theory of General Ethics (2007, Cambridge MA: MIT Press). In design, there are links (in different ways) between this concept and Peter Smith's description of 'harmony', Christopher Alexander's 'quality without a name' and Stanford Anderson's (quoting Aalto's own appreciation of the Karelian farmhouse) 'methodical accommodation to circumstance.' I have written on relations between responsive cohesion and architecture in 'Responsive Cohesion as the Foundational Value in Architecture' (The Journal of Architecture, 2009, 14(4): 511-532) and on urban design in 'Ethics, Urban Design and Responsive Cohesion' (Building Research and Information 2010, 38(5): 379-389).
  • A discussion of the relevance of these form-patterns to twenty-first century questions, ranging from the specific (the alteration and adaptation of Aalto's buildings, and the addition of Aalto-like products to the ranges produced by glassware and other product manufacturers) to the general (qualities in Aalto's work that might usefully inform contemporary physical and digital design).

There is already a large body of research into, and publications on, Aalto's work. The reasons for adding more are both principled and practical: the lasting attraction of his work as evidence of the contemporary recognition of its value, the sheer number of designs that offers a productive field for testing ideas from design theory, and the remarkable extent and accessibility of the Aalto archives. The overriding reason is simply my own attraction to the work and pleasure in its study.


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Antony Radford
Emeritus Professor of Architecture

School of Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Urban Design The University of Adelaide, Australia

Responsive Cohesion in the Form Language of the Aalto Ateliers