As part of ‘The Persistence of Questioning. Critical reflections for the future: “What is architecture?”, Mechthild Stuhlmacher asks what makes Alvar Aalto’s buildings from the 1950s so pleasant to live in. Rigour, continuity and appropriation give architects the power to spin ordinary things into gold. She argues that now is the right time to reflect on architecture as a discipline, not as a look backwards but forwards, in which we see architecture as an art, that serves the purpose of empowering everybody to appropriate a piece of the world.
Guidance by Aalto
I’m spending a few days in a Berlin apartment designed by Alvar Aalto. Temporary accommodation courtesy of a hospitable friend. It’s an uncluttered apartment in a large block that contains units of various sizes, probably originally intended for smaller families. Aalto, an architecture hero from the 1950s, designed the perfect place for a resident who today travels a lot and uses the apartment as a home base and film studio, a lifestyle that Aalto no doubt didn’t envisage at the time. It’s also a perfect place for the various neighbours: young families, singles, couples, seniors, young people. What exactly makes it so pleasant here? The care given to ordinary things: the entrance to the building feels naturally inviting, for visitors with or without luggage or bikes. At the apartment you enter a spacious hall, with passageways leading to both the kitchen and the versatile living space, described at the time as an Allraum. A spacious loggia – perfectly positioned between dining area, sleeping area and living area (now workspace) – feels like the centre of the house and draws light deep inside. That creates a careful yet unforced differentiation between activities such as cooking, dining, relaxing and working. Diagonal views and sight lines and transparent partitions make the space feel larger than it actually is and ensure connections between all interior spaces and the surrounding landscape. The windows around the loggia capture the changing sunlight, creating variety and life. The effect is enhanced by the distinctive open corners that articulate the whole building inside and outside. Simple planks fixed on top of the radiators form heated benches.
Built in 1957 in the Hansaviertel district, the celebrated and still modern-looking apartment building boasts two spacious and shared entrance halls, one at the level of the bike shed and the main entrance one level above. Located beside the main entrance is a wonderful covered outdoor terrace, a sort of ‘columned hall’ where neighbours meet one another even on cold autumn days. And though that might not happen every single Friday evening, the welcoming generosity exuded by the space is nonetheless of immense value. From here, one can access the easy-to-ascend and uncluttered staircases, flooded with daylight and with a splendid corner bench on top of the radiator. The dimensions of all spaces inside and outside are modest, the materials sober. Yet owing to the proportions and spatial relationships, Aalto overcomes the banality, monotony and oppressiveness exuded by comparable blocks of flats from roughly the same period. It is his generosity, his focus on how space is used and the attention he gives to daily movement patterns and needs that have sustained the life in these apartments for so long, far longer than in comparable apartments created with less skill and attention. Genuinely good architects have the power to spin ordinary things into gold; to elevate everyday places into valuable living environments; to truly achieve sustainability.
Rigour, continuity, appropriation
Good architecture helps us to appropriate the world. That, to me, is the ultimate aim of every architecture project – big, small, transformation, new, public, collective or private, urban or interior. Architecture provides guidance, protection, impetus, dignity. A good building in the city is like a corner bench in a room, a wainscot, a rug, a podium to sit or stand on, something that helps us find our place, alone or in the company of others, and a place to call our own. ‘Inhabitability or ‘bewoonbaarheid’ is a selection criterion in many Belgian competitions. What that means is that a building must respond to the practical needs of its occupants; it must be useful, not just functional; it must express dignity and beauty, and be more than an image.
What do you need to create an architecture of appropriation, apart from the unrivalled talent of Alvar Aalto? I often like to refer to three concepts that I believe are essential for the type of architecture we want to create with our office. They are ‘rigour’, ‘continuity’ and ‘appropriation’, or the ability to inhabit architecture.
The first two terms are taken from the titles of issues of the magazine 9H, published in 1989 and 1995. They were hugely inspiring themed compilations of familiar and unknown projects, texts and images. These publications were genuine treasure troves, containing discoveries such as Hans Döllgast and Hans Tessenow, then completely unknown in the Netherlands; student work by the Norwegian architects Jensen and Brynhildsen, who designed a leprosy hospital in Lasur, India, with astonishing precision; and one of the first houses by a small yet promising office called Herzog de Meuron.
With ‘rigour’ I am referring to artistic and practical precision and mastery of the craft, the trained eye, sensory perception, sense of space. This blends harmoniously with the concept of continuity, which denotes the broad notion of cultural, spatial and historical contexts and the development of the concept of ‘building upon’ or weiterbauen.
The third concept, ‘appropriation’, does not feature as a title in 9H, but in my view it forms a logical and desirable extension. Appropriation can take many forms. It denotes the guidance provided by architecture, those elements that people want to embrace in making spaces, buildings or neighbourhoods their own. It is about interest in people, about generosity and appropriateness. And about looking at the profession from different perspectives. As an architect you are present and absent at the same time. You ensure that not only the residents and other users but also the materials, the light, the texture, the rhythm and certainly also the plants outside achieve full potential. You ensure that residents, visitors and all other users feel at home, unimpeded by the architect’s wilfulness. You design very consciously and precisely, but in your decisions you consider the undesigned, the existing, the changeable, the natural, and all predicted and unpredicted later additions and disruptions. In landscape design they call that ‘borrowed scenery’, by which the surrounding landscape becomes part of the design. This attitude should not be confused with modesty. Instead, it concerns the ability to observe and the empathy needed to draw conclusions from what has been observed. To achieve that you need to display care, an interest in people and nature, in precision and craftsmanship. And if there is craftsmanship, then architecture has the potential to both serve people and be poetic.
Appropriation: the designed and undesigned
A good example of an appropriated space in our work is the enclosed garden of the Parkhof residential care facility in Machelen (Belgium). A wide gallery encircles a large garden designed as an ‘artwork’ in collaboration with the artist Rudy Luijters and garden and landscape architect Arne Deruyter. Thanks to the many volunteer gardeners, it can assume different guises all the time. There are bird’s nests, chickens, wooden play equipment, an ancient stone water tank found somewhere, unorthodox vegetation, a pétanque court, strawberry bushes and an old sweet chestnut. The walkway has the character of a cloister, and the garden feels like an appropriated outdoor room with the gallery as its wainscot. Here you can take shelter from the rain or sun. The gallery literally offers guidance, for a daily stroll, to observe guests, residents, animals and plants. The garden complements the architecture, provides relief and compensation. The undesigned stands alongside the designed; the spontaneous opposite the specific; the changeable and temporary opposite the permanent.
In the Predikheren, the city library in Mechelen for which we restored the ruins of a baroque monastery after years standing empty, these guiding elements include, among many other things, timber panelling that turns up throughout the building in various guises – as wainscot, bench, worktable, closet and rostrum. The panelling makes the walls warm and agreeable to the touch, gives the spaces a pleasant acoustic quality, provides a place for electricity and light and, above all, mediates between the building and the people who want to use it. As a result, the building shows all its facets and reveals all its irregularities and scars. Here, too, it is about the relationship between that which is designed and what already existed. The colourful ruin is framed, placed on a pedestal, prepared for appropriation, and only then can it come to life.
These examples constitute an appeal for an architecture that reflects on its core tasks. In the words of Andreas Hild, architecture belongs to the world of buildings and not to the world of things or objects. Architecture facilitates, frames and supports, and it can therefore only be understood through its relationship with the other. Objects, however, stand alone. Good buildings line streets and squares, create settings for people and encounters, provide dignity from within. Most of all, good buildings can be experienced at full scale. As architects, we do not build objects but spaces; we position benches, literally and figuratively. As architects, we do not stand on the stage; we build the stage that others must appropriate.
Innovation and craftsmanship
“To all the professors who belong to a different generation of ours: this world moves so fast! Put pride, your stupid studies of past things, your tastes, your beliefs aside! The mistakes of the past are leading us to destruction! (…) People used to tell us to look to the past to avoid the same mistakes in the future, but I say: let’s look to the future, to avoid the mistakes of the past!” (source: archicage.com)
This citation is representative of the voice of a young generation of architects at a time that many see as a turning point. It is normal and worthwhile for each new generation to think that it can, and must, do things better and differently to the previous one. Even so, I think that now is precisely the right time to reflect on architecture as a discipline. I see this not as a look backwards but forwards. The Hansaviertel district in Berlin, where Aalto’s residential building is located, was created within the framework of the Interbau ’57 building exhibition and, at the time, was the ultimate model for future building. Stacked apartments set in green surroundings with contemporary materials and compact floor plans were promoted as an optimistic alternative to the reconstruction of the bombed city. A differentiated, natural landscape design supported an urban plan that broke with pre-war traditions. Aalto’s building embraces the surrounding landscape. In contrast to the numerous blocks of flats from the decades that followed, which were built according to comparable premises, Aalto’s building is still highly valued. More than anybody else, he proved capable of combining the radically innovative agenda of the time with attention for appropriation.
I would like it if we, like Aalto, could connect a contemporary innovative agenda to craftsmanship and appropriation. That we could start to see architecture once again as building, and that we ask ourselves what buildings must do – and not do –and what distinguishes them from objects. I am convinced that the fundamental transition into a genuinely sustainable, future-proof architecture, which we now face, calls for more than the substitution of concrete with wood or hemp, and the construction of jaw-dropping objects. Let us once again look at buildings and our role as designers of them. Let us ask ourselves why there are buildings that remain good for fifty years or longer, and what makes us want to continue living in these buildings. Let us once again see architecture as an art that concerns the making of good spaces and living environments, and let us learn to value it again as both an innovative yet slow discipline that serves the purpose of empowering everybody to appropriate a piece of the world.