Living in a building designed by Alvar Aalto is both unparalleled and uncomfortable. I have just moved out of Viitatorni (the “skyscraper” he finally got built in Jyväskylä after years of trying) into Säynätsalo Town Hall, into Säynätsalo Town Hall, closer to the ground. Space can be tight inside both buildings – the bathrooms are what an estate agent would call “compact.” But the exteriors look glorious, nestled in nature between soaring pines. Particularly in my old flat, the views are to die for. There and here, I have been drinking out of glasses that resemble the ripples when you drop a pebble into a calm lake.
Aino Marsio-Aalto designed those glasses. And a lot of the buildings that have her husband’s name on; she also corrected his errors and made the spaces work. Aino A! by Jari Järvela is biofiction, but he shows what she has done for Finnish design over more than half a century.
The story starts in the 1920s, when Aino and two friends graduate as architects in Helsinki. To see all the buildings they’ve studied, they make a grand tour of Italy. This is a golden time for newly-independent Finland, and perhaps for Finnish women. The trio follow in the footsteps of Wivi Lönn, Finland’s first independent woman architect, who is having a bit of a moment. (Three books out now – Valosta rakentuvat huoneet, Wivi Lönn – muistojen albumi, and Wivi & Hanna, candidate for the Finlandia nonfiction prize 2021.)
It ends in the 1940s; Aino keeps Artek going through the Second World War, but her own cancer brings her to a halt. A 1944 edition of the Finnish architecture journal sums up her public position in the shadow of her husband. The half-centenary of her career merits only a few lines, mentioning her “dabbling” in textiles and glass design. Her husband’s visit to Nazi Germany with a handful of other architects gets a multipage spread.
Alvar comes across as exasperating to live and work with. He seems to be all talk, taxis and telegrams. He’s skilled at spinning a story about his architecture (he even writes his own newspaper interviews) but cannot stick to budgets or plans. Aino had actually worked as a mason and a carpenter, in summer jobs as a student. She comes across here as that ideal Finnish woman – the one who makes things happen. Kristian London has translated some of Jari Järvelä’s other books, and a little bird told me about an English translation of Aino A! You heard it here first.