Saturday, December 26, 2009

Architectural Monsteras


Lazing in the bed this morning my eyes turned to the 'Swiss Cheese Plant' 
(Monstera deliciosa) in the corner. Nothing new about this, since I've been 
marvelling how it's been sprouting these wonderful new leaves for the last few 
weeks. The thing is I picked this particular plant up (well, grabbed, very quickly, 
although they are plentiful in Sydney, in gardens and wild) while on a walk with 
the boys about a year ago, and it's taken its time establishing itself amongst 
these Alvar Aalto pieces of furniture. And that's exactly the direction my thoughts 
wandered towards. I can remember the Monstera plants at the foyer of Helsinki's 
Finlandia Hall - lining the large windows of this space designed by one of the 
masters of modern architecture, Alvar Aalto. Hmm, we really need to put the 
plant in a nicer pot!

I've never visited it, but Noormarkku's Villa Mairea in Finland (the most famous 
Alvar Aalto residential house design) is another place I associate Monsteras and 
Aalto with: They are climbing up the famous bamboo style staircase, with the 
aerial roots hanging out freely:

I don't know how much the architects have a say on the design of the interiors of 
their creations (although Aalto was famous for having a holistic approach to his 
works, sometimes designing everything from door handles to lamps to furniture 
for special consignments), so the use of Monsteras in interiors may be just a 
fashion of the time, or a preference of the occupant of the house. Having said 
that, they do have an architectural quality suited for large open spaces.

Note: Doing further research I found a picture of one of Aalto's first sketches for 
the Villa Mairea staircase, which still had the supports in real bamboo wood, and 
more importantly, vines climbing on them. They're not Monsteras, so maybe the 
commissioner of the house, Aalto's friends Maire and Harry Gullichsen, had the 
final say:

Here's how the architect/designer couple Charles and Ray Eames used the plant 
in their own home, the Eames house, in Los Angeles:

And here's an image of an interior of a Frank Lloyd Wright house, the Price 
Tower in Oklahoma City. In this case I would guess the plant is a later 
introduction to the space, although the image is from a restoration project where 
they tried to bring back the building's interiors and furnishings, including textiles 
and fabrics from 1956.

The general plan of the Villa Mairea is reminiscent of the guitars painted by the Cubists, with the 
sauna complex forming the fingerboard and the swimming pool the sound hole. At the corner of 
the main building's kitchen wing, crossing the lower end of the sauna area, are four laboriously 
cast, rounded beams which seem to have no structural or technical justification. Asked about their 
significance, Paul Bernoulli, Aalto's assistant architect in charge of the Villa Mairea building site, 
replied with a laugh: "They're part of Alvar's game." I believe that it is plausible to take the beams 
as the guitar strings in Aalto's collage, and that this was part of the game Aalto played with his 
Cubist friends Georges Braque and Fernand Léger. My interpretation is of course purely 
speculative, and its main purpose is to stress the way Aalto's work fitted in with the heritage of 
modern art while expressing his Finnish cultural background."

Alvar Aalto: Points of Contact
Alvar Aalto Museum 1994

Exhibition of Aalto furniture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York , 1938.

Georges Braque
Aria de Bach, 1913
Private collection
Height: 61.91 cm (24.38 in.), Width: 46.04 cm (18.13 in.)

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