Could-Have-Been Modernism: Aalto in Brooklyn

After a fire damaged a small Sunset Park church in 1947, the congregation asked Alvar Aalto to lead the redesign. The world-famous architect agreed, and then the drawings disappeared.

One of a pair of diazotypes, or whiteprints, that Alvar Aalto prepared for the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church in Brooklyn. Courtesy Kirk Gastinger

Of the over 500 projects designed by Studio Alvar Aalto, some 200 were carried out. The rest were left unrealized but documented, amounting to an immense corpus of could-have-been modernism. Yet there are a handful that occupy a ghostly presence in the architect’s portfolio, their documentation presumed lost to time.

Among the schemes condemned to obscurity is a facade that Aalto designed for a church in a Finnish enclave of Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood. Aalto’s biographer Göran Schildt dated the scheme to his “American years” but offered little else. In Aalto and America, the authoritative 2012 publication on Aalto’s relationship to the United States, the Brooklyn kirkko does not even warrant a footnote.

Details of the project finally surfaced in 2018, nearly seven decades after its inception, when the children of erstwhile Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church minister Rev. Bernhard Hillilä discovered a pair of diazotypes among his papers. The blueprints, published here for the first time, are unexpected additions to the cache of 200,000 original drawings stored in the Aalto archive.

The drawings were the products of a young pastor’s aplomb. In March 1947, a fire severely damaged the church located on 44th Street in Finntown, one of two large clusters of Finnish immigrants in New York City that went by that name (the other being in Harlem). Hillilä was a third-generation American of Finnish descent. Aware that Aalto was teaching at MIT, Hillilä wrote asking for help. Would the renowned architect come to the aid of this community of expat Finns?

Aino and Alvar Aalto first visited the United States in 1938, when their work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. The trip doubled as a site visit for their jointly designed Finnish Pavilion for the New York World’s Fair. Despite his poor command of English, Aalto slotted easily into the American architectural establishment. Before long, he was lecturing at Yale, New York University, and MoMA, and establishing correspondence with Frank Lloyd Wright and Richard Neutra, among other key figures.

In 1940, MIT invited Aalto to lecture and later appointed him visiting professor. Between 1945 and 1948, Aalto spent seven long stints directing a research unit, teaching studio, and lecturing at MIT. But his scholarly activity in Cambridge raised some eyebrows back home. Finland went through three wars between 1939 and 1945: the Winter War (1939–1940) and the Continuation War (1941–1944) against the Soviet Union, and the Lapland War (1944–1945) against Germany. To his fiercest critics, Aalto had abandoned war-torn Finland for the safe shores of America, but as he saw it, MIT offered the opportunity to serve his country through design, primarily by funding his research into standardization that promised to accelerate Finland’s reconstruction. This research, which built on methods of prefabricating timber construction that Aalto initiated in the 1930s, culminated in a speculative plan to house those most affected by war. As an experiment, Aalto’s “American Town in Finland” anticipated themes that would come to preoccupy planners in the immediate aftermath of World War II. More pragmatically, the project gave Aalto a glimpse into the American construction industry, whose lessons would shape the rest of his career.

Rather than fortify his faith in standardization, Aalto’s time at MIT pushed him to question its assumed prominence for postwar architecture. Scholars credit his MIT years as a brief but intense—and intensely meaningful—period that fueled his ambitions to “humanize” the techno-scientific disposition of mainstream modernism. According to studio lore, he encouraged students to defend their work along intuitive, instead of rationalist, lines. Take the advice he offered on fenestration: “Design the frame as if the girl you love is sitting in it.” His feedback to a student who had spent an entire semester optimizing a hospital design, from riser height to transom angle, in response to numerical data on convalescents’ habits was by turns bizarre and ironic. “You seem to have neglected one possibility after all,” he told the pupil. “How would the building and the young patients in it react if a lion jumped in through the window?”

Aalto appeared stumped by the church commission. “This matter is not quite simple,” the architect mused, with a hint of both frustration and intrigue.

An opportunity to translate the fruits of teaching and research into praxis arose in 1946, when MIT asked Aalto to design a major dormitory overlooking the Charles River. The supple plan of the resultant building, which eventually became known as the Baker House, reflected Aalto’s distaste for brute repetition. By bending a long double-loaded corridor into a sinuous ripple, the architect was able to impart individuality to the units, giving each of them a slightly different footprint and a unique aspect onto the water.

Hillilä’s inquiry reached Aalto a year into the design of the Baker House. Aalto accepted the commission but struggled to find the time to work on it—hardly surprising, given the scale and complexity of designing the dormitory building, which was to be the most modern on MIT’s campus. Perhaps it was a mix of patriotic feeling and opportunism that made it difficult for Aalto to decline a Finnish congregation’s meek request. Amazed at their success in hiring a world-famous architect, the church representatives invited Aalto to attend relevant church council meetings but waited in vain for a reply. He later apologetically explained that “his workload in Boston prevented him from achieving a satisfying outcome.” But Aalto withheld a more embarrassing reason for his dillydallying. “Please send via airplane the blueprints of the Brooklyn Church to me ASAP. I forgot them in my room [in Cambridge],” he confessed to studio member Veli Paatela, who was in charge of the Baker House.

The narrow project parameters were another challenge. Only the front of the Finntown church had burned down, so Aalto’s task was limited to a few feet deep. The brief was at odds with the architect’s penchant for grander commissions that promised greater creative freedom. For the moment, Aalto appeared stumped by the church commission. “This matter is not quite simple,” the architect mused, with a hint of both frustration and intrigue.

Nonetheless, within a month of being sent the misplaced blueprints of the church by Paatela, and less than three months after the fire, Aalto had arrived at a tentative solution. He appended the following project description to the elevation and perspective drawings he sent to Hillilä:

The front facade of the church is partially burned, but let us fix up the timber part. To the front and to the right, partially wrapping around the corner, a masonry wall will be built of regular red brick, at one-and-a-half brick thickness. This wall will be slammed and limestone sheets will be set in place as the crown molding, protruding roughly 0.5 centimeters [1⁄4"] from the wall.

Thus the church is given a new stage-set facade: a slammed white surface so powerfully slammed that the masonry behind will hardly show through. A timber trellis, coated in copper sheets, will be built in front of the masonry. The trellis will stand some 10 centimeters [4"] from the wall, joined to the masonry with copper anchors. Vines with the strongest possible stems will be grown on the trellis. The cross that attaches to the trellis will also be copper-coated, whereas the sculpture drawn in the right upper corner of the façade will be of limestone. (There are currently two Finnish sculptors in America whose services should be sought. For a modest fee they will most likely make some sculptural pieces. Their names are Mauno Oittinen, in San Francisco, and Arvi Tynys, in New York City.)

It is not entirely certain why the design was left unrealized, though finances likely played a part. Aalto relinquished his personal fee and suggested that Paatela, who had agreed to supervise the project alongside his primary commitment at the Baker House, accept only half of what he was due. Similarly, the Boston-born architect Robert Woods Kennedy, a teaching colleague of Aalto’s at MIT who was asked to provide his professional seal and signature for the design drawings since Aalto was not registered in the US, agreed to accept only a nominal sum. Fragmented accounts of the parish’s history suggest that even the heavily discounted fees were simply out of reach for the small congregation, resulting in the rejection of Aalto’s design.

But the parish had also grown frustrated with Aalto, given his unresponsiveness, and began looking for other options nearly as soon as he presented his draft in May 1947. Rebuffing Aalto, the church council instead hired the newly established firm of Katz & Waisman Architects, whose cofounder Taina Waisman was one of the first women to graduate from the Pratt Institute School of Architecture; she was also the daughter of a parishioner. Waisman and her husband, Sidney Katz, devised a simple, symmetrical redbrick elevation, punctured by a central rose window and adorned by a whitewashed cross. (Today, the church is home to the congregation of Iglesia Evangelica Principe de Paz.)

Original diazotype depicting Aalto’s design for the church facade

The two diazotypes were discovered among the papers of the Rev. Bernhard Hillilä, former rector of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church. Courtesy Kirk Gastinger

However slight it might seem to us now, Aalto’s Brooklyn esquisse enriches our understanding of his stateside praxis, as well as his understanding of sacred space.

For one, the urban context presented Aalto with a wholly novel challenge. Streets and plots are wider in the Nordics, to allow for the low sunlight to penetrate the urban fabric in the darkness of winter, and most of Aalto’s public buildings were in decidedly commercial or civic, rather than residential, city quarters. Dense and architecturally repetitive, the Brooklyn site could not have been more different. How to mark the social gravitas of a space of congregation, especially in a mid-block plot rather than a corner site?

Perhaps out of a desire to break the monotony of an endless row of brick-and-window elevations, Aalto created a decidedly nonresidential facade. The copper-coated grille, which Aalto left unpunctuated even by fenestration, certainly signaled a space set apart from the everyday. The prevalence of the grid may have been a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Renaissance Revivals on nearby streets. Brooklyn was no Tuscany or Veneto, but the mathematical timbre of its Italianate row houses nonetheless resounded with some hint of the Quattrocento that Aalto couldn’t resist.

The most striking feature of the design was, however, not the gridded screen, but the fact that the screen was to be draped in vegetation. Trellises, lattices, and espaliers recur throughout Aalto’s portfolio—it’s challenging to find an Aalto design without flora adorning a wall—but never before, or after, was vegetation cast in the role of lead protagonist, as it was in Brooklyn. In the diazotypes Aalto prepared, greenery appears less as decoration and more as building material. The vegetation certainly offered “green relief,” to use a contemporary term, to a masonry-dominated streetscape, and it undoubtedly related to the trellises Aalto was envisioning for the Baker House at the same time, with Brooklyn serving as a small-scale experiment that could aid the design of a more ambitious version in Cambridge. It is possible, too, that the trellis offered a commentary, like the plan of the Baker House, on modularity in modern architecture. The grid, literally and metaphorically, constituted a reasonable starting point for responding to a design brief, but it was the architect’s responsibility to subjugate its regularity to the joys of diversity and variance.

It is not entirely certain why the design was left unrealized, though finances likely played a part. Fragmented accounts of the parish’s history suggest that even the heavily discounted fees were simply out of reach for the small congregation, resulting in the rejection of Aalto’s design.

It would be incorrect, however, to interpret the project solely as a technical experiment, a theoretical statement, or even an embodiment of a thematic interest in organic design. The design also encapsulates an important aspect of Aalto’s understanding of sacred space. When considered in relation to Aalto’s other church designs, the Brooklyn facade confirms a seemingly contradictory premise in the architect’s approach to the design of religious places: despite the forest metaphors, poetic landscaping, and biomorphic formal palette that have come to define his signature register, Aalto resisted the blending of natural features into sacred space.

Many of his European contemporaries, influenced by the pantheist and panentheist currents pulsating in literature and painting in the first half of the twentieth century, sought to achieve the opposite. For instance, Erik Bryggman’s Resurrection Chapel in Turku, Finland (1939), whose glazed south facade framed a pristine forest, seemed to suggest God could be found in nature, or even that God was nature. The architectural features associated with pantheist orientations in the Nordics in particular—direct visual connections between inside and outside, and naturalistic (often floral or arboreal) art and ornament—were conspicuously absent in Aalto’s ecclesiastical projects. In those rare instances where the natural does appear to meet the man-made, the interface registers a confrontation rather than seamless connection.

Apart from the prominent vegetation, the Brooklyn scheme’s key gesture was the space put between the trellis and the backing brick wall—a gap of ten centimeters. Of course, a trellis has necessarily to stand at a distance from a wall, but considering Aalto’s other sacred projects, the separation takes on metaphysical significance. As Thomas Thiis-Evensen notes in his 1987 book Archetypes in Architecture, setting a skeleton in front of a solid volume generates a strong sense of duality between a public front and a closed, private sanctum. The cella of the Greco-Roman temple, Thiis-Evensen writes, becomes “a closed inner world for the gods alone” precisely because of the tension born of being “surrounded by a wall of widely placed columns, which establishes contact with the outside world.” In Brooklyn, Aalto similarly delineated the nave from the street. The vegetated facade stands as a metonym for a public park, gracing a monotonous street with the pleasures of greenery, while highlighting the necessary autonomy of the space that it shields.

The newly discovered drawings appear to confirm the scholarly consensus that Aalto endeavored to keep the sacred and the profane distinct, and also enrich our understanding of Aalto’s activities in America. Usually, a footnote is a meek assistant to the text it serves—at best, subtle to the point of being unnoticeable, and at worst, distracting. But sometimes the footnote acquires a life of its own, anchoring a larger narrative in information that is not just supplementary but also stimulating. Such is the case with this archival footnote from Finntown.

With special thanks to Chris Hillilä Lewis, Esther Hillilä Nelson, and Martin Hillilä.

Sofia Singler is a Fellow of Homerton College, University of Cambridge.

Kirk Gastinger is an architect with fifty years of experience in environment, education, preservation, and urban design.