Alvar Aalto, Beehive Ceiling Lamp © Maija Holma, courtesy of Alvar Aalto Museum

Reason & Intuition: Alvar Aalto & Ola Kolehmainen in Soane

4 July 2014 to 24 August 2014 Main Gallery & Manor-House

Reason & Intuition: Alvar Aalto & Ola Kolehmainen in Soane brought together the work of modernist architect and designer Alvar Aalto, and contemporary Finnish artist Ola Kolehmainen. The exhibition was split between Pitzhanger Manor and the gallery - Alvar Aalto’s creations filled Soane’s dream home acting as a counterpoint to the historic rooms, whilst in the gallery Ola Kolehmainen explored space and the built environment in a collection of monumental large-scale photographs.

Alvar Aalto (1898-1976) was a central figure in international modernism with a career running from the 1920s through to the 1970s. He was the most important Finnish architect of the 20th century and his design skill reached into every corner of his buildings, including the interior surfaces as well as consideration of the design of furniture, lamps, furnishings and glassware. Aalto’s sculptural, and highly functional, furniture produced in the 1930s remains influential and very popular today. Reason & Intuition featured around forty Aalto creations, including chairs, tables, lights, glassware and textiles, as well as glassware designed by his first wife and collaborator, Aino. Visitors to the exhibition could sit at an Aalto table, on Aalto chairs and pore over his designs, photographs and plans for private houses. Among the designs featured in the exhibition were the Paimio Chair (1931-2), a combination of moulded wood and plywood, and the sculptural Beehive ceiling lamp (1953). In addition, we were privileged to include the work of Finnish glassblower Santeri Pöytäniemi, who recreated specially for this exhibition an Aalto vase originally shown at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In the bedroom, visitors could also watch artist Elena Näsänen's film Passerby in which a young Japanese woman spends an entire day in Helsinki photographing Aalto buildings.

As Aalto’s work filled Pitzhanger Manor, three distinct collections of photography by Ola Kolehmainen took over the gallery: his acclaimed, abstract, Aalto-influenced architectural images (featuring elements of Aalto buildings), as well as a body of work exploring the Siena Cathedral in Italy (a building highly regarded by Aalto) and his later images of significant mosques within Istanbul.

Kolehmainen’s Aalto photographs depict sections of buildings, examining the strictly ordered rows of repetitive patterns and elements of symmetry – these works sat well in the 1939 modernist gallery which has taken its cue from the original Soanian architecture. Meanwhile, the complex new images are theatrical and epic in scale, with a nod to architectural history and even classical painting. Kolehmainen’s work in Istanbul is a particular departure for a photographer who previously hadn’t concentrated on any building built before 1920. Both the Siena and Istanbul works have at their heart the volume of the buildings and the task of depicting the empty spaces within the structures – the photographs are no longer about simplification as he had to let the buildings speak for themselves. Reflections are particularly significant in Kolehmainen’s work and a way of bringing the warmth of the natural world into man-made structures; trees, clouds and people are all reflected on the surfaces of buildings, in swimming pools and inside the Siena Cathedral. The works are produced using the Diasec process, which means that the environment is reflected in the surface of the photos as well as in the images themselves.

Reason & Intuition was a collaboration between Pitzhanger Manor House & Gallery, the Alvar Aalto Museum and The Finnish Institute in London, with kind support from Skandium, iittala, Frame Visual Art Finland and Arts Promotion Centre Finland.

Image: Alvar Aalto, Beehive Ceiling Lamp © Maija Holma, courtesy of Alvar Aalto Museum