Aalto by Virpi Suutari






AALTO is an enchanting documentary film journey into the life and work of one of the greatest modern architects Alvar Aalto. The film shares for the first time the intimate love story of Alvar and his architect wife Aino Aalto. It takes the viewer on a cinematic tour to their creative processes and iconic buildings all over the world. We visit their buildings in Finland, a library in Russia, a student dormitory at MIT, an art collector ́s private house near Paris, a pavilion in Venice–and many other unique places.

AALTO tells the story of Alvar and Aino Aalto, Finnish masters of modern architecture and design. This enchanting couple shared their lives and great passion for the organic human-scale architecture. Together they were creating a better and a more democratic modern world. In their philosophy, the“little human” was always in the center. The great tragedy for Alvar, however, was to lose Aino in 1949 when she died. Alvar got married again to another architect, Elissa Aalto, and had one of his most significant periods in the 1950 ́s and kept working until his death 1976.

This charming documentary combines cinematically and organically entertainment and knowledge, contemporary film material and rare unforeseen archives. We dive into the colourful history of modernism and meet also the Rockefellers, Le Corbusier and László Moholy-Nagy. Aalto film is based on profound research and narrated by the eyewitnesses and top researchers from all over the world.

This film programme is made possible in partnership with The Finnish Institute in the UK and Ireland.

Film Programme


Virpi Suutari, Finland, 2020, 103′



AALTO is a documentary film journey into the life and work of one of the greatest modern architects Alvar Aalto. The film shares the love story of Alvar and his architect wives Aino and Elissa Aalto. It takes the viewer on a cinematic tour to their creative processes and iconic buildings all over the world. We visit their buildings in Finland, a library in Russia, a student dormitory at MIT, an art collector’s private house near Paris, a pavilion in Venice – and many other unique places.


Film Q&A event + Guests

Join documentary director Virpi Suutari, and Professor Harry Charrington, Head of Architecture, University of Westminster; and Charlotte Skene-Catling as they discuss the film.


A film about the Aaltos lingered in my mind for years. When I was a child, Alvar Aalto’s library building that was completed in my home town of Rovaniemi in 1965 became an afternoon refuge for me. In the 1970s after my schooldays, I often trudged to the library in the snowfall and the freezing weather. I was drawn there by the books but also by the environment that seemed exciting to me. I can still recall the feeling of grabbing the curved brass door handle on the front door and moving towards the warm, inviting space. I remember how fun it was to run my fingers along the wall made out of ribbed ceramic tiles. And Aalto’s leather chairs and brass lamps felt luxurious. I felt rich, even though I came from a modest home. The library belonged democratically to everyone, even me.

Already then, I subconsciously realised I was in touch with a special kind of unpretentious beauty. And you could say that Aalto was an architect of sensuality and emotions, even an erotic architect, whose buildings are not just looked at but also touched; and they touch you with their human-sized scale.

After detaching himself from pure functionalism and developing his more unrestricted, organic style, Aalto managed to create his most humane buildings such as Villa Mairea, a private home where he took the experience of a forest and brought it in the middle of the living room. He had a sort of “forest wisdom” that was not romantic pipe dreaming but rational understanding of the coexistence of nature and humans.

I wanted to make a film about the Aaltos because being in touch with Aalto’s spaces as a child moulded my idea about what is aesthetically harmonious and good architecture. I also realised that no one had previously made a comprehensive film about the Aaltos.

I started to fantasise about a film that would have beauty but also broken humanity, playfulness, and a charm. I wanted to get to know Alvar Aalto as a person and the characteristics of his architect wives Aino and Elissa Aalto. I wanted to know how they worked and what they achieved. How they loved and created together. How they established the Aalto grammar and the Artek furniture store that became an iconic success story.

The Aalto family let me read Aalto’s correspondence, which, along with dozens of interviewees, helped me get to know the personal side of the Aaltos.

The film has several narrators because Alvar Aalto’s life work is so rich and multifaceted that for each aspect of his life, I needed to find different experts and research data that supported it. All the interpretations and claims spoken by individuals in the film can be verified by several different sources.

The research interview tapes recorded by Göran Schildt for Aalto’s biography provided rare eyewitness testimonies from those who actually knew the Aaltos personally and were there when everything took place. In addition to the correspondence, the Aalto family let us use some rarely seen family photos of the Aaltos’ trips to America, for example, and a few Alvar’s drawings that hadn’t been seen in public before, including drawings of Aino on her deathbed.

The Aaltos were remarkably international, which is why seven different languages are spoken in the film and it was shot in seven different countries. When doing the background research, we had to search through archives from all over the world: in addition to Finnish archives, we used archives of people and institutions such as the Rockefellers, MIT, the UN, British Pathé, and Moholy-Nagy.Exceptionally, the editor Jussi Rautaniemi is credited as the second screenwriter in Aalto. The nature of documentary films is such that the final atmosphere of the film is often created on the editing table. In Aalto, the abundance of video and audio material also required a special dedication to the dramaturgical structure from the editor. When we are talking about historical characters and lifeless buildings, it was a huge challenge to make the film vibrant and alive.

The sound designer Olli Huhtanen and I worked hard in order to make the story of the Aaltos dynamic and touching. And sound design ended up playing an exceptionally large role in this film. The composer Sanna Salmenkallio’s music and improvisations with a few of the most renowned Finnish jazz musicians acted as a base for the sound designer to weave a modernist and organic tapestry of sound. The soundscape of this film was created in an atmosphere of playfulness, which is so natural to Aalto’s philosophy. Raw sound material for the film was produced by means such as playing an Aalto Vase with a bow and striking together building materials such as brick, marble and copper.

Alvar and Aino’s letters were read aloud by the Finnish top actors Martti Suosalo and Pirkko Hämäläinen.

They both were amazed by the pioneering spirit conveyed by the letters already since the 1920s, not just in architecture but also in personal relations: the equal and respectful collegial relationship, the free sexuality, and the networking with other famous international artists.

”The letters convey an image of Alvar Aalto who is playful, charming, and loving but who also feels guilty about overshadowing Aino, despite her talents. All the way until the end, Alvar fantasised about returning to a mutual creative space with Aino, similar to the one they had been in during the early days of their careers when they developed the fundamental Aalto language”, Martti Suosalo says.

Virpi Suutari

Film Q&A Guests
Virpi Suutari

Aalto’s film Director and Producer

Virpi Suutari is anawarded filmmaker known for her personal cinematic style and emotional narratives. Her films have been shown all over the world. The The Idle Ones (2002) was nominated for the Best European Documentary (EFA) and she has got several awards as the Best Nordic Documentary. Her latest film, Entrepreneur, was in the Masters selection at IDFA 2018. Virpi has received the national Jussi Award (the Finnish Oscars) three times. She is working with the top film professionals, among them editor Jussi Rautaniemi, who has edited internationally acclaimed films such as The happiest day in the life of Olli Mäki (Un certain regard -prize Cannes 2016).

Professor Harry Charrington

Head of School – Architecture & Cities, University of Westminster

Harry Charrington studied architecture at the University of Cambridge, graduating in 1989. He was awarded his PhD at the LSE (London School of Economics & Political Science) in 2008. He was elected a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (FHEA) in 2011. He practiced architecture in Finland, working for Arkkitehtitoimisto Alvar Aalto & Co. and Studio Suonto Architects, and in the United Kingdom for Winskell Architects and Spence & Dower Architects in Newcastle-On-Tyne, as well as running his own practice. From 2000–04 he was a developer and designer of the multi-award winning Springhill CoHousing in Stroud, the UKs first new build CoHousing project.

He has lectured in Finland and the United Kingdom at the Universities of Manchester and Newcastle, Vaasa Institute of Technology, Helsinki University and Helsinki University of Technology. He was Programme Leader of the unique joint-validated Architecture & Planning Degree at UWE Bristol, where he also created the Master of Architecture programme. He was Director of Studies for the Master of Architecture at the University of Bath, before moving to the University of Westminster where he was appointed Professor and Head of the Department of Architecture in September 2014.

Charlotte Skene-Catling

(Panel Moderator)

Architect, Director of the architectural practice Skene Catling de la Peña, and Co-founder Architecture Film Festival London

Skene Catling has developed an approach to architecture she calls geoarchaeology, using research as a basis for design with a particular interest in the borders between architecture and other disciplines. Her practice has won numerous awards including the RIBA House of the Year 2015 and has been extensively published internationally. Skene Catling has written about architecture in The Burlington Magazine, Architectural Review and ARCH+, and in 2018 wrote a monthly column for DOMUS magazine. She ran a post-graduate architecture unit at the Royal College of Art for five years, taught at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Germany and is an Ambassador for the London School of Architecture (LSA). She lectures in the UK and abroad.

During the Covid 19 lockdown, Skene Catling and Adam Lowe bought Alvar Aalto’s Silo at auction. Together, through Lowe’s Factum Foundation, they launched a programme to turn Aalto’s first industrial building into a creative research centre that will digitise and communicate the industrial architecture of the arctic north, as well as the impact these industries have had on the environment. Initiatives will focus on recording and digitising both man-made and natural environments. The project will restore Aalto’s 1931 concrete Silo as a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ and an exploration in the preservation and reuse of industrial heritage. It will also involve the construction of a new research centre using radically ecological construction methods based on research currently being carried out with Nordic collaborators. Local partners include Oulu University, Stora Enso, the Aalto Foundation, the Aalto University and the Oslo Centre for Critical Architectural Studies.

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