words Justin McGuirk
Alvar Alto through the eyes of Shigeru Ban
The Finnish master's work is always a joy, but his interpreter feels more like an interloper
I can see how it happened. The Barbican, only too aware of the pitfalls of architecture exhibitions, saw an opportunity to put a beating heart in what is often a lifeless experience. The concept: a vaunted contemporary architect interprets the work of a dead master. Eureka! Except for one thing. The living architect – who is not as good as the dead one – might not add much to the interpretation of his work and instead try to use the “relationship” to cement his place in history …
This was the feeling I had the whole way round Alvar Aalto Through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban. The Japanese architect, who initiated his trademark paper-tube idiom with his design for an Aalto exhibition in 1986, has always acknowledged his debt to and affinity with the Finnish modernist – and in him and his co-curator Juhani Pallasmaa, you couldn’t wish for two better readers of Aalto’s work. But, for my money, Ban has placed himself too much in the foreground. Using his paper tubes to make undulating walls (an idea recycled from his 1986 exhibition design) is one thing, but putting his own quotes on the wall underneath those of Aalto’s suggests delusions of grandeur. “The ultimate goal of architecture … is to create a paradise. It is the only purpose of building a house,” says Aalto. To which Ban replies, “I would like to use my skills for the benefit of society.” Not quite the same ring to it. The danger of going head to head with Aalto like this is that Ban comes across like a piece of moon rock riding in the tail of a comet.
Aalto was the great modernist with a heart – and history has been kind to him. He is not remembered for maxims or dogma, for allusions to the machine or ascetic perfectionism. He was a humanist, designing for people’s sensory pleasure and even their health (his consideration of psychological factors in the design of the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium, 1933, infused his work thereafter). While so many of his contemporaries were obsessing over the methods of industrial production, he was mastering the building’s relationship to nature.
It is Aalto’s organic lines that make his work unmistakable – he remains the master of the curve. Look at the meandering dormitory for MIT (1949) or the way the three arcs in the plan of the Church of the Three Crosses (1958) become the three shallow domes of its ceiling. His fan-shaped plan for the apartment building in Bremen (1962) is surely one of the most elegant in the modernist canon. What comes across very well in the exhibition is how Aalto’s sensual inventiveness extends from plans right down to the door handles. He was an exceptional and experimental detailer, and could do things with a stair rail, a column or a ceiling light that lodged them in the mind.
“When the form is good, the activity is also good,” said Aalto, qualifying that with “the contents of the form must be related to nature and human beings”. Alright, this statement sounds rather trite and old fashioned, yet there are quite a few architects working today – splashing about in the ocean of computerised formalism – whose foreheads I’d like to staple it to.
I have to recommend the show for a taste of Aalto’s spirit. It’s certainly thorough, even if, in the end, it’s conventional and a tad stiff. And perhaps Ban’s sneaky piggyback ride won’t bother you as much as it did me.
Alvar Aalto through the eyes of Shigeru Ban is at the Barbican, London, until 13 May 2007