An exhibition with one great architect curating another is somehow less than the sum of its parts
To be clear, the exhibition ‘Alvar Aalto through the eyes of Shigeru Ban’ at the Barbican in London is definitely worth seeing. How could it not be? (Ed. This piece was originally published at cityofsound.com on 16 April 2007.)
Aalto, one of the true greats, is responsible for an almost untouchable legacy of fantastic, rewarding buildings. And more than mere buildings, too, he’s also responsible also for a body of thinking which ranges from the inherent properties of material itself right up to the point of building in the first place, and helping define the image of the modern architect. Oh, and furniture too. And design business, and creative partnership.
And Shigeru Ban, whilst hardly in the same league, is one of the most consistently interesting, and occasionally confounding, contemporary architects. There’s little formal connection to Aalto, perhaps, but a similarly thoughtful, responsible approach to architecture. Both architects represent ongoing attempts at connecting the vernacular, situated, and sustainable with the progressive, the innovative and the modern.
Yet the Barbican’s exhibition, combining these two, with Ban effectively curating Aalto, feels withdrawn, recessive in presentation, a solid, unspectacular response. Perhaps the intent is to allow the numerous original drawings and models to breathe, yet it only really works the space in a pleasing central shelter of Ban’s creation, cardboard tubing providing a canopy of waves over two undulating screens. The screen is a pleasing hybrid of Aalto’s famous interior object and Ban’s exterior structural element, one of the few moments where both architects’ approaches come into direct contact.
Whilst the explanatory exhibition displays do work aesthetically — lovely wall-mounted wooden boards, clean type with a dash of the Finnish aesthetic — they convey only brief biographical details. There’s frustratingly little attempt to explore the work in real detail.
At one point, there is a beguiling note about how the Shigeru Ban Laboratory at Keio University has uncovered consistent formal patterns in Aalto’s work. Apparently rejecting the ‘simplistic application’ of the golden section familiar in other modernist architecture, Aalto’s architecture seemed to have an instinctive, organic flourish. Yet Ban’s research seems to indicate recurring patterns, angles and geometric forms.
After teasing us with this revelation, however, the exhibition presents an unlabelled image of the golden section ‘in action’, some unexplained overlays on Aalto’s plans, and no more. Elsewhere, a virtuoso unfolding of possible forms for the MIT Baker House extends across the gallery, but with little explanation of the differences between the models, and why Aalto ended up with the conclusion he did.
As a visitor, I’d like exhibitions to explain more. They exist to present a curated view of work, but also to explain this particular curation, and the significance of the work. I understand the instinct to avoid presenting a single reading of the work but I’d prefer curators to be confident, unafraid of being didactic, and to show their workings. I’d like an exhibition to over-compensate, and let me decide when I’d had my fill. Spending £8 on the exhibition, you should walk away full of ideas, inspiration and knowledge, without feeling you have to spend a further £30 on the catalogue.
Having said all that, the work itself, principally Aalto’s, is of course wonderful, and I did indeed walk away full of ideas, inspiration and knowledge (and yes, with the catalogue). It’s a greatest hits collection, curated by Ban, featuring mainly Nordic and Scandinavian projects, though also some outside of that territory, such as the Baker House dormitory at MIT, the Finland pavillion at the New York World Fair, and La Maison Carré near Paris.
Aalto’s extensive career in furniture, including founding the Artek firm, is well represented. There are numerous examples of Aalto’s original sketches, wondrous technical drawings and models. As a form of wordless explanation, simple white models by Shigeru Ban’s students and practise do perform a valuable role in interrogating aspects of Aalto’s work — as with the delightful models depicting the flooding of natural light through the giant skylights in Helsinki’s academic bookshop, or in the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium.
In an interesting move, entirely in keeping with his interests, Ban also includes Aalto’s lesser known AA-System Houses, a form of prefab housing for the post-war period. This is a fascinating project, poised in tension between mass production, Aalto’s beliefs in flexibility, and in building to the highest quality for the greater part of society. Typically, he came up with his own theory of “flexible standardisation”, apparently influenced by organic structures, with elements he described as “living cells” enabling ongoing modification as a powerful example of adaptive design. It’s almost a precursor of biomimicry, perhaps, which is not the only way in which the AA-System Houses play to contemporary concerns. This project deserves to be better known, and perhaps resurrected and reinvented.
This particular work also provides an effortless segue into the brief presentation of Ban’s own work in temporary housing after the Kobe earthquake and 2004 tsunami. Comprising no more than a few models, there’s not enough here. Ban’s work fusing paper tubing, vernacular forms and modernism is quite unique, and perhaps deserves more than the space he’s given here, even in an exhibition primarily about someone else.
The idea of getting Ban to curate Aalto is a brilliant one; yet this exhibition doesn’t really deliver on its promise. Aalto’s thinking and practise has influenced architecture from the Arctic Circle to Australia, and what could’ve been a fascinating exploration of this influence, with Ban himself as a particular example, actually comes down to around ten models, with cursory explanatory nameplates. Although the models of his students also permeate the Aalto presentation, attempting to coax the work into speaking for itself, Ban has more to give.
(Ed. A few years later, whilst working at Arup in Australia, I would end up spending a couple of hours one afternoon with Ban, sketching some ideas for a reworking of the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. He was quiet, and with grace, and was open to the idea of this curious Arup employee who was not an engineer. It was a privilege to even sketch with him, and although the project ultimately went nowhere—for reasons to do with the Powerhouse’s funding—I was proud of the simple drawings I did, indicating how Ban’s proposed parasol-like shading structures could multiply, as if reproducing themselves, providing a threshold between the museum and what one day would became the Goods Line. I’ll share that sketchbook one day.)
The handsomely produced accompanying catalogue has more detail of course, and is worth getting, not least for Judith Turner’s photographs. Capturing details of Aalto buildings in good light must be one of the easier, most pleasurable architectural photography assignments around, but she does it very well. The book also contains three selected essays by Aalto, a good long interview with Ban, a typically erudite and intriguing essay on Aalto’s philosophy and design by Juhani Pallasmaa, a short piece by Colin St John Wilson, and all the text, photography and drawings from the exhibition.
You’ll see from these photos that I resumed my tense relationship with the Barbican’s ‘exhibition guards’ by snapping a few surreptitious photos. Given the ridiculous subterfuge involved in taking these photos, the quality is fairly low. Still, I hope they give a sense of the exhibition.
- Alvar Aalto through the eyes of Shigeru Ban, Barbican Art Gallery, 22 February 2007–13 May 2007, London.
Ed. This piece was originally published at cityofsound.com on 16 April 2007.
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