The work of the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto is celebrated in an exhibition of drawings, photographs, models and furniture, Alvar Aalto through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban, at the Barbican Art Gallery until 13 May.

Although he designed nothing in Britain, much in the exhibition feels familiar. Materials (brick, tile, wood) and informal layouts bring to mind postwar English housing and town planning. In other English buildings the influence is direct. Colin St John Wilson was a friend and admirer. Sources for the steep roofs, the vertical accent (the clock tower), the plain brick walls, wave-profiles in entrance hall ceilings and the careful modulation of light in the reading rooms of his British Library can be found in Aalto’s work. He is more at home in England than the one or two Modernists of the first generation who actually did buildings here.

The import of the exhibition is that there is a link between Aalto and designers working today. The Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, who directed the exhibition, and whose own work shares the space, gives an unusual degree of attention to what people say they want from the buildings they ask him to design. He also believes, as Aalto did, that a building should respond to the nature of the site. Both Aalto and Ban designed housing for people made homeless by war or disaster: Aalto in the 1950s, Ban for tsunami and earthquake victims in the 1990s. Both designed furniture as well as buildings. Definitions are slippery, but architecture which manifests an interest in people and social needs falls at one end of a spectrum. The other end is occupied by buildings that are essentially memorable visual statements. Aalto was remarkable in his ability to occupy both ends at once.

St John Wilson, in the book of the exhibition (Black Dog, £29.95), quotes an essay of 1940, ‘The Humanising of Architecture’, which sets out Aalto’s doubts about the direction Modernism had taken: ‘It is not the rationalisation itself that was wrong in the first and now past period of Modern architecture. The wrongness lies in the fact that the rationalisation has not gone deep enough . . . the newest phase of Modern architecture tries to project rational methods from the technical field out to human and psychological fields.’

A change of the sort he seems to be adumbrating did not, in any general way, take place (although St John Wilson is able to devote a paragraph to a worldwide roll-call of Aalto’s followers and admirers). But in Aalto’s own work there was a move to a personal version of Modernism. Isolation did, perhaps, win him freedom to make architectural experiments. In 1955 he wrote: ‘It has been said that ignorance in certain circles in Finland, and the general lack of an educated understanding of architecture, has provided a smokescreen under the cover of which architecture has in fact been able to flourish. We have not had to contend with pressures obstructing the emergence of new forms owing to the omnipresence of an old culture, as is the case in France, for example.’ Or, one could add, in Britain.

Aalto’s regionalism was more adventurous, more original and tougher than British varieties, and began earlier. While the first building illustrated in the exhibition is a neoclassical workers’ club in Jyväskylä (Doric columns, Palladian window) of 1924-25, the second, the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium of 1929-33, was immediately recognised as a great modern building. Later his name would be pushed to the outskirts of diagrams of Modernist influences and connections, but the thin slab of the sanatorium, photographed against the surrounding forest of conifers, was an early Modernist icon. Asymmetrical buildings like this one – Aalto’s Säynätsalo town hall and, most famously, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater are others – tend to be known by photographs taken from the spot where they compose most dramatically. In the flesh they can (unlike Miesian cubes and Palladian façades) come as a surprise. The exhibition is rich in plans and alternative views, which significantly shift one’s view of some of his most often illustrated works; but if one is serious it seems that one must go to Finland, as Ban did. Ban finished his architectural studies in America, and came, he says, to understand traditional Japanese building indirectly, through the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and Californian architects. His admiration for Aalto (one of the few contemporaries Wright praised) came only after a visit to Finland: ‘Aalto was the first architect I encountered whose work was inseparable from its surroundings aesthetically and functionally.’ Given that the evidence of photographs and drawings leaves open the question of what the buildings are really like, ideas about, and testimonials from, people who use them are relevant.

The sanatorium was a work of total architecture. Aalto designed the chairs and beds, the washbasins (shaped so that there would be no sound of splashing to disturb sleeping patients) and the built-in cupboards. He worked out how light would fall on the pages of a book being read in bed. The sunloungers which line the terrace overlooking the forest in an early photograph are no longer filled with consumptives – Paimio is now a general hospital – but one still reads its history in its configuration. I wish someone would film The Magic Mountain there. The light and weather I remember from the novel fill out my thoughts about the building.

Baker House, the sinuous redbrick dormitory building Aalto designed for MIT in 1946-49, was criticised at the time: Henry Russell Hitchcock and Arthur Drexler’s Postwar Buildings in the USA comments on its ‘complicated and bizarre contours’. But thirty years later, St John Wilson reports, it was ‘a building deeply loved by the students, who strongly resisted any attempt by the authorities to make changes to it.’

It was while he was designing the installation for an Aalto exhibition in Tokyo in 1986 that Ban had the idea of using cardboard tubes – the kind rolls of paper are wound around – as a building material. (They can be water and fire-proofed.) In the exhibition they were used to create undulating ceilings and walls that mirror those in Aalto’s buildings. Later Ban made lattices of them (for the vault of the Japan Pavilion at EXPO 2000), used them as supports for a temporary church after the 1995 Kobe earthquake, and to build ‘log houses’ for earthquake relief works.

Ban’s architecture figures in the Barbican exhibition largely as a modern footnote. See it more extensively (for instance in Matilda McQuaid’s 2003 monograph, Shigeru Ban), and it’s clear that remarks about fitting site to structure and structure to people are far from platitudinous. Some of the houses are quite scarily programmatic. The Naked House, for example: ‘The client’s requirements were very specific. Three generations would occupy the house – his wife and their two children, a nine-year-old boy and a seven-year-old girl, and his 75-year-old mother . . . he expressed a desire for a warehouse-like structure that “provides the least privacy so that family members are not secluded from one another, a house that gives everyone the freedom to have individual activities in a shared atmosphere in the middle of a unified family”.’ The Picture Window House is a two-storey prism fully glazed on both long walls, in which ‘the idea of the picture window is maintained on all sides of the house regardless of issues of privacy or the particular functions of the space.’ The bathroom does have a curtain. The results are both stunning and terrifying in their uncompromising demands on human behaviour. In some ways nothing could be further from bourgeois comfort. Yet the characters of people (brave or relaxed) do indeed seem to shape the buildings.

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