Alvar Aalto – Through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban

One of Modernism's great heroes, Alvar Aalto, was recently the subject of a major exhibition at the Barbican in London. In an exclusive interview Hannah Booth talks to the exhibition's guest curator, Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, to discuss Aalto's extraordinary influence.


London's Barbican Centre, celebrating its 25th birthday this year, has hosted many exhibitions dedicated to design and architecture: British furniture designers Robin and Lucienne Day were celebrated in 2001; contemporary architect Daniel Libeskind in 2004. But it's never staged a show quite like 'Alvar Aalto: Through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban'.

It's the first time the great Finnish Modernist architect, who died in 1976, has been honoured with a major retrospective in the UK. And it's certainly the first time the subject of a show shared top billing with what is, essentially, a curator: contemporary Japanese architect, Shigeru Ban.

SIX DECADES OF DESIGN

The exhibition featured models, drawings, photographs and artefacts from 14 of Aalto's key projects, spanning six decades. These are shown alongside analytical models of Aalto's buildings by Ban and Ban's own architectural and design projects, including the New Pompidou Centre in Metz, scheduled to open next year.

They may come from different cultural, economic and technical backgrounds – Aalto was a patriotic Finn who worked mainly in his own country; Ban was born in Japan, educated in the US and works worldwide – but the two are, in reality, very similar.

Aalto was a sustainability-minded architect who admired the Japanese sensitivity to natural materials and organic structures. Ban is known for his work with recyclable paper tubes in a structural capacity, and for his commitment to social projects. And both are highly experimental.

Sato approached Ban in 2004 to guest curate an exhibition on Aalto. "I was reluctant at first," says Ban. "But then I saw how it might be possible to interpret his work through my own." He insisted his work not be compared to Aalto's in any way. "That would be impossible, he's a master". "It's not about glorifying Ban or saying his viewpoint is right," agrees Sato. "It's just about acknowledging his influence.

"We already had the idea of doing a conventional Aalto exhibition years ago," explains Sato. "But there wasn't much enthusiasm for it: we'd recently done a few Modernist shows and people here thought, do we need another? A while later, the Finnish embassy approached us: there had never been a major Aalto show in the UK and would we be interesting in staging one? So discussions began again.

We decided we could give it a contemporary edge by involving a working architect. I suggested Shigeru Ban: he consistently refers to Aalto as his hero – yet he's not a widely acknowledged follower of his style. He's influenced by him in practice – yet he's not an academic expert on Aalto, which was an advantage."

A UNIVERSAL INFLUENCE

Was the contrast between Japan and Finland planned? "No, but it makes it interesting," she says. "When Aalto is analysed by westerners, it seems natural. Ban has more of an objective, outsider's perspective – and it proves, his being Japanese, that Aalto's influence is universal."

"The Barbican has never staged a show quite like 'Alvar Aalto: Through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban'."

In fact, Ban wasn't always a fan of Aalto, but that changed when he saw his first piece of Aalto architecture in person, in 1984. "With some architects, you can understand their work through books, but with Aalto, you really need to experience it: his work is about context – the environment, the local community, the cultural background," says Ban. "He proves that you can design unique, sculptural buildings that clients will want and still be in context. That you can reflect the surroundings, use natural materials such as wood and brick and experiment with new methods of design."

Aalto has had a huge influence on Ban's career so far. It was while working on a previous Aalto exhibition, in 1986 in Tokyo's Axis Gallery that Ban developed the idea of paper architecture – his signature style.

To highlight Aalto's use of natural materials, Ban has showcased his post-war projects and his extensive use of red brick, in work such as the House of Culture in Helsinki (1952-58). It was considered unfashionable – commonly available and traditional, and not thought of as an innovative material. "But it was accessible – as very little was at that time – and retained warmth well, so Aalto looked at it in a new light," says Ban.

"I work in a similar way. I use locally accessible materials – when I am working on temporary housing for disaster victims, say – for practical rather than aesthetic reasons. Like brick, paper tubes are in constant supply. After a natural disaster like an earthquake, the price of materials goes up. But as long as cardboard is not a conventional building material, this won't happen.

AN AALTO EXHIBITION LIKE NO OTHER

Curating an earlier Aalto show made Ban aware of the dangers of repeating himself. "There have been many Aalto exhibitions worldwide before – I didn't want this to look like other shows." So he selected some of his lesser known, social projects such as the AA-System Houses (1937-45), a prefabricated housing system that Aalto developed to relieve wartime housing problems, to sit alongside Aalto's better known masterpieces: from the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium to Villa Mairea. "[The social projects] are not as identifiably Aalto, not his signature. But for me, they are very well designed – the construction and the geometry are beautiful."

"With some architects, you can understand their work through books, but with Aalto, you really need to experience it."

How did Ban decide what to include in the exhibition? "I had space to cover most things. I was particularly interested in how he started his career, how he found his own vocabulary, so I included much of his early work." The Barbican is quite a harsh environment, so it was quite a challenge to make the exhibition warm, Ban says. "I tried to break up the harsh lines with soft material."

Aalto was as concerned with the interiors of his buildings as the structure, and the exhibition also showcases his product designs – from his stacking stool to his glassware and light fittings.

Many of his products are still manufactured today by Artek, the Finnish design company he founded in 1935.

Thus his name, work and influence live on, through his structures, his furniture and through the eyes and work of architects such as Shigeru Ban – and doubtless more to come.