Sunday, March 04, 2007

Finnish what you started

To the Barbican for Alvar Aalto: through the eyes of Shigeru Ban (stick with me, it's worth it). The premise - Japanese architect you've never heard of curates major retrospective of Finnish architect you've never heard of - sounds almost too dry for words, but there is plenty to chew over here.

For one thing, you've probably come into direct contact with Aalto's work: as well as constructing buildings, he furnished them too, in the process designing pieces that are now in world-wide production. If you say you never had the stools to the right at school, I won't believe you.

If his brand of Modernism looks peculiarly IKEA-ish, you're not far off, except it's the wrong way round: Aalto's clean, functional, cheap chairs are so important that you almost can't imagine the Swedish megastore without him. He believed in designing for the people, which meant mass production but without compromising on style or construction.

Aalto's reputation has certainly been secured for the 21st century by this gargantuan exhibition: there are examples of all his major furniture pieces and comprehensive plans, photos and models of his greatest buildings. However, this is where it comes screeching to an abrupt halt: while we've assimilated Functionalism in furniture into our lives, his buildings have rather lost their lustre.

There is no doubt that these, liberally scattered across Finland and the rest of Scandinavia, are masterpieces of Modernism, combining the essential emphasis on function with a softer attitude towards aesthetics. If Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn, his major Modernist contemporaries, could be cold, Aalto strove not to be.

For instance, in his design for the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium (1929-33) in Finland, Aalto tried to ensure the peace necessary for recuperation with plenty of natural light flooding into rooms and non-splash sinks to avoid noise. With the Villa Mairea, Noormarkku (1937-9), left, he combined not just Modernism but Japanese design and local Finnish forms, to reach a hybrid Modernism which you would actually want to live in.

The big problem with Aalto's Modernism - and Modernism as a genre - was neatly expressed by a man standing next to me in the gallery by the Mairea room, who said that the comfortable sun-loungers in the garden were a warm contrast with the coldness of the rest of the design.

This is interesting because the gallery's note claims that the Mairea is in fact warm and welcoming. I think this is a case of meaning lost in translation and Modernism's bad reputation: we are so used to thinking of all the white walls, common materials (they *loved* the brick), clean lines and lack of clutter as 'cold' that we forget these buildings were intended to be 'warm'. No-one goes to IKEA and thinks, Oh, how welcoming! You go straight to function and form, not character. The same is - sadly - true of Aalto.

So the question is, Is it just impossible for us now to conceive of Modernism as a warm style, or is it a weakness in Aalto's work that gives this perceived coldness?

Part of the cause is our distance from the conception and cultural ideas which shaped Modernism. We tend not to pay attention to the thought behind the building, just seeing as stereotypically 'Scandinavian' this coldness (despite its presence over the whole world). We see soft furnishings and clutter as comfortable since they give a lived-in feel, not the pristine museum quality we sense in Aalto.

But I think the fault lies in our Modernist star, not in ourselves. Compare another great Modernist, who has of late rather been chocolate-boxed to death: Charles Rennie Mackintosh. He too designed exteriors and interiors, used a lot of white and black, loved natural light, had a heavy Japanese influence.

However, he had a much more varied palette: his furnishings were spattered with blues, greens and pinks, and flowerful designs were everywhere (right). No, he did not design to be mass-produced like Aalto, which meant he could indulge his creativity, but his designs still stand comparison. Perhaps if we could step inside his buildings we might reassess, but the exhibition gives us so many cold shells.

I have no doubt that we can be criticised for looking for the wrong things: we should shift our minds into Aalto's gear, so we see his intentions. But as any good Modernist knows, the artist's intentions cannot live forever and we end up judging by our own standards.

Certainly, from Shigeru Ban's careful but wide-ranging curation, we see that Aalto's reputation as a major architect is deserved. However, the public perception of Modernism did not appear to be shifting as I walked round the gallery: the thaw has a long way to go.

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