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AALTO AT THE BARBICAN

AGENDA

Modern, nature, wood, lake, sauna, brick, socialist, prosperous: the Alvar Aalto keywords sound good to early 21st-century ears. But since P Morton Shand exhibited Aalto furniture at Fortnum & Mason in 1933, Aalto has been clasped to the breast of British Modernism - not only by acknowledged fans such as Colin St John Wilson but, less obviously, by James Stirling.

The novelty of this new show at the Barbican is the involvement of Shigeru Ban as selector, generator of new models and designer of the installation. Ban's comments are paired with Aalto's at the beginning of each exhibition section, and a display at the end showcases his own work in building and furniture. The catalogue (Black Dog Books, £29.95) represents a similar mix. The arrangement seems to work well, offering the audience two architects for the price of one, and the chance to relate Aalto's work to current events.

The show fills both levels of the gallery, with a generous amount of drawings and models, both old and new, and an almost complete run of furniture. There is a pleasing display of light fittings and door handles, with some bricks from the House of Culture in Helsinki, and a demonstration of how they were assembled.

Four films are also included in the show, providing a greater sense of three-dimensionality.

It is a must-see.

Now for the harsh words.

Exhibiting architecture is never easy, especially for a general audience. This is a very architectural show, in which the explanatory material may not always explain enough, and the visual material requires an expert eye and previous knowledge. Much of it is small in scale and widely spaced on the walls.

Take Villa Mairea, for example. Exhibited are old photos, two models, drawings, a film, and new photos of details by Judith Turner, whose work runs as a thread through the exhibition. I was glad that I had read Richard Weston's account of the villa in his Architecture in Detail book, which featured photos that evoked it more successfully than anything in the exhibition.

The film, projected on to the wall of the lit gallery, does not show up well, and most of the commentary is in Finnish. The whole is less than the sum of the parts, and the potential crux of the narrative goes missing.

More successful is a computer animation of the Finnish Pavilion at the New York World's Fair in 1939.

Much is made of Aalto's concern for 'the little man', and his desire to build social housing. It was doubtless not his fault that he could not do more in this area, but what he did is certainly of interest.

His pitched-roofed AA System Houses (1937-45), while duly represented, carry no verbal or visual information about their interior spaces and how they have been inhabited. Apart from some original plans, the presentation consists mainly of diagrammatic models of their proportional systems, which can scarcely have been uppermost in the residents' perceptions. Given Ban's own commitment to ingenious and beautiful humanitarian architecture, it is surprising that the presentation so often reverts to similarly formalist analysis.

Biographical information is similarly curtailed. Aalto was a darker and more complex figure than he appears in either the gallery or the book, and a bit more light and shade would have added depth to the work (did anyone mention vodka? ).

Sarah Menin's research into Aalto's motivation and personality, while seen as unduly speculative by some, suggests an opportunity has been lost to engage a public who would certainly not object to a similarly penetrating insight into a painter or composer.

In an exhibition so much about Finland, more historical context would have been welcome - it could be possible to come away from this exhibition thinking that Aalto was the only Finnish architect working at the time. One might also think that no other 'white' Modernist embraced complexity, texture, reference and nature as the 1940s approached. Does it need to be pointed out that virtually all of them did - that Aalto's shift in this direction, while among the most memorable, was far from unique? A simple panel of photos could have done the trick, and contributed a little to disseminating the complexity of Modernism that specialists have long been emphasising.

Aalto and his work therefore emerge in a slightly attened condition - surely the cruelest of fates. The New York Museum of Modern Art's Aalto show in his centenary year of 1998 was, however, hardly successful in this regard.

The problem is rooted in the architectural exhibition as a genre. For all that one appreciates the efforts made to borrow original drawings and construct new models, film is probably the best medium for explaining architecture. Yet it is often an afterthought, or sourced from existing and not necessarily appropriate footage.

Film needs to be shown in a darkened space with adequate seating, scripted to highlight the interpretation of the show as a whole.

Alvar Aalto Through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban is at the Barbican Art Gallery until 13 May

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