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Aalto in the shadow of MoMA's past

Alvar Aalto: Between Humanism and Materialism At the Museum of Modern Art, New York, until 19 May

This week's five-page review section features the two major exhibitions marking Alvar Aalto's centenary year, and looks at his continuing influence in the UK.

The Museum of Modern Art's Department of Architecture and Design takes itself very seriously. Founded and endowed by Philip Johnson as the first architecture department in a museum, its permanent collection of drawings, sketches, models and design objects includes the Mies van der Rohe archive and work from nearly every major figure of the Modern Movement. Further, the department's exhibitions seem self-consciously planned with this legacy in mind. The catalogue for 'Alvar Aalto: Between Humanism and Materialism' makes constant references to Aalto's previous appearances at MoMA - his inclusion in the famous 1932 exhibition 'Modern Architecture' and his own show, 'Alvar Aalto: Architecture and Furniture' (1938).

In fact, there are currently two architectural exhibitions on view at MoMA that both highlight how the museum defines its historical role and views itself as an arbiter of the new.

They also reveal the institutional limitations of MoMA and its presentation method.

In addition to the Aalto retrospective there is a small exhibition of commissioned installation pieces by 12 young American architects entitled 'Fabrications'. Its curators claim that 'the exhibition of architecture within galleries and museums has, with notable exceptions, generally been accomplished through the presentation of models, drawings and photographs: analogues for the real thing.

In order to elude this limitation . . . the 12 teams of architects were asked to build at full scale within the museum'.

If MoMA believes that architectural exhibitions of models, drawings and photographs are a limitation, one wonders what it thought it was doing by presenting Aalto in just this manner. And what exactly is this exhibition doing at MoMA, and in New York, in 1998? The unresolved urbanism in Aalto's work makes him a questionable choice for our age, with what Kenneth Frampton calls its 'totalising limitless environment'. Finally, one wonders why 'Between Humanism and Materialism' was selected as a subtext for the show.

The exhibition is presented in the typical format of an architectural survey. It begins with examples of Aalto's early designs: a house and sauna for Terho Manner (1923) and the Jyvaskyla Workers Club (1923-4), each in traditional Finnish style with traces of Florentine Renaissance Classicism. However, it quickly introduces us to Aalto's break with his 'provincial small-town practice' and his headlong rush into the 'limelight' with the Modernism of the Turun Sanomat Building (1928-9), which was his entry in the 1932 MoMA exhibition, and the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium (1929-30).

To conclude, we are shown the major international commissions of Aalto's final period, where he combined the regional styles of his early years with the rationalist Modernism of his second phase. Of this final period we are told that 'the contemporary in his work was replaced by glances at, and reflections of, the classical heritage'. Oh, snore. The presentation throughout is just so boring, particularly for a museum with MoMA's p r e - tensions.

The exhibition gives little idea of Aalto's working method beyond his preference for the humanistic, emotional and artistic character of architectural production. Fortunately the accompanying catalogue is more reflective and insightful. The most revealing essay is Kenneth Frampton's 'The Legacy of Alvar Aalto: Evolution and Influence'. It positions Aalto as an important critical regionalist for his ability to break away from individual expressionism and vulgar populism to create 'buildings . . . constituted as topographic structures rather than gratuitous gestures . . . that infuse both figures and ground, in a ceaseless interplay between natural constraint and cultural ingenuity'.

But despite Frampton's role at MoMA as eminence grise (being teacher and mentor to both chief curator Terence Riley and Aalto curator Peter Reed), the exhibition follows MoMA's usual line in pursuing a 'great man' explanation of architectural production. It foregrounds the 'rational and romantic elements in architecture and nature' that appealed to Aalto, and emphasises his desire to see architecture as an artist, not as a 'technocrat'.

The Aalto presented here is prized for his ability to break away from the universal solutions and formulas of the Modern Movement and create an 'original, sensual, visceral and . . .

humane architecture, outside politics'. In his catalogue essay, Reed claims that Aalto's work after the Second World War became 'emblematic of social democratic ideas', and did so by being 'divorced from political vicissitudes'. How architecture might be divorced from political events is not explained.

One wants to believe that Aalto's seductive and sensuous form-making does have a great deal to offer, but this exhibition does not give it to us. The shadow of MoMA's past (and of Philip Johnson) still hovers over this institution - and, sadly, over much of American architectural culture.

William Menking teaches at the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn

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