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Show scores with its straightforwardness

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Alvar Aalto in Seven BuildingsAt the Helsinki Art Hall, Helsinki, until 29 March and the Netherlands ArchitectureInstitute, Rotterdam, from 15 May to 16 August

It doesn't matter what you do in Finland, if you make the country famous the Finns will idolise you; and Aalto has done this more than almost anyone barring rally drivers and Sibelius. This exhibition, opening on his birthday, has started an AaIto avalanche that is engulfing Finland in commemorative everything - even wine - to add to his picture already staring out from the 50-mark note.

But if the main reason for Aalto being famous in Finland is because he is a world-famous Finn, the actual recognition of his work is sometimes slight or even slighting. Many, including architects, know a mythology but few of his works - and even less of his methods. Media coverage focuses on the 'falling marble' of the Finlandia Hall or the 'sugar cube' on the Helsinki waterfront (the Enso-Gutzeit building).

So this exhibition, presenting Aalto as an artist through seven of his works, is timely. But the emphasis on the artistic also reflects current architectural preocccupations in Finland. 'Finland Builds', a review of the last five years' work of Finnish architects, is being deliberately staged alongside the Aalto exhibition at Helsinki's Architecture Museum.

(There is no irony in the title despite Finnish architects being responsible for less than 10 per cent of the country's building output. ) It presents 60 projects as art objects, with pictorial image as the only value, graphically showing the self-limitation and marginalisation of architects. Moreover the selection jury 'unanimously condemned' those 'alluding to international trends' - which would have done for Aalto.

But even if Aalto would never have met the criteria of 'Finland Builds', the emphasis on the formal here works to his advantage. The seven buildings are presented in such an autonomous way that they are unencumbered by the received assumptions that so often accompany, or filter, his work. The success of the exhibition is a straightforwardness that allows you a direct relationship with the buildings.

Choosing seven buildings from over 300 has to be tough, but the selection is well judged, with each being both a different type and the beginning of a new theme in Aalto's work: Paimio Sanatorium (192933), Viipuri Library (1933-5), Villa Mairea (1937-9), Saynatsalo Town Hall (1949-52), National Pensions Institute (1953-57), Rautatalo Offices (1951-5), and Vuoksenniska Church (1956-58). A reservation might be the lack of a more modest work/building type, with which Aalto was so preoccupied and so successful.

The exhibition's layout is a simple loop from an introductory/background room, through a video/slide installation, to an archival presentation of the seven buildings. Finally there is a small corridor of personal effects leading back to the beginning: a home-movie, letters, books, cherished set-squares and so on; an appropriate placing of the man/myth after the works themselves. The curators borrow from Aalto's New York Pavilion of 1939 in using the very high walls to mount furniture and lamps, thus also solving the problem of making what is in Finland familiar and everyday appear interesting.

The first room is arresting: seven vast and breathtakingly crafted 1:20 birch models fill the middle of the space, supported by an array of 'Aalto-esque' materials on the near wall and a series of sectional models on the far wall. These last, though the most modest, are the most telling: abstracted to their ground and ceiling/roof planes, they convey the vitality and precision of Aalto's modulation of space between ground and sky. The birch models, while revealing in their cutaways, are unfortunately lit without regard for the space they represent: Viipuri and its roof-lenses appear to be on the equator. As for the supposedly 'Aalto-esque' materials: presented as precious in themselves rather than in their potential, they appear to have slipped in from the 'Finland Builds' exhibition across town.

Following this comes a darkened room with four enormous and constantly changing screens on to which images of the buildings are projected, and a fifth screen with a video of the buildings in 'everyday' use. The effect is memorably atmospheric: there is a sense of the places constantly changing around you in space and time.

Next come seven cabinets laid out in parallel, each containing one of the seven buildings documented in old and new photographs, original reviews, a model and original drawings: the soul of the exhibition. Here you can see the work of Aalto's office in all its diversity and responsiveness: the fluidity of Vuoksenniska, the crafted exactitude of the elevation of the Rautatalo, the technical innovation of the Viipuri roof lights.

The drawings are tools, searching at every level for the architectural possibilities of each unique situation as well as finding 'type' solutions for common programmatic issues. This directness makes even the measured drawings of Saynatsalo's door handles strangely moving.

What makes the seven subjects so remarkable is their lack of complacency, their thorough functionalism, and Aalto's brilliance in architectural programming. The buildings are elucidated from the site and the environment, the materials and, above all, the fullness of the human condition. Their assemblage is a collage: Aalto combines disparate parts on their own terms, creating a whole out of their interaction. As in the slide/video installation, the buildings are a series of fragments unfolding about you, most famously at the Villa Mairea.

These seven buildings reassert direct contact, openness, critique and assimilation over attempts to make static certainties out of architecture. The exhibition's stated aim is to show an artistic Gesamtkunstwerk, but it is not a cloying 'harmony', achieved by overlooking explicit differences in favour of the implicit idea of the designer, that is revealed here. Rather it is an empathy between user and place, created by Aalto confronting the particular and the diverse and awakening the user to the possibilities of the situation. All that makes up the place is there in the moment of apprehending it.

Supporting the exhibition is a comprehensively illustrated catalogue. The short introductions to each building form a useful 'reader' of critiques of Aalto, and the essays by William Curtis and Stanford Anderson are informative and incisive. An English version will be available soon.

Harry Charrington is an architect and teacher in Finland. For infomation about architectural tours call the Finnish Tourist Board, tel: 0171 839 4048

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