An Archetype for Shigeru Ban

The Japanese architect finds inspiration in the work of a world-famous Finn.

This spring an exhibition on Modernism that linked the movement’s past with its present and possible futures was on display at London’s Barbican Art Gallery. Alvar Aalto: Through the Eyes of Shigeru Ban showed the similarities of the great Finnish designer to the Japanese-born Ban’s own unusual architectural journey. The emphasis was on the pronounced humanist, sensuous, and romantic strain of Aalto’s twentieth century work that contrasts with the mainstream Modernist Machine for Living aesthetic descended from Corbusier and his mainland European peers.

The exhibition comes at a busy time for Ban. He has been collaborating with Artek, the furniture company Aalto helped found; his products for UPM, the Finnish paper mill whose ProFi products of recycled paper, wood, and plastic launched at this year’s Milan Design Fair.

In the exhibition Ban focused on buildings that chronicle changes in the development in Aalto’s architectural career. In each section he explained the significance Aalto’s work has for him or for the Finn’s own output. He started with Aalto’s mid 1920’s work, in his hometown of Jyväskylä in central Finland, before his stylistic adaptation to Functionalism in the Viipuri City Library.

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Next, Ban turned his attention to one of Aalto’s most famous buildings, the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanitorium (1929-33), which shows how attentively the architect considered the total environment in helping patients recover. It is this warmth and compassion which seems to have had such an impact on Ban when he first visited Finland in 1984 and experienced Aalto’s buildings in the raw. “Aalto was a different type of architect than any I had ever seen before,” said Ban in a recent telephone interview. “I had been interested in the International Style, not Aalto, but when I went to Finland the experience of his work was completely different, a different context, and a different environment, which I found very important to understand. It was a shock.” So much so that it fundamentally redirected Ban’s work.

This, arguably, is the core point to be taken from the exhibit and it casts light on how an architect who trained in the austere rationalist Post Modernism of John Hejduk at New York’s Cooper Union in the early l980’s could have moved so fully towards a comprehensively humanist, tactile, and materials-based aesthetic and approach.

What is missing from Ban’s analysis? It’s the consideration of a next step: How can today’s globe-trotting architects connect their buildings to a place and culture? For many, unlike for Aalto, a commitment to a region and its materials is not part of their professional modus operandi.

Over the phone Ban hints at how he works: “For some contexts local materials are very important and some where they are not. It also depends on the architect. I enjoy traveling and learning through meeting local people and looking at the materials market.” But this is only a beginning. Some of Ban’s work obviously responds to contextual issues and can be seen in his well-documented disaster-relief work of low-cost emergency housing. These projects have evolved since his first buildings after the 1994 Kobe earthquake in Japan. Surely, further exploration within the exhibit about creating context while constantly on the move would have been illuminating.

Ban’s love of materials and their relationship to place becomes that much more clear when placed next to Aalto, especially in the exhibition’s section on post-war work which included Saynatasalo Town Hall. The paper tubes of Ban’s architecture dovetailed throughout the Aalto exhibition and highlighted both architects’ mutual absorption in materials.

Ban’s design of the exhibition exuded a restrained Nordic, woodsy feel. Some might well construe it as a preamble to his current involvement with Nordic manufacturers. Yet Ban’s show offered up an understanding of how a Japanese architect can find so much from one of his architectural, if not cultural, forefathers. He proves that architectural language doesn’t need to be lost in translation.

Oliver Lowenstein runs the British based cultural review, Fourth Door Review.

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