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A tale of two cities

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They're an odd couple, these two. What is it about them? They aren't ill-matched, like an architectural Lemmon and Matthau. Far from it. Louisa Hutton and Matthias Sauerbruch, both in their early forties, one British, one German, seem a vision of harmony, crafted from a decade of living and working together. No, what's odd is that they are so alike, both with identical yin and yang, both living the same double life.

You could blame geography. It doesn't help coming from, living and working in two cities and two countries at once. 'Sometimes we haven't a clue where we are,' sighs Hutton, as her partner prepares again to slip between Notting Hill and Berlin. 'There are countless diaries floating around so we know where we're meant to be and when.' Yet they need this North Sea jet-setting, and the cultural extreme each city offers. 'We love London for its intellectual climate, I guess,' says Sauerbruch; Berlin, though, is where they work the most - one office the brain, the other the brawn. The architectural culture of each fosters two wildly different reputations. In Berlin they are renowned for hefty commercial and public projects, such as the recently completed Photonics Centre (the subject of this week's Building Study), and the hq for gsw, a social housing group, to be finished next year. In London, a series of sensitive domestic renovations for obsessive clients, including themselves, have made their name. In Berlin there is a feverish 20-strong studio; in London their small office is so domestic you feel intrusive.

The couple, though, battle as much with architectural opposites as geographical ones. 'We're pragmatic, but in the poetic sense,' Hutton proposes. 'Architecture is how we work out these opposites.' Sauerbruch takes over: 'We find exceptional beauty in ordinary places.' Sometimes they talk like this; then suddenly they come over all post-war and ration books, explaining how to make silk purses out of sows' ears: 'Don't spend frivolously, make the most of what you've got,' says Hutton.

I've come across this odd mixture of pleasure and Puritanism before. But where? Well, they met as whizzkid aa diploma students in the mid-1980s, Sauerbruch on exchange from Berlin; Hutton straight from Bristol. But they didn't learn about pragmatism from Peter Cook. No, from something older, less groovy. 'I like working for individuals who go their own way,' says Hutton. 'I loved working for the Smithsons. It was such an idiosyncratic office.' Ah, the Smithsons. 'Oh, they were very unfashionable then,' she hoots. Too right. In the mid-1980s you could hardly have found architects less a la mode than the Smithsons; their hardcore architectural S&M was hardly Derrida.

But it was from the Smithsons, and the English philosophical tradition of empiricism, that Sauerbruch Hutton learned 'about working with the given', says Sauerbruch, 'about turning a place into a super place'. They revel in gritty context, in the layers of history and meaning in landscapes. 'It's the ugly, twisted landscapes we love, the dirty reality,' grins Hutton. Their aa students don't get Palladio, but inner-city Brum. The challenge? To weave the new into mangled palimpsests and create a beauty deeper than style.

Following their partnership in 1989, two years of competitions gave them enough to chew on. Then, in 1991, they won something. This was no piddling commission, but a £73 million extension to gsw's Berlin offices, big enough to fret Sir Norm, let alone a young practice. But what a chance. What more mangled landscape on which to work than post-reunification Berlin, slashed and mashed by history? Unfazed, their response was to wrap the existing drab 1950s block, itself a fragment of post-war reconstruction, in three sculptural forms, a fin, an oval cylinder and a rectilinear block. This unpredictable, but ultimately fascinating, response to the existing landscape is repeated in all their projects, built or proposed (they are still competition junkies). At the Photonics lab, two jolly amoeba blobs play against the grid plan of the research park. In their Notting Hill house, new brightly coloured forms, packed with drawers, thrust out from restored Victorian coving and architraves. In their plans to buck up Berlin's post-war new towns, concrete blocks aren't demolished, only toyed with.

They may, as they admit, have inherited the 'mood and attitude' and the humanism of the Smithsons. They might even have inherited their Miesian geometry. But, thank God, they picked another style. In place of dour, hefty chunks, Sauerbruch Hutton choose dainty glass forms - 'to play with the ambiguity of space', says Sauerbruch - and pick leftfield colours which 'take over spaces, subverting them'. They're at the poetry again. But there's always a perfectly thrifty reason for any pretension. The form of gsw's sleek fin-tower is as much ecology as art ('ecology is just sensible, isn't it?'), one side draped like a fur coat for warmth, the other a breathing skin facing the sun, and topped by an elegant curve to disperse waste heat.

Ten years ago Sauerbruch Hutton espoused theories as hip as Spam fritters. Now that stitching up the city and conjuring beauty from parsimony are back in vogue, their time has deservedly come. But don't sling out the red braces, decon philosophy and Black Lace cds. The 1980s will be back soon, don't you worry. Building Study starts on page 39

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