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An Austrian tradition

Baumschlager-Eberle 1996-2002 At Deluxe, 2-4 Hoxton Square, London N1, from 28 April-9 May

It was in the Habsburg Empire that Freud discovered the power of the unconscious and thereby inaugurated the idea that exteriors might not directly reveal interiors.

Although present-day Austrians have sloughed off so much paraphernalia from their imperial past, this simple perception, with its profound implications for architecture, remains a rich seam of inspiration for their architects, and none more so than Baumschlager-Eberle.

This exhibition at the Deluxe gallery, presenting the practice's projects for the first time in London, includes housing schemes and an airport in its Habsburg homeland, along with a 1,000-bed hospital in Kortrijk, Belgium, and some residential towers in Beijing, China.

There is a consistency in BaumschlagerEberle's work, which is in giving complexity to a relatively straightforward form by a dynamic and enigmatic skin. This runs through several of the residential projects, the Muncher Ruck insurance offices in Munich, and the extraordinary ETH building in Zurich. Where there is a spectacular backdrop (as there often is in the Austrian mountains), it becomes an honorary part of the composition, adding free-form nature against Cartesian orthogonality to the internal, architectural dynamics - such as those between texture and light, and transparency and space. It is an effective strategy, where the outer skin can define an interstitial zone: for environmental control as in offices such as Muncher Ruck's, or to grade privacy in the housing schemes.

In the ETH building - for the institution where the great Gottfried Semper established the architecture department - deliberate restraint in the range of materials and forms brings a taut focus. Essentially rectilinear, it reveals a complexity of section, where levels retreat to create what in England would be called an 'atrium' and have 'artworks' hung in it. Yet BaumschlagerEberle sticks to the literal repertoire of architecture, relying on space, volume and light to support the purpose of opening up a new perception of public space within an academic institution. It is as if the Rohner Port building, the 'concrete bird' hovering on its almost incredible cantilever at the strategic point over Lake Constance (one of its best known projects), has inhabited the interior of an ordinary form.

On a different theme, the AIDS headquarters building in Geneva shows a similar ability to belie the inherent abstraction and lack of specificity in essentially architectural devices to generate effects that are both redolent of, and relevant to, the programme.

It is a series of enigmatic, transparent forms, which might speak of the so-far illusory hopes of finding a cure, or the opacity that exists in organisations like the WHO, yet comes about as close to transcendence as most social democratic societies can allow.

In its ability to conjure meaning in architecture, Baumschlager-Eberle is in a particularly Austrian tradition. There is a long history of sophisticated and non-specific abstraction, ranging from the gorgeous uniforms that helped even low-grade Habsburg officials hide their insecurities, to the complex structures of composers from Haydn to Schönberg. Perhaps this is why, for me, its projects in Mittel-Europ are more convincing than those beyond.

The Kortrijk hospital is sophisticated but, at the early stages of a project that still has 15 years to run, seems to lack the originality of the completed work. Similarly, the Beijing towers do not, yet, have the seductive rigour of projects where Baumschlager-Eberle knows the context intimately, from the social structures to the common building practices.

When it knows the likely domestic patterns of residents in their housing schemes, and the way builders will construct them, Baumschlager-Eberle can achieve something extraordinary, such as the glass panels in the Dirnbach housing, which slide to reveal layers of transparency and opacity.

Here, the folk memory of the Dorfheimatbaufenstergauleiter - the fearsome official whose draconian powers to dictate window positions did much to accentuate angst - still runs deep, and socially accepted codes of behaviour with windows make a powerful counterpoint.

This context heightens the importance of another large project, also at a fairly early stage - the skylink at Vienna Airport. It could be the spur for the practice to explore how its formidable skills might relate to an international community where, at least in airports, the codes of behaviour are just as strong. Ultimately, that will determine whether Baumschlager-Eberle's work will transfer to a world stage, like Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Schönberg, or whether it will languish with Spohr and Hummel as interesting, highly competent also-rans.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher at South Bank University

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