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BOOK

REVIEW

Sauerbruch Hutton: Archive Lars Müller, 2006.345pp. £44.90

One of the silliest architectural debates has to be the recent hoo-hah about 'icons' versus 'ordinary buildings', as if all urban societies over the ages haven't needed a combination of both. More curious is why any architect would wish to align themselves on one side of these complementary categories - and why there aren't more architects skilfully mixing the two.

Of those who do manage to blend the iconic with the quotidian, among the more talented working today has to be Sauerbruch Hutton, the Berlin-based, Anglo-German practice. Sauerbruch Hutton is best known for its office-tower refurbishment for the GSW housing cooperative, just off Berlin's Friedrichstrasse. When that project was going up in the late-1990s, the word on the street was of something exceptional; 'Like Koolhaas but better detailed, ' was a typical comment of those who had seen it. It turned out fine, earning a place on the 2000 Stirling Prize shortlist.

So what are the characteristics of Sauerbruch Hutton's work? The partners, Matthias Sauerbruch and Louisa Hutton, met at the Architectural Association in the 1980s, but have very different intellectual pedigrees.

Sauerbruch worked for Koolhaas/OMA, notably on the Checkpoint Charlie apartment block, which has a perforated black quiff that was a real hit in its day. From this background comes a preference for diagrammatic plans, expressed in crisp and clean form. The typical Sauerbruch Hutton plan, however, tends to have an ultra-curvaceous shape - like an amoeba extruded vertically to the height needed for the function. It makes for sophisticated cookiecutter architecture.

But of course there is much more to the practice's buildings, and another strand seems to stem from Hutton's education with Peter Salter and her spell in the office of Alison and Peter Smithson. This produces an interest in the social purpose of architecture and in environmental sustainability.

So far, the jobs designed by Sauerbruch Hutton are very much those of the German re-unification period, typified by a headquarters for the environment ministry in Dessau; or a small Berlin police/fire station; or research laboratories in Biberach and the Berlin suburbs. Its attention to lowenergy performance leads to the frequent use of double-skin walls, as adaptations of trombe wall construction, with air ducted between the twin leaves for extra heating or cooling.

From both partners comes one further architectural fascination, well represented in this exemplary monograph.

That extra dimension is the stunning use of architectural colour, and not in the tokenistic application of primary colour to at rendered surfaces that was the common resort of Modernist architecture. This they ascribe to Modernist 'chromophobia' - the fictitious belief that moral purity resides in white.

Instead, they favour integral polychromy, an urge that dates perhaps to 19thcentury advocates such as William Butterfield or Gottfried Semper, and which more recently got an architectural airing with James Stirling or Venturi Scott Brown. But the use of colour by Sauerbruch Hutton is of a different order, painstakingly introduced in many different ways and driven by closer study of perceptual phenomena. Its buildings sport varieties of multi-coloured cladding sheets, tiles, blinds and window frames - often contrasted with natural timber finishes for heightened effect.

The result is a series of powerful, iridescent, seemingly pixellated architectural forms that demonstrate the folly of the 'icon' vs 'ordinary building' debate. If designs for relatively humdrum institutions in unsung locations can be as exquisite as the projects on show here, then architecture definitely gains a richer mode of expression.

Sauerbruch Hutton is the real deal: bags of design ability, lots of serious thought. A few years ago I took a group of students to visit its office in a large converted factory in north Berlin; what impressed us utterly was finding an entire oor devoted to making superb models of all sizes and all project stages. This is sensuous architecture, but with a keen social intent. Sauerbruch Hutton will surely go from strength to strength, and this book shows why.

Murray Fraser is a professor in the department of architecture at the University of Westminster

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