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From opposite poles

review

Atelier 5 By Friedrich Achleitner. Birkhauser, 2000. 216pp. £18

Gunter Behnisch By Peter Blundell Jones. Birkhauser, 2000. 206pp. £18

Founded in 1955, the Berne-based Atelier 5 practice is today little known in Britain - indeed, Swiss architecture, once so venerated on these shores, was remarkably neglected here until the recent, sensational advent of Herzog & de Meuron.

There can be little doubt, however, that it was Atelier 5 which inspired both the name and some of the preoccupations of Team 4 in the 1960s. The housing schemes designed by Norman Foster and Richard Rogers for sites in Surrey and Cornwall had their source in Atelier 5's much-discussed Siedlung Halen (1955-61); their cancellation was a major disappointment and a catalyst to the breakup of Team 4. For Foster and Rogers, Atelier 5's approach fused naturally with the ideas on privacy and community which they had imbibed from Serge Chermayeff at Yale.

Ironically, Atelier 5 succeeded where Team 4 failed and between 1968-70 a group of 21 houses - 147 were originally planned - was built to its designs in the Croydon suburb of Park Hill. (The project is included in the list of works in Birkhauser's Studio Paperback, but not illustrated. ) The 'Mediterranean hill town' imagery of the Siedlung Halen, with its origins in the unrealised La Sainte-Baume project of Le Corbusier, had a strong appeal in Britain, providing an alternative to the high-rise flats then beginning to dominate British inner cities.

During the 1960s, Atelier 5's work, concentrated mostly around Berne, moved close to British New Brutalism. By the 1980s, a lighter approach prevailed, using glass and metal, in an almost High-Tech manner, and, on occasions, timber.

Housing and 'social' architecture have remained the mainstays of the office, though banks have - predictably perhaps - been important clients in recent years.None of the founding partners is still active in the firm.

This is a useful book, providing a handy reference to a significant and neglected outfit, though Friedrich Achleitner's sombre text - not helped by a very flat English translation - is unlikely to enthuse those unfamiliar with the work. He dismisses criticism 'oriented primarily towards aesthetic trends' - the root of the neglect of Atelier 5, he claims - and is censorious on the 'star' system. 'The word 'poetic' does not exist in the grammatical usage of Atelier 5, ' we are told. Is this supposed to be high praise?

Nor does Achleitner come to any clear conclusion on the architectural - as opposed to the social - significance of Atelier 5's work, much of which appears dry and even prosaic. But then Atelier 5 clearly does not believe that architecture should be fun and may be pleased that Achleitner has produced a manifesto for architectural puritanism.

Peter Blundell Jones' book on Gunter Behnisch is a very different proposition. Blundell Jones is an enthusiast for the work of the Behnisch office and communicates that enthusiasm with his usual fluency. Behnisch's name became familiar in Britain a few years back when he was selected as the architect of the proposed Bristol arts centre, a potentially stunning addition to the city's waterfront which was tragically binned by the Lottery.Behnisch's son and partner Stefan was, in fact, the lead designer on the Bristol scheme, but Behnisch senior has been in practice for 40 years, working from Stuttgart.

The practice's achievements include some impressive schools and sports buildings (including the facilities for the 1972 Munich Olympics, designed with Frei Otto) as well as major commercial and transport schemes.Behnisch's parliament building in Bonn was completed in 1992 - the year that the first moves were made to shift the Bundestag to Berlin (and eventually to Foster's reconstructed Reichstag).

Behnisch's work is diametrically opposed to that of Atelier 5. He finds the use of repetitive systems for public buildings and housing oppressive and domineering. Architecture, he argues, should respond to the huge variety of human experience and character. For Blundell Jones, Behnisch's studio - he insists that all his work is collaborative - is the natural inheritor of the organic tradition of Scharoun. Behnisch likes strong colours and memorable, even playful, forms. Some of his buildings (such as the 1987 Hysolar Institute) have an expressive quality which Britain is beginning to see in the first major built works of Alsop and Hadid - which makes me all the more angry that we in Britain have been denied a major example of his architecture.

Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist

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