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National identity

review: landscape books

EDWIN HEATHCOTE

Hungarian Architecture: Modernist & Organic At the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1, until 26 February

It is virtually impossible to talk of national identity, the collective unconscious, symbolism and narrative in Western architecture, without being either shouted down as a right-wing lunatic or ignored as a fool. The Modernist project has homogenised Western building and ambition to a remarkable extent. The situation in the wake of PostModernism is not much different from the Modern one - maybe a bit more urban and colourful, and now with the leavening of Suprematist and Constructivist angles first seen 90 years ago.

In Hungary, though, an extraordinary and unique alternative appeared a couple of decades ago. The organic architecture that emerged was inspired by a blend of Rudolf Steiner's expressionism (and his anthroposophical philosophy), the zoomorphic fantasies of GaudÝ, the prairie-hugging super-shacks of Bruce Goff and Herb Green, and the organic and vernacular traditions of Hungary itself.

Its best-known exponent remains Imre Makovecz, who has written that his architecture is an attempt to bridge heaven and Earth, to reconcile the realms of darkness and light. His moment of worldwide recognition came at the 1992 Seville Expo where his Hungarian pavilion - a whale-backed, slate-roofed monster - was built around a tree transported whole from the Hungarian plain, its roots exposed beneath a glass floor;

a metaphor for his manicheistic world-view in which light is always balanced by dark, east by west, dream by reality. He attempted to expose the way our world draws nutrition, like the tree from its roots, from the subconscious world of folk memory and myth.

Makovecz was shunned and deprived of work by the communist regime. He flourished nevertheless as a forestry architect, embarking on a remarkable series of expressionistic timber structures in the tiny towns and villages of rural Hungary, buildings constructed by locals for almost negligible budgets.He has been followed by a dedicated group of younger architects (among the best of which is Dezso Ekler, exhibited here), who continue this sculptural organic tradition.

For Makovecz, the darkness was represented by communism and the socialist ideal of a mechanistic, functionalist architecture.

But his position is still very much a minority one. Contemporary Hungarian architecture is dominated by a familiar new Modernism, marked out by an engaging and tactile use of timber, an imposed ingenuity in face of very tight budgets, and by the youth of many of its best proponents.

What this exhibition, curated by Hungarian-born London architect Sandor Vaci, cannot show is that the current situation reflects over a century of tradition. From Odon Lechner, a brilliant contemporary of GaudÝ's, to the Loosian severity of Bela Lajta and Bela Malnai, from the National Romanticism of Aladar Arkay to the Functionalism of Farkas Molnar (designer of the Red Cube House in 1923), the history of Hungarian architecture has been that of conflict and reconciliation between the two traditions.

Hungary's imminent accession to the EU has reignited debates about loss of national identity and, conversely, is leading young architects to study the Swiss and Dutch more closely and follow them more slavishly. This show proves that both sides in such an extreme debate can coexist: the finest projects, Dezso Ekler's winery in Tokay and Inarchi's MEO Gallery in Budapest, are modest in budget but ambitious in programme - the latter a tremendous little scheme which, in its use of illuminated cladding, prefigures Herzog & de Meuron's Laban Centre by four years.

This exhibition will not shake contemporary architecture, but it should encourage those who whinge about the impossibility of working to parsimonious budgets. It should also open eyes to a diverse and intellectually stimulating scene, which offers alternatives to the crushing, global corporate aesthetic.

Edwin Heathcote is architectural correspondent for the Financial Times and a contributor to the exhibition catalogue

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