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Opening our eyes

review

Edited by Stephen Games.Methuen, 2002. £20

So Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-83), that avuncular figure best known for compiling The Buildings of England, was - says Stephen Games - 'a keen supporter of the Nazis'.

It was not just a matter of bowing to the inevitable, as so many in Germany did. The spirit of Nazism infused Pevsner's writing.

Interviewed by a British newspaper in 1933 - the year of his move to this country - he allegedly declared: 'There are things worse than Hitlerism There are many things in it which I greet with enthusiasm and which I myself have preached in my writings.' The British, it seems, were deceived. 'Had his background been better known, ' writes Games, 'it is unlikely that he would ever have made the headway he did.'

It was the scale of Pevsner's success in Britain, and the apparent ease with which he was assimilated into the British cultural scene, that fuelled the reaction against him which began before his death. Major figures such as James Richards, Gordon Russell, Frank Pick, Kenneth Clark and, indeed, Allen Lane (who gave instant support to the BoE project), rushed to welcome him and find him jobs. He was given a chair at London University, became Slade professor at both Oxford and Cambridge, and received the RIBA Gold Medal in 1967.

The reaction began in 1977 with the publication of David Watkin's Morality and Architecture. Watkin believes that the Modern Movement is an unmitigated disaster and set out to debunk Pevsner as one of its prime promoters. He did so with scholarship, wit and conviction. Agree with his views or not, Morality and Architecture remains a classic polemic. Games, in contrast, declares himself a 'Pevsnerian'. He is still, it seems, working on a biography of Pevsner, though - not surprisingly - against the wishes of the Pevsner family.

Pevsner was born a Jew but became a Lutheran as a young man, long before anyone had heard of Hitler. His rejection of Judaism angered some of his contemporaries: he stood apart from the group of Jewish émigré art historians attached to the Warburg Institute. In common with countless other Germans, he initially saw Hitler as a potential national saviour - Pevsner was apolitical by conviction and had no time for Marxism. He loved Germany, revering its academic tradition, and was reluctant to leave. Should this fact surprise us? For those who knew Pevsner, the idea that he remained a covert Nazi long after his move to London is preposterous.

Games' smear operation is unworthy and rather distasteful.

The authoritarian implications of Pevsner's preoccupation with the Zeitgeist were, of course, remarked on by Watkin in 1977. Pevsner was passionately convinced that Modern architecture and design were the ways forward and that opponents of Modernism were social, as well as aesthetic, reactionaries. It was this message that emerged in many of the radio talks he gave for the BBC between 1945 and 1977, 46 of which, on subjects ranging from German Rococo to William Morris, are published in this book.

Yet Pevsner equally did as much as anyone to open our eyes to the merits of Victorian buildings, providing the scholarship behind the Victorian Society (which he chaired for many years) and persuading government to protect great landmarks like St Pancras Station.

Take the introduction with a pinch of salt, but there is much to enjoy in this book and much to take issue with. By the 1960s, Pevsner was concerned that rational Modern design, in the Bauhaus tradition, was under attack. He could not warm to late Corbusier, nor to Stirling & Gowan, and disliked Lasdun's College of Physicians, a building which exuded the 'cult of personality' that he deplored - 'the highly personal and highly self-confident style of today which irks me so much'.

It's not hard to imagine Pevsner's response to the work of, say, Hadid or Alsop.

The man had his failings: 'modesty, faith in service and a certain neutrality' were the qualities he admired in Modern architecture, and which might equally be seen as the key to his complex personality.

Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist A full-scale recreation of a significant lost interior of the 1920s, the Aubette Bar, is currently on show at Haus Konstruktiv, Zurich, writes Andrew Mead. Designed by Sophie Täuber-Arp in 1926-28, it was part of the Aubette leisure complex in Strasbourg, on which she and Jean Arp collaborated with Theo van Doesburg.

Under van Doesburg's direction, the transformation of the Aubette behind its 18th-century facade remains one of the last century's most thoroughgoing fusions of architecture and art, though it only survives as photographs. But the fusion was too extreme for some. In her essay in De Stijl: Visions of Utopia (1982), Nancy Troy describes De Stijl artists becoming increasingly assertive and 'painting around or across corners to undermine the character of each wall as a distinct, individual plane'. This comment certainly applies to areas of the Aubette, such as the Cinema-Dance Hall, where coloured elements raced diagonally up the wall and onto and over the ceiling.

In this respect, Täuber-Arp's Aubette Bar is relatively conventional.

Although, in a few instances, pale-grey painted oblongs extend to link wall and ceiling, the overall design is not really at odds with the basic structure of the room. But given its chequer-pattern restlessness, this could never have been the most soothing setting for 'intimate cocktails', and the bar is more of a historical curiosity than a recipe for others to adapt.

The recreation, made in 1998 by Harry Zaugg, Jean-Louis Faure and Ruedi Bienz from black-and-white photographs and two colour sketches, is on display until the end of February. Occupying a former electricity power station near the centre of the city, Haus Konstruktiv focuses on artists working in a Constructivist/Concrete Art tradition - a particular Zurich tendency since the 1930s - and has an excellent bookshop devoted to the subject, with titles not readily found in the UK (www. hauskonstruktiv. ch).

2G No 21: Lacaton & Vassal Gustavo Gili, 2002. 144pp. £19.95

As a contribution to current thinking about the nature of museums (see technical & practice, page 37), a particularly germane project is Lacaton & Vassal's Palais de Tokyo, Centre for Contemporary Creation, which opened in Paris in autumn 2001, writes Andrew Mead.

It perfectly encapsulates a tendency of the last two decades or so, partly spurred by the growth of installation art: the reversion from the neutral white cube (still the rule at Herzog and de Meuron's Tate Modern, despite the power station shell) to spaces with a more industrial feel - tough, flexible, voluminous, and supposedly free from preciosity.

The Palais de Tokyo was a stripped-Classical showpiece at the 1937 International Exhibition, suave with marble veneers. It housed the collections of the Musée Nationale d'Art Moderne until the Pompidou Centre was built; later, in the 1990s, much of its interior was demolished before a plan to turn it into a Palais du Cinéma foundered.So to its new incarnation: the building treated as a ready-made by architects with a limited budget, who relished its beaten-up condition and wanted to retain its fortuitous factory aesthetic.

Deal with outstanding structural, health & safety, and servicing issues, add a few references to the great Place Djemaa-el-Fnaa in Marrakech (continually reconfigured by nomadic acrobats, jugglers etc), and there you are.The Palais de Tokyo is the latest of 17 Lacaton & Vassal schemes featured in this new issue of international architecture review 2G; low-cost, inventive houses predominate.

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