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Transforming tactics

review

Sauerbruch Hutton At the Architectural Association, 36 Bedford Square, London WC1 until 22 January. Catalogue from AA Publications, £21

Sauerbruch Hutton may use simple devices, but its control of its means and media is so complete that the effect is of a self-referential oeuvre. The contingencies of particular projects are subsumed within an overarching idea, where each plane, junction, and nuance of form or colour are the results of a synthetic artifice. It's a considerable achievement.

A sequence of small panels mounted several rows deep on the walls describe the projects. Occasional orange title panels mark the breaks between them, and description panels are placed somewhere within the run of each scheme. There is a 'correct' order to follow, but there is also a temptation to allow the eye to wander across the matrix of images, to spot affinities and similarities between projects which vary in scope, scale, programme and location. The effect, I imagine, is something like the extraordinary, sinuous perimeter wall of the Photonics Centre, in its combination of sensory and intellectual appeal. The scope for variety is endless.

Sauerbruch Hutton's circumstances underpin this diversity. The practice announced itself in London with the standard young British architect's fare of ambitious competition entries and domestic buildings. Then it transferred to Berlin. On the back of that city's reconstruction it landed projects on the scale of the gsw headquarters, a remodelled 1950s tower block; of the prestige of the Federal Ministry of the Environment in Dessau; and with the imaginative power of the Photonics Centre. But it retained an office in London whose projects have yet to move beyond the domestic scale.

In several schemes its approach interacts with established architectural genres to striking effect. L House in London is a familiar one: a Victorian terraced house converted into a maisonette over offices. It has all those common problems which arise from the tyranny of narrowly spaced party walls. But introducing furniture-sized boxes, which become more frequent and intense in colour the higher they are, weaves another theme into the building. Finally, on the top floor, only the party walls and floor remain from the house; the roof is glass and the built-in furniture sets the spatial character.

H House was an innocent - if well-planned and restrainedly elegant - detached 1960s building in London, until Sauerbruch Hutton diagnosed its spatial logic to be that of a large-format painting. Its 'concept drawing' takes this logic to an extreme, with traces of Hockney, possibly Matisse and Mondrian, and even that way the Smithsons had of picking up images and overlaying them on architectural drawings.

In its sensibility which combines spatial effects with graphics, this design is close to the Berlin Photonics Centre, which is probably the partnership's best known completed work (aj 3.9.98). Here the programme - research into light - is helpful. It suggests both a break with the orthogonal block forms of its neighbours and the changing colour of the perimeter wall; a combination of form and colour which makes it at one moment real and tangible, and at another, ethereal and elusive.

The gsw headquarters takes these transforming tactics to the urban scale. It extends the precisely articulated volumes of the original building with freer but no less careful forms which mediate between the street context and the 1950s vision. As this is in Berlin it can hardly fail to be emotive, but avoids sentimentality by looking forward, not just to some utopian vision of re-unified city and country but also to better urban workspaces.

These are opportunities which London architects might envy. While they might be landing the next loft conversion in Spitalfields, Sauerbruch Hutton can show the Open Building Buch. It, too, is a generic brief for live work spaces. Without the constraints of a dreary shell, the practice has generated a form from a brief for column-free spaces where each achieves a uniqueness through its orientation to neighbours and the sun. This is architecture, not the manipulation of the contingent which so often passes for it.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

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