Unorthodox Austrians INGERID HELSING ALMAAS Dialogues in Time - New Graz Architecture by Peter Blundell Jones. Haus der Architektur, Graz, 1998. 367 pp. £50. (Distributor Art Data 0181 747 1061)
The phenomenon identified as the Grazer Schule, the Graz school, has over the last decade and a half become a significant feature of the architectural scene. Intriguing and photogenic, the projects of Austrian practitioners like Gunther Domenig or Szyszkowitz + Kowalski have travelled the world of the architectural media, establishing an image of startling constructions and unorthodox use of materials - organic, irregular buildings far removed from Modernist dogma.
In his introduction, however, Peter Blundell Jones points out the limitations of the idea of a school. The architecture which has developed in Graz is not isolated in space or in time, but a varied and slow development which has been gaining strength throughout this century, and which has wide connections both nationally and internationally. He therefore suggests replacing Grazer Schule with the more appropriate 'New Graz Architecture' - hence the title of the book.
To illustrate this, Blundell Jones casts far back in time, giving an overview of the development of the city of Graz, and outlining Austria's crucial contribution to the early Modern Movement. Throughout this historical account he identifies two opposing approaches: the rational - expressed, for example, through Peter Behrens and Mies van der Rohe - and the organic, leading via Frank Lloyd Wright, Bruno Taut and Erich Mendelsohn to Hans Scharoun and Hugo Haring.
Contact with the organic tradition was always present in Graz in one form or another - in teaching personalities and influences if not always in built form - but it was not until the end of the 1970s, when the sculptural possibilities of concrete construction allowed an international expressionist revival, that what we now recognise as New Graz Architecture started to take shape in the work of Gunther Domenig, Eilfried Huth and others.
As he assembles this long and complicated story, Blundell Jones examines the available facts without generalising. He has done a formidable amount of research, which is presented not only in the text itself but in the extensive (and often amusing) footnotes at the end of each chapter. Although its format and cover make the book look destined for a coffee-table, this thoroughness will no doubt ensure its rightful, authoritative position in the records of architectural history.
Blundell Jones goes to some length to direct focus away from international celebrities like Domenig in order to reveal the diversity of the Styrian architectural scene: Domenig's erstwhile partner Eilfried Huth, for example, who has done some significant work in the area of user participation (an important part of the organic tradition), slightly younger practitioners like Szyszkowitz + Kowalski, Klaus Kada or Volker Giencke, or rising stars like Ernst Giselbrecht, Riegler + Riewe, Hans Gangoly or artec. He explains the favourable political and economic conditions - the enlightened commissioning, extensive use of competitions, and focus on quality.
Most of the pages of Dialogues in Time are taken up with presentations of some 80 projects by Graz architects from the late 1970s to the mid- 1990s, divided into six building categories. Uncaptioned photographs and simple drawings of each project are accompanied by a short text. This works better for some projects than others, as the spatial complexity can be difficult to understand from the limited views available in three or four pictures. The descriptions come alive mostly where the author's obvious enthusiasm shines through, as with Klaus Kada's Festspielhaus in St Polten, which draws expressions like 'festive cascades' of glass. Nonetheless the sum of the buildings presented leaves one in no doubt about the significance of Graz architects in widening the possibilities of current architectural practice.
Sadly, the favourable circumstances which fostered these buildings have now changed, with the political turn to the right in the early 1990s. Most of the architects raised during the boom years of New Graz Architecture are now working or teaching elsewhere, and fruitful connections between political and cultural establishments have been lost.
Blundell Jones' book appears at the close of a chapter. It has the sense of a real overview which, together with the authority of its research and the richness of the buildings featured, gives it a quality all too rare in architectural publications.
Ingerid Helsing Almaas is an architect in London