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Artisans and artists

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A Matter of Art: Contemporary Architecture in Switzerland At CUBE, 113 Portland Street, Manchester, until 31 May Most people will approach this exhibition with little, if any, notion of a unified body of contemporary Swiss architecture. Already familiar names such as Herzog & de Meuron, internationally lionised designers of Tate Modern, and the hermit-like Peter Zumthor, architect of the sublime thermal baths at Vals, seem poles apart, and besides, have no more prominence in this show than less well-known architects. Mario Botta is a notable omission.

'A Matter of Art' comes to Manchester's CUBE from the Swiss Cultural Centre in Paris via Strathclyde University - and what a revelation it is.

Just 150 buildings completed between 1997 and 2000, and a widescreen video featuring two architects talking about their work, are presented as a 'section' and 'subjective interpretation of cutting-edge contemporary architecture'. The works are mainly schools, villas and museums, both urban and rural.

But there is no attempt to identify a homogenous 'Swiss-ness' or even find a geographical balance; rather, as the exhibition's title suggests, it is a celebration of these sometimes monolithic buildings as works of art in their own right.

This thesis is reinforced by the purely 2D representation of the buildings - photographs and drawings on simple white sheets, uncluttered by models or axonometrics. But this is not an arrogant, don'tsully-my-buildings-with-people approach to architecture.

Certainly, viewing them vicariously - in the way that the architect or photographer wants us to see them - leaves the impression of pure and pristine structures and materials. At first these buildings seem timeless, silent, even oppressive. Colour is carefully limited: the bright green glaze of Herzog & de Meuron's hospital pharmacy in Basel; the green copper cladding of Diener & Diener's monumental but serene Migros store in Lucern; the white or grey concrete slab walls that rear up like mountains.

But the forms are so inviting, so rooted in their locale and landscape, and the materials so sensuous, that people could never be excluded. These are buildings and structures meant to be experienced, not just admired, ranging from the exhilarating, vertiginous sway of the granite treads of the Suransans ravine footbridge by Jurg Conzett, via local larch and spruce on Conradin Clavuot's intimately planned St Peter School, to austere black basalt concrete on Liechtenstein Art Museum by Meinrad Morger, Heinrich Degelo and Christian Kerez.

The Liechtenstein Art Museum in Vaduz, and Zumthor's Swiss Sound Box built for Hanover Expo 2000, are the only two buildings in the exhibition that are outside Switzerland.

The Swiss Sound Box is a giant, Jenga-like construction of 7m-high stacked spruce and fir planks, so redolent of the forest you can almost smell the wood and hear the wind.

Maybe they are artisans rather than artists, or maybe they are both. Maybe that is semantic hair-splitting.

It is probably no coincidence that the video focuses on two architects, Peter Zumthor and Gion Caminada, who started their careers as cabinet maker and carpenter, respectively. Theirs is an aesthetic rooted in centuries-old crafts and painstaking preindustrial techniques, and both work mainly in their own canton. The video gives a fascinating glimpse of these relatively insular communities, where despite (or perhaps because of ) the lack of social and topographical change, these architects are finding new expressions of familiar materials and functional forms.

Switzerland is not yet on the well-beaten architectural tourist track, but it may soon be as visited as Spain.

Deborah Mulhearn is a freelance journalist.

The catalogue that accompanies the show was reviewed when it was first published in the UK (See AJ 2.8.01)

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