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When Buildings Speak: Architecture as Language in the Habsburg Empire and its Aftermath, 1867-1933 By Anthony Alofsin.University of Chicago Press, 2006. 326pp. £35.00

This book features some wonderfully strange things.

Ranging across the diverse territories of the AustroHungarian Empire in its last decades, it naturally takes in some familiar architects and sites (Wagner and Olbrich in Vienna, for instance). But Anthony Alofsin includes not only such once-marginal figures as Jo e Plecnik but others who don't even make the margins of any history - DuPIan Jurkovic, Floris Korb and István Medgyaszay, to name just three.

And their buildings aren't simply curiosities, unorthodox though they appear.

Some of this ground was covered in Competing Visions by Akos Moravanszky (AJ 02.07.98), but its drab blackand-white photos did the architecture few favours.

Alofsin's book features many recent colour photos; it could be used as a gazetteer now that easyJet supplants the Iron Curtain. In expanding readers' horizons, however, and supplying a fuller account of what's been built, Alofsin also explores the ability of architecture to express ideas - what buildings say. That longstanding question is still to the point, after a century when doctrinaire Modernism mostly sidelined it and PostModernism debased it.

Alofsin structures his book around five 'languages' which his chosen buildings speak - history, organicism, rationalism, myth, hybridity - but they're far from mutually exclusive.

He describes his approach as 'contextual formalism': an attempt to give form and context equal weight; to balance the materials, structure and imagery of buildings with the political and cultural factors that gave them meaning. His accounts aren't exhaustive but 'sketches for longer studies'.

Although hybridity gets a chapter to itself, it's really the key to the book. In tracing the genesis of these works and what they aimed to express, Alofsin repeatedly identifies multiple sources and multiple meanings.

Ödön Lechner, in his three big public buildings in Budapest, tried to embody Hungarian national identity (something Neo-styles couldn't do).

Discerning its roots in Persia and India, he mixed Persian decorative motifs with Indian arch and column forms and floral patterns of Hungarian folk art; but there are signs of modernity too, for Lechner was committed to innovative construction - though not as the main language of his buildings or an end in itself.

For his pains, Lechner was sanctioned by parliament over his Postal Savings Bank: the minister of culture called it too Hungarian and too Secessionist.

Moreover, as Alofsin points out, there were political realities that Lechner failed to face: 'Rising internal tensions from Slavic and Romanian nationalists could in no way be neutralised by an architectural style.'

Despite the copious bibliography, we don't always learn as clearly as in Lechner's case just how these buildings were received - how eloquently they spoke and to whom.

Whatever evidence survives, that will always be partly in doubt. But in tracing the intentions behind some rich and unusual architecture, Alofsin has written an illuminating book.

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