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Built beside the Danube

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Shaping the Great City: Modern Architecture in Central Europe 1890-1937by Eve Blau and Monika Platzer. Prestel, 2000. 271pp. £39.95. (Distributed by Biblios 01403 710851)

The vast landmass east of Vienna has produced more than its fair share of talents in urban planning and architecture, many of them still unfamiliar to a British art historical scene too prone to contemplate its own country cottage. Yet many of the designers emerging from these pages could certainly shake a stick at more familiar Anglo Saxon talents and deserve to be better known.

Turn back to Hitchcock and Johnson's The International Style of 1932 and the Czechs fairly bounce out of the pages. Beside the CIAMapproved Siedlungen and Dutch diagram layouts lie such swishy numbers as Ludvik Kysela's Bata Store in Prague (1929) or Josef Kranz's Cafe Era in Brno (also 1929), which plays solid-void games with as much panache as Walsall's New Art Gallery. All this, and some pretty advanced automotive engineering as well.

But to cherrypick in this way is to commit the familiar sin of taking artworks out of context.

Johnson himself was certainly guilty of that on his hectic canter across Europe searching for prime specimens of Modernism, yet even his conspectus could not disguise the emerging variations, country by country, as players departed from the official song sheet. In fact, it would not be overfanciful to speculate that leading Czech or Hungarian Modernists sketched things out on the back of some National Romantic score, if not on a cigarette packet bearing the typographic signature of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.

Turn back the clock a mere 25 years before Johnson's tour and we find the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with Vienna as its hub and a railway network which puts our current Pan-European fumblings to shame, composed of a diverse array of peoples and cultures each with their own historic baggage as well as a handy group of nationalist patriots waiting in the wings.The scale and swagger of the Emperor's enterprise is daunting.

Vienna itself numbered more than two million at the turn of the century, Budapest a million, yet industrial development lagged behind that of the West; skilled labour was in short supply. In terms of urban morphology, the editors argue, those architects in pole position such as Otto Wagner - whose regulierungsplan (regulatory plan) for Vienna was supported by a bebauungsplan (building mass plan) - were seeking a template that could transcend the rigid setpieces of Haussmann's Paris. It would offer a more flexible framework, encapsulate mixed uses (that River Cafe mantra), and be civic in the sense that it had scale and presence but was also realisable as attractive development packages.

Wagner's vision for Vienna, as presented in the 1909-12 plan, includes sectors which are structured as conventional orthogonal grids with a hierarchy of streets and designated sites for civic buildings, his avowed intent being to transform the old inner city of the Empire into a cultural and business centre to cap them all. Another Austrian had similar designs on a capital city a few years later, but his favoured architect, Albert Speer, could hardly hold a candle to Wagner, whose prototype blocks now seem reassuringly up-to-date. Brindleyplace should consult his plan chest for instant inspiration, whereas the great Socialist structures of Red Vienna, such as Karl Ehn's much-illustrated Karl Marx Hof (1927-30), seem Stalinist in all but style.

What fascinates most in this collection of scholarly essays supporting an Austrian/Canadian/Getty Research Institute exhibition of the same title are those hitherto unsung figures represented by sketches. Among them are such images as Jiri Kroha's Primary Plan - a vivid charcoal, colourwash and ink number of which Mr Alsop would be proud - and the early 20s work of the prolific collagist Farkas Molnar, including his vibrant proposal for a frieze depicting The Manufacturer - The Consumer, in which the cherished item is passed along a line of Corbusian Modulor clones.

These - and many other - surprises, packed with verve, style and optimism, remind us that those beside the Danube have much to teach us on the banks of the Thames.

Neil Parkyn is an architect and director of consultancy Huntingdon Associates

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