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Contextual distinction

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A new exhibition in Munich showcasing the work of Swiss practice Diener & Diener is a powerful antidote to icon-fever, writes Andrew Mead

The AJ's first issue of 2004 clearly struck a chord. Its main feature, centred on Rem Koolhaas' Dutch Embassy in Berlin, and Cook and Fournier's Kunsthaus Graz, was titled 'Icons versus Context' - and since then the topic has not gone away.

There was Graham Morrison's RA/Bovis speech which questioned the pursuit of icons, Piers Gough's knee-jerk defence of them, and Charles Jencks' measured essay (AJ 9.9.04), while this autumn's Venice Architecture Biennale is full of projects with iconic aspirations. But a substantial new exhibition at Munich's Pinakothek der Moderne, presenting the work of Swiss practice Diener & Diener (D&D), is a powerful antidote to Venice, and to icon-fever generally.

Anyone who values the claims of context - but not at the expense of architectural distinction - will enjoy it.

Though Herzog & de Meuron has filled many magazine pages here, D&D, which is also based in Basel, has had a much lower profile. There was a display of its work back in 1992 at the Architecture Foundation's old Bury Street gallery, while Steven Spier's book, Swiss Made, gave a glimpse of what the practice had done since (AJ 23.10.03).

Featuring schemes from the past 25 years, in Italy, Sweden and Germany as well as Switzerland, this Munich exhibition shows what we've been missing.

Site work D&D occupies three spacious rooms at the Pinakothek, and announces its priorities at once. On plinths in the first of these galleries are 24 wooden models, not of buildings but of sites - often of consideable area, as in the masterplan for Malmo University.

But, whether in material, colour or treatment, there is nothing in these models that immediately distinguishes D&D's proposed new elements from the existing ones (apart from a few instances where the additions are slightly less abstracted). There's a site plan on the floor beside each plinth which clarifies D&D's contribution, but the effect is to make visitors analyse a slice of the city as a whole - to see scale, density, and cohesion, rather than a glitzy object against a neutral (or neutered) backdrop.

Some basic information on the briefs for each project, and perhaps on options that D&D considered in developing its schemes, would be useful here, but the point is made;

and in the catalogue Roger Diener expands on his practice's attempt to reconcile the 'individuality' of the building with the promptings of the site. It is quickly apparent that, in D&D's case, engaging with a specific location and its history, and acknowledging context, isn't a matter just of mimicking what's already there.

'Quite frequently, we are active in areas where motor reflexes of traditional urban planning, such as block-edge or line, fail, 'says Diener. Certainly the block isn't sacrosanct;

and a tendency to subvert expectation, albeit quite discreetly, is fundamental to D&D's work. One notes, too, in this room that the plinths are of different height and not in ranks: D&D likes order but not to excess.

So many architecture exhibitions depend on photographs, the more glamorous the better, but only in this first gallery of the D&D show do they appear - and then in a highly focused way. On one wall are seven large photos of facades of D&D buildings, while opposite are views out through the windows of these same facades. The window is a D&D preoccupation: sharply excised or, in the Migros centre, flush with the storey-high copper panels that clad the building. The varied proportion, subdivision and placement of these windows, the rhythms established and then modulated or interrupted, elevations that are so consciously composed: all signal a resistance to the run-of-the-mill (if sometimes just subliminally at first).

In the second room of the Munich show is D&D's 'Archive of Concepts'. On eight asymmetrically placed long tables are 72 uniform white folders - dossiers of D&D's competition entries since c.1980. It's a cross between a Minimalist art installation and a Cistercian monastery library: calm, studious and spartan, the light muted by wrapping paper on the windows.

Of the 72 competitions, D&D won 28, with 15 second places - not bad going. It is left to you to leaf through the dossiers as you wish (more satisfying than interacting with a screen? ), and to trace the evolution of ideas from one project to another. There are tantalising 'ones that got away': a design for the Rurhrmuseum Kohlenwõsche at Essen, for instance - a museum in a glazed additional storey to a disused coal-mine building - which won a competition but was dropped when the site was submitted to UNESCO for World Heritage status.

In the last gallery, D&D highlights the process of construction by concentrating on three major projects: the Swiss Embassy in Berlin, the extension to the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna in Rome, and the Novartis Pharma headquarters in Basel. There are some models here, but the presentation is primarily through working drawings, which paper all the walls.

Themes that permeate the first two rooms become explicit in these three particular schemes: D&D's dealing not just with the history of a site but an existing building (Berlin, Rome); its readiness to collaborate with artists (Berlin, Basel); its marked affinity for arts projects (Rome).

Serving the city There is also the suggestion of a new emphasis in D&D's work, when the Novartis headquarters is considered with two other recent projects in the previous room - the Spreedreieck building in Berlin and an apartment block in Antwerp. In place of 'the clearly-cut window walls' of earlier projects, D&D shows here an interest in a continuous, but variegated, glass skin - variegated in colour, texture, and degrees of translucency. Donald Judd was once called 'a closet hedonist': maybe the same epithet might suit D&D?

Nevertheless, in this Munich show there is nothing flashy or flamboyant - no self-satisfied 'icons' and certainly no blobs. Instead, there's an intelligence that serves the larger interests of a city. Whereas many architecture shows, like the 'monographs' that are just de luxe practice brochures, are mostly about PR and marketing, this D&D exhibition embodies something else: an ethical position, a philosophy.

We should see this show in the UK, but what about the venue? It is not going to pull in the crowds, so that rules out the Royal Academy. D&D is really addressing other architects, so the logical place would be the RIBA, but these days the institute seems keener to maximise revenue from its cafÚ than to run a rigorous exhibition programme. CUBE in Manchester, or The Lighthouse in Glasgow? If we can't stage shows like this - so central to current debates - then our architectural culture will be eroded. We shouldn't let that happen.

The Diener & Diener exhibition is at Munich's Pinakothek der Moderne until 9 January 2005

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