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Crystal vision

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reviews - Alpine Architecture: A Utopia By Bruno Taut, with an essay by Mathias Schirren. Prestel, 2004. 128pp. £25

Conceived towards the end of the First World War and published in 1919, Bruno Taut's Alpine Architektur has long been out of print in English. And it has never appeared - as it does here - with large, near-facsimile quality reproductions. Although its importance has long been recognised, and some of the key images are familiar, this edition is a revelation.

Alpine Architecture was conceived as a Picturesque tour of a world transformed.

We begin at a mountain lake, move up a rugged canyon crossed by glass bridges and an arched lattice with 'harmoniously tuned Aeolian harps', to emerge in the Alps, where we encounter a 'Crystal Building'.

In the second of five sections we soar 'Above the Sea of Clouds', where glass ziggurats and arches enhance the mountaintops.

'The Crystal Mountain' offers a catalogue of Taut's architectural vocabulary - and a valley has become a colourful flower, at once botanical and astronomical. This section concludes with 'The Cathedral of the Rocks', a five-aisled structure of rock-hewn grottoes and a glass-vaulted nave, which, like the previous drawings, was a 'pure' fantasy.

Next, Taut uses specific locations in Switzerland, the Italian Lakes and on the Riviera, and some of his 'interventions' may cause the modern reader to recall the work of Christo. Then comes the 'Appeal to the Europeans', and with it the core of Taut's message: 'Nations of Europe! Shape your sacred assets! Build! Be a thought of your planet, Earth, which wishes to adorn itself - through you.' Further transformations of real locations - the Monte Rosa chain, the Matterhorn - give way to a plea for largescale 'Earth's Crust Building', and finally to visions of the entire solar system, stars and nebulae as works of art.

To anyone unfamiliar with the singular fusion of Neo-Romanticism and Neo-Idealism out of which Taut's ideas emerged, this might all sound faintly ridiculous. Happily, Mathias Schirren's exemplary introduction offers a wealth of insights and connections.

Taut's central theme, as is well known, was derived from the poet Paul Scheerbart's vision of a glass architecture. Equally important was his conception of the architect as both a leader of the people and an impersonal medium through whom cosmic laws were communicated. An avid reader of Ruskin, whose ideas on Alpine rock-needles find a formal echo here, Taut was also familiar with the writings of Gottfried Semper.

In both, he clearly warmed to arguments for the observation of nature as the basis of order and ornamentation - which, in Greek, as Semper pointed out, were denoted by the same word, 'cosmos'.

Even more decisive for Taut were the ideas of Gustav Theodor Fechner, who questioned the materialism of modern science and advocated a principle of 'universal animation' through which animals and plants, stars and planets, were interwoven into a living whole, to which we can relate through empathy. It is precisely this vision that Taut communicates so effectively in his words and drawings.

The idea of transforming a valley into a glass representation of a flower would find an echo, over 30 years later, in Frei Otto's proposal to roof an entire valley-system with fabric structures. But whereas Otto's was an essentially technocratic proposition, Taut's, in the wake of war, was a vision of a universe in which our productive resources are devoted to peaceful ends.

Despite the depth of ideas that went into its formation, Alpine Architecture, like all works of art, persuades us through its form - through a delicacy of line and subtlety of colour that evoke an organic vision that is never sentimental or cloying. Taken literally, Taut's proposals were megalomaniacal; but his drawings are wonderfully intimate invitations to reverie, and I would want them on my desert island.

Richard Weston is professor of architecture at Cardiff University

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