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Moments of brilliance

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review - 2G nos 29 & 30: Max Bill, Architect Editorial by Karin Gimmi, Gustavo Gili, 2004. 276pp. £40

This 2G double issue on Swiss architect-artist Max Bill (1908-1994) follows the Barcelona publisher's ambition to examine 20th-century figures whose work is not well-known (a previous 2G monograph highlights Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi).

As one of the very few books on Bill available in English and in print, it is timely and comprehensive. Karin Gimmi's introduction says the aim is to bring Bill to a wider audience rather than to provide a substantial scholarly examination. Yet the monograph addresses one of the more glaring omissions in contemporary architectural publishing, and for this 2G should be applauded.

Bill's architectural production is not expansive but his influence on what could be loosely described as 'the Swiss school' of the '80s and '90s is significant. This relationship was explored in the Swiss entry to the XIX Triennale in Milan in 1996, whose curator, Stanislaus von Moos, contributes to the 2G issue. A product of that exhibition was a small book entitled The Minimal Tradition: Max Bill and 'Simple' Architecture, which connects the precise and exacting work of Bill with that of current Swiss architects such as Diener and Diener, Herzog & de Meuron, Gigon Guyer, Meili Peter, Burkhalter Sumi and Peter Mõrkli.

This link between Bill and these dominant forces in contemporary architecture is to some extent an academic fabrication, as the later generation attempted to critically address the architecture of which Max Bill was a part - that is, universal Modernism. In his 2G essay, von Moos explores the relationship between art and architecture in Bill's work and revises the view put forward in his earlier writings.

Unlike the architects listed above, who trained at ETH in Zurich, Bill studied at the Bauhaus, which had a profound influence on his entire production in two ways.

First, his work blurs the boundaries between architecture, design, graphics and the plastic arts. The different aspects of Bill's output are here presented in essays by von Moos and Gimmi, the former addressing its artistic and architectural aspects, the latter Bill's multi-disciplinary exhibition designs.

Second, Bill explored the possibilities of repetition and investigated ways of applying industrial techniques of mass production and assembly to the building industry. This concern appears in nearly all his built work - the pavilion for Expo '64 in Lausanne being the largest and most ambitious example - and is thoroughly researched in a third essay by Arthur R³egg.

Finally, Bill himself is given a voice, as the volume ends with several of his written pieces, covering all his areas of activity. But the bulk of the 2G publication is taken with Bill's realised works, which are documented both in their original and present forms, sometimes grotesquely modified beyond recognition.

Bill's motivation was a social belief in providing well-designed products cheaply and in large numbers (a typical dimension of early and post-war Modernism in attempting to address a continuous European housing crisis). However, his most important building - the Hochschule f³r Gestaltung (School of Design) in Ulm, completed in 1955 - is hardly an example of prefabrication. By choosing, for reasons of availability and economics, in situ concrete over steel frame, Bill was able to create a powerful topographic architecture, combining a sense of weight with plastic clarity.

Between 1950 and 1956, Bill headed the Hochschule f³r Gestaltung and initiated a curriculum of 're-education' at a political and scientific level. It could be said that Bill sought to recreate the educational climate of the Bauhaus, representing the view that design has a social obligation, and that his eventual resignation in 1957 sprang from the growing distance between this aim and the direction the school actually took. In spite of all this, what Bill left behind on the hillside overlooking Ulm is arguably among the most significant buildings of the post-war period.

Although I take delight in Max Bill's work being documented by 2G, this handsome issue raises questions about his architectural output. His production has moments of brilliance hidden behind formal restraint, to the point where it courts banality. I find Bill an elusive figure, which probably explains why he has been marginalised by the architectural community. Although his exploration of so many different forms of creative practice - painting, graphic art, sculpture and industrial design - makes him a fine example of the Bauhaus belief in blurring creative boundaries, one cannot help feeling that this wide range was developed at the expense of his architectural production.

Jonathan Sergison is a visiting professor at ETH Zurich and a partner at Sergison Bates architects. The work of Sergison Bates architects will be the subject of a 2G issue in summer 2005

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