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Prophet of the particular

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Hugo Haring and the Secret of Form At the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1 until 24 March

The early decades of the twentieth century, before the doctrine of the Modern Movement had become consolidated, produced strange bedfellows, among them Hugo Haring and Mies van der Rohe. The first was the prophet of the particular, the precise tailoring of each building to site and function, the second of the universal solution, applicable almost anywhere and to any function.

The two nevertheless shared an office (if not a formal professional association), and even some work, notably the early planning of the Weissenhof Siedlung. They fell out over the fees and their association came to an end in 1926, the start of the period which saw the clarification of Modern Movement orthodoxy, with the realisation of the Weissenhof Siedlung under Mies' sole direction, the rejection of Le Corbusier's League of Nations competition entry, and the establishment of CIAM.

The 'universalists' gained the upper hand - better attuned as they were to the attitudes and interests of an industrialised economy - with the 'particularists' becoming increasingly marginalised, almost losing touch with the Modern Movement altogether, until the sudden surprise late-flowering of Haring's younger fellow-thinker Hans Scharoun in post-war Berlin.And there they stand side by side to this day, like chalk and cheese, Mies' Staatsgaliere and Scharoun's Staatsbibliothek, monuments to their opposing philosophies.

Professor Peter Blundell-Jones, curator of this exhibition with Nasser Golzari, has spent much of a lifetime advancing the cause of the particularists, so this is a labour of love. Built around the research for his 1999 book on Haring (AJ 30.9.99), a small Arts Council grant, and an immense input of labour by himself and his Sheffield students, the result is a highly informative and, particularly in the models, visually stunning exhibition.

He has nevertheless had a harder task than with his earlier work on Scharoun, because Haring was a much less prolific and - it has to be said - less expressive designer.

He was, says Blundell-Jones, 'the most articulate of German Modernists and the only one to formulate an entire theory of architecture' - but how do you exhibit a theory?

He built little after his Siemensstadt housing of 1930, and his most famous work, the farm at Garkau, was complete by 1925, a product of the same Expressionist era as Mendelsohn's Luckenwalde Hat Factory. A further difficulty is that Haring's theory of planning from within to without, on 'organic' as opposed to 'geometric' lines, leads to concentration of expression in the plan and internal volumes, which are hard to exhibit, to the detriment of external coherence.

Even Scharoun's mature architectural work, with its stunning plans and spaces, can look surprisingly ordinary in its external architectural treatment, and the same holds for Haring's later work, such as the post-war houses in his native town of Biberach.

But photographic presentation of built work is not, it has to be said, the strong point of this exhibition. Go to it for the models, for the curving vertically-boarded timber wall which gives the 'feel', and for the textual exposition of theories which it is important to know were prevalent in the world from which Modern Movement orthodoxy was born. It is arguable that the Modern Movement too readily accepted the notion of standardisation: Haring asserted that mechanisation should be called on in the production, not in the conception.

One well-known British architect used to confess he was almost put off the Modern Movement when attending an early postwar conference on agricultural buildings, by a guttural voice asking from the back 'Vhat is ze turning circle of a cow?' It can't have been Haring because (a) he would have known and (b) he would not have sanctioned the mechanisation of cows.

James Dunnett is an architect in London

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