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Rich in ambiguity and invention

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JEREMY MELVIN Beyond the Minimal At the Architectural Association, 36 Bedford Square, London WC1 until 1 April

Not 'beyond the minimal' was my first impression of this exhibition of four Viennese practices, more like Caruso St John on speed. That practice's minimal depiction of its Walsall Art Gallery was the last exhibition in the AA gallery. Here, too, is that poetic combination of recessed details, bare concrete and undemonstrative forms - except there is more of it, and it is done, dare I say, with more enjoyment.

Only as I looked more carefully did the good doctor's advice to Holly Martins in The Third Man, 'Everyone must go carefully in Vienna, ' start to ring in my ears.

PAUHO F's unbuilt scheme for the Austrian Pavilion at the Seville Expo would have acted Grimshaw off the stage: a slit-like box supported some 15m in the air on a row of slender columns, with another box on its side containing lifts and stairs, it has that archetypal symbol of capitalist exploitation - a piston and flywheel - cut out in stencil. And the lecture room, in the upper box, is a chute leading to the ground a dangerous distance below. The same sense of the uncanny comes in the practice's house in Upper Austria, where a box, similarly stiffened by using the full depth of walls and the expanses of floor and roof, sits on two minimal supports.

This is more than knowing invention, it is a serious attempt to coerce construction and form to manipulate expectation and experience. Almost all these projects have some sort of double life: Adolf Krischanitz shows a school for Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union (Jews take refuge in Vienna by choice? ): an impeccably inscrutable Loosian box, so the children might be, in one way, acculturated.

Vienna, I suggested to the curator Peter Allison of South Bank University, is not a city but a repository for our personal anxieties. So my Vienna is different to his or yours but, sharing the same label, we can believe our traumas to be collective:

the dark heart of the twentieth century, Modernism, or whatever.

'Vienna is a small place, ' replies Allison, 'with one big idea.' (Yes, like world domination). 'But that idea can take several forms.'

And these different forms, as shown in this exhibition, are gripping. Riegler-Riewe's essays in slab blocks, an Austrian tradition, show how a few simple gestures can be extraordinarily evocative: for instance, changing the cladding and skin, eroding parts away and varying their length to make routes and public space, or placing what look like PVC-u windows with all the artistry of a 1970s double-glazing firm.

Within a Caruso St John-like concrete wall, such playfulness is a relief. Remember Die Zauberflote and cuckoo calls in Haydn symphonies? Go carefully in Vienna.

Krischanitz, the doyen of the quartet, covers similar territory in his analysis of Donau-city in Vienna. Looking at spaces and activities rather than the blocks themselves, he too finds poetry within inscrutability. ARTEC, like PAUHO F a younger firm, is the furthest from minimalism. Its forms tend towards Deconstruction, but on examining them you find what Allison calls the 'characteristic of solid and immateriality', which runs through 'beyond the minimal'. That is especially the case in the library for a scholar that it has placed on top of an anonymous farm building. Clad in aluminium with recessed joints making a flush surface, it does disappear - become reflective - in sunlight.

I was most taken, though, with PAUH OF , perhaps because its gunmetal models are so striking. But when you place a plain facade in front of Vienna's Messe Palast (formerly the Imperial Stables), flanked by Semper's Natural History and Art History Museums, and the official termination of an axis from the Hofburg Palast, you inevitably raise significant cultural issues. Especially when behind the stables - and the real termination to the axis - is the indestructible, indefatigable concrete cylinder of a Second World War airraid shelter.

Here is not so much the urban setting of Musil's The Man without Qualities, more a man in the City without Qualities. And that man is Peter Allison. He has trod carefully through Vienna to produce an exhibition full of challenging ambiguities and rich intellectual invention.

Jeremy Melvin is an architectural writer and teacher

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