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Romantic revisionist

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National Romanticism and Modern Architecture in Germany and the Scandinavian Countries By Barbara Miller Lane. Cambridge University Press, 2000. 420pp. £60 The Soul of the North. A Social, Architectural and Cultural History of the Nordic Countries, 1700-1

Dismissed by historians of a progressive bent as backward-looking and tainted by its association with National Socialism, National Romantic architecture does not loom large in mainstream histories.

And even specialists have been reluctant to connect the Scandinavian and German expressions of national ideals either side of 1900, preferring to see them as largely independent - the former inspired by Art Nouveau, spiced by HH Richardson and Louis Sullivan from across the Atlantic, and the latter as a reinterpretation of the supposedly 'Germanic' buildings of Northern Italy.

Barbara Miller Lane's rereading of the architectural and documentary evidence has produced a compelling revisionist account that connects the previously disconnected and suggests fascinating new insights into the complex origins of Modernism. The widely espoused 'dream of the North', with its fusion of national and aesthetic regionalism, architectural innovation, and social and ethical reform, projected precisely the same kind of totalizing vision which proved so persuasive after 1918.

Similarly, Lane traces a continuity of ideas and values from the reforming zeal of early advocates of the 'ideal home' to the social housing and 'machines for living in' of the 1920s. Carl and Karin Larsson's vision of a 'natural' lifestyle (to which IKEA now projects itself as heir) spread throughout Europe, and the social and feminist philosopher Ellen Key's book Beauty for All was similarly influential, feeding directly into the ideas of post-war reformers like Gregor Paulsson. And if you think, as I did, that the modern kitchen was invented in Germany in the mid 1920s, the surprisingly 'functional' version in Hans Poelzig's 1904 exhibition house in Breslau will give pause for thought.

The search for a new monumentality in public buildings produced numerous calls for a new simplicity in form and in the use of materials, and was in time echoed in Walter Gropius' declaration that extreme simplicity was the basis of authentic monumentality - a thought he famously illustrated with the images of American grain silos later disseminated by Le Corbusier. Wood and stone - above all the granite bedrock - assumed almost spiritual significance to architects of a nationalist bent and their devotion to the 'truth' of these materials contributed significantly, Lane argues, to Modern Movement values.

For the major architects of National Romanticism - Martin Nyrop in Denmark, Ragnar Ostberg and Torben Grut in Sweden, and Lars Sonck and Gesellius, Lindgren, Saarinen in Finland - archaism and innovation were complementary, not antithetical.

Faced with the challenge of designing the stadium for the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Grut looked back to circular prehistoric tomb structures and to the medieval walled town of Visby, but produced results which were strikingly novel.

Lane necessarily confines herself to illustrating how, in a similar spirit of retrospective invention, Gropius' log-built Sommerfeld House of 1920-21 can properly be seen as standing at the threshold of something new, not as the last gasp of an outmoded sensibility, but her discussion of this episode of primitivism invites speculation about its differently motivated recrudescence after 1945.

Lane's book has a small section of colour plates, but is mostly illustrated with photographs which tend to the grey rather than crisply black and white. It presents a wealth of little-known material and is essential reading for students of the period, but it is a pity that its production will not do more to entice the wider readership it deserves - it would greatly enrich a visit to any of the Scandinavian countries.

Neil Kent's wide-ranging study, The Soul of the North, is far more attractively produced, but somewhat deceptively titled: Kent is a noted expert on the dreamy north, but architecture does not loom anywhere near as large as painting in his discussions or illustrations.

This is very much a social and cultural history, in which precious few of Barbara Miller Lane's protagonists even merit a mention.

For most architectural readers its interest will lie in the light it sheds on the context of the distinctive and widely influential Scandinavian contribution to architecture and design. In this respect the chapter on 'The Family and Sexuality' could be read with interest and profit, whereas the discussion of 'Slavery, the Tropics and Scandinavian Colonial Expansion'may seem peripheral.

Richard Weston is a professor at the Welsh School of Architecture

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