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Scandinavian grace

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How to be Modern: Arne Jacobsen in the 21st Century Concrete Garden At the Museum of Modern Art, 30 Pembroke Street, Oxford until 23 June 'How to be Modern' and 'Concrete Garden' are linked exhibitions that give a glimpse of that particular Danish slant on architecture and design. This year being the centenary of Arne Jacobsen's birth, his own work takes precedence; and, naturally enough, particular attention is given to St Catherine's College, Oxford (completed in 1963). A small accompanying publication includes an essay, 'Extending the Humanist Tradition', by Stephen Hodder, architect for the recent extension there.

The English version of those narrow yellow bricks, which Jacobsen had to settle for at the time, have not worn as well as their Danish prototypes. Otherwise, everything at St Catherine's is as he designed, from the now-mature fine landscape to the furniture, cutlery and carpet. The last he wanted woven with spots to mark where the chair-legs should go, but the Fellows drew the line at this. (The concept of 'total design' or the ambition of a control freak - the superhumanist tradition, perhaps? ) With the impossibility of replacing the single-glazed, full-height, room-width windows, thanks to the college's Grade I-listing, residents 40 years on either sweat or shiver during seasonal extremes. And how does privacy rate in the 'humanist tradition'?

Certainly the earlier work - the seaside terrace houses at Bellevue from the 1930s, the superb Munkegaard School (1956) which shares the same section - are fine examples of a humane approach, as well as the masterpiece of this period, the Aarhus Town Hall. This was completed during the Nazi occupation in 1942; soon afterwards, Jacobsen, no radical but a Jew, was forced to flee to Sweden. An excellent biographical film, The Ant, The Egg and The Swan, the highlight of the exhibition, includes construction footage of this groundbreaking, open approach to civic government.

During a discussion in this film led by Karsten Thau, co-author of the recent Jacobsen monograph (AJ 20.12.01), there is a sense that style took precedence in his later work; with his final building, the Danish National Bank, a 'monumental endgame'.

But there is nothing monumental about St Catherine's - the scale is just right - and as a model of clarity in intention and execution, it remains a unique example of 'Scandinavian grace' in this traditional context.

While that was a one-off, showing the influence of Mies van der Rohe, Jacobsen's economic designs for stacking chairs (following the Eames) are almost commonplace - the Ant, especially. All the chair designs are on show here, and after leaving the sepulchral room where the slightly precious industrial designs are displayed, you can sit in one of the Egg swivel chairs (as seen in Kubrick's 2001 - A Space Odyssey) and handle the Jacobsen cutlery.

Though an extremely modest affair in the ground floor gallery, Concrete Garden nonethless raises some fundamental issues.

The darker side of the quest for order is examined by Jakob Kolding's posters and questionnaires that look at spatial design as an instrument of social control. Pia Rönicke's video, Outside the Living Room, starts with the garden as a substitute for lost nature, moving on to the utopian vision of urbanism in nature with the memorable image of the Rockefeller Center in a literal Manhattan jungle (echoes of J G Ballard's fiction).

Three garden installations by Jonas Maria Schul complete this section, appropriately in plain rectangular concrete planters. 'Modest Garden' has tough survivors that could even thrive in pavement cracks; 'Protest Garden' has prolific spreading varieties that will quickly colonise. The projects of 'street farmers' Crump and Haggart at the Architectural Association in the 1970s re-emerge in Danish artists born just then.

David Wild is an architect in London. Stephen Hodder will lead a tour of St Catherine's on 15 June, 2pm (tickets 01865 813802)

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