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Strange bumps and bulges Hugo Haring: The Organic versus the Geometric by Peter Blundell Jones. Axel Menges, 1999. 232pp. £58 (Available from Triangle Bookshop 0171 631 1381)

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Most people will know only one project of Hugo Haring's, the farm at Gut Garkau near Lubeck of 1925. This remains a mysterious place, apparently one of the most eccentric pieces of German Expressionist architecture, yet serving the humblest functions, that of housing cows and hay. Pictures of these buildings show strange bulges and extrusions in semi-savage materials, speckled brickwork laid in odd patterns, strongly scored weatherboard, concrete. It is no surprise to learn that in unbuilt parts of the complex Haring planned to incorporate misshapen boulders and thatch roofs.

How does one justify a large monograph on a man known only for such a roguish bit of building? Peter Blundell Jones has several answers to that question, which reminds one of Haring's multiple rationales for arbitrary- looking features like the pear-shaped layout of cow stalls at Gut Garkau.

First of all, Haring was a major player in the Modernist debates of the 1920s, sharing studio space with Mies, and representing an alternative to Le Corbusier, Giedion and Gropius' conceptions of form and space. The cow shed is 'arguably one of the key buildings of the 20s', and the unbuilt Berlin Sezession Gallery of 1926 prefigures important spatial discoveries of Aalto and Scharoun two decades in the future. Much emphasis is placed on Haring as a theorist, and finally there is his relation to Scharoun: 'Behind the dreamer Scharoun lies the thinker and theorist Haring.'

So the book is not primarily concerned with built work; this must be so, because Haring never got to build much. Blundell Jones thinks (debatably) that a promising career was aborted by the arrival of the Nazis, but his book does not depend upon this claim. It is a work which explores energetically the unbuilt ideas and theoretical posititons of someone who emerges in surprisingly rounded form, especially given that Blundell Jones has little interest in personal details or relations with clients. Perhaps he follows his subject in this; Haring was fond of saying that it isn't our own individuality but the individuality of the task at hand which matters.

In the end Blundell Jones convinces me, but his book is not always easy going. There cannot be many monographs which spend as much time in meticulous dissection of plans. It is unfortunate, then, that often they are only matchbox size. When confronted with another unbuilt early project of not very remarkable appearance, I sometimes wished these lengthy analyses could have been relegated to a catalogue section at the back, leaving only essential stages in the argument for the main text. But in retrospect I am not sorry to have read these attempts to imagine non-existent spaces: this is how one understands designs in detail.

The question remains, though: is Haring worth it? Not for his influence on Scharoun: the younger man was generous in saying how much Haring meant to him, but Scharoun can be understood perfectly well by someone who has never heard of Haring.

Nor for his theories. They are pleasantly nutty in the main, though on quaky ground in the 1930s when he ventures into the nature of Germanness. It is consoling but too simple to believe in a world divided between the Mediterranean and the North, geometry and the organism, Classic and Gothic. As for Haring's model of architectural history, it is a kind of children's pantomime: each culture comes dressed in a single geometrical form which is its signature - a pyramid (Egypt), a rectangle (Greece), a circle (Rome), a dome (Byzantium), a vault (Gothic), an ellipse (Baroque). Even the parade of periods is an embarrassing crudity.

Not for any one of these aspects, but for the whole of his participation in the twentieth century, for the collison between his theory and practice and the political hostility he met. For the sad aftermath in which he saw architects who had profited from the Nazi ascendancy reinstalled after Hitler's defeat. Blundell Jones connects Haring with his time in inventive ways. His analysis of Mies' famous glass skyscraper followed by Haring's alternative is brilliant, as is the comparison of Haring's sausage factory (demolished not that long ago) with Mendelsohn's more famous and more gripping hat factory.

While Blundell Jones accords Haring the most devoted attention, he avoids inflated claims almost completely. Exemplary in its level-headedness is his treatment of the Nazi period, entirely lacking in gratuitous professions of hatred for the regime.

Perhaps some chapters of Haring's life could still be amplified. He ran an art school in Berlin from 1935 to 1943, and at the same time looked after an extremely compromising set of Malevich's paintings which are now in Amsterdam. I could happily hear more about this period, but sadly Blundell Jones is immune to the charms of gossip.

Like Haring's own work, Blundell Jones' book is an artefact which makes itself felt gradually. In the end it is a remarkable, many sided explication of a valuable subject that might easily have remained obscure.

Robert Harbison is professor at the University of North London

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