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Tensions that lie beneath the surface

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Architecture from Austria 1896-1996 At the riba Architecture Centre, 66 Portland Place, London W1 until 5 September

Austria shares with Britain an innate cultural conservatism, says the introduction to this exhibition. And the similarities between Friedrich Ohman's New Wintergarden at the Hofburg Palace of 1901-7 and Wilhelm Holzbauer's Salzburg University of 1978-86 seem to bear this out. Both are essentially large glass structures, although the first has Ionic columns and the second the accoutrements of democracy, such as an open-air amphitheatre, timber pergolas and a water garden. Sometimes architectural innovation would be too rich a supplement to existing trauma.

The exhibition charts the architecture of a traumatic century in Austrian history. It makes little attempt to relate architectural change to that history; instead the photographs - there are only two drawings and no models - are left to speak for themselves. That's fine, except that most buildings are represented in only one image, and many of them, such as Wagner's Postal Savings Bank, Olbrich's Secession Building and Loos' Goldman and Salatsch department store, are already well known. It seems gratuitous to have just one image of such important designs; certainly it adds nothing to our understanding of them.

Yet, as with so much that isAustrian, the margins and the marginal are where the importance lies. As Giueppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard noted, the Austrian generals may have looked fine in their Habsburg uniforms, but it was the little Corsican in the dowdy grey coat to whom they deferred. Here, the birds of lesser plumage include a house by Josef Frank on Wenzgasse in Vienna of 1931, whose extraordinary fenestration defeats all physiognomic analysis but might prefigure some of his flowing, elegant fabric designs made for Svenska Tenn during his exile in Stockholm. Ludwig Wittgenstein's house for his sister makes an expected appearance, but of its two images, the view through two glass screens, one with vertical mullions and the other a gridded frame, conveys an appropriate sense of rigorous mystery far more than the overall shot of the curiously lumpen exterior. Likewise, Hans Hollein's subtle candle shop of 1964 is far more evocative than his overblown, more recent confections.

Lurking within the simple chronological organisation are some evocative points. Describing the 'Secessionist Revolt' of 1896-1918 requires words like Ringstrasse and Gesamtkunstwerk, while Peter Cook termed the experimentation of the 1960s more succinctly 'the Austrian phenomenon'. Houses for Dr Lovell by Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra in the California of the 1920s foreshadow the mass exodus of Austrian intellectuals some 10 years later, and perhaps indicate why so many of them, brought up in agreeable bourgeois apartments with summer trips to the lakeside villa, found the Californian climate and lifestyle so congenial.

Josef Urban's slightly later New School for Social Research in New York is also prophetic: of the enormous contribution of European exiles to sociology, and because Farrell and Grimshaw copied its corrugated facade and wrapped it around a whole building, on Hanover Gate overlooking Regent's Park, some 40 years later. And there is a certain piquancy in an Austrian architect designing a crematorium in 1921.

Not surprisingly, there is a hiatus immediately after 1945. The notes rationalise this as a product of the emigration of important teachers during the previous decade, leaving no role models for the immediate post- war generation. Their various gropings led through Karl Schwanzer's simple gridded, framed box for a museum of twentieth-century art (1958-62), and Roland Rainer's sketch for a multi-purpose hall of 1964 - all thick black lines and ductwork without any functional specificity - to Fritz Wotruba's Holy Trinity church of 1965-76. It is at least functionally specific, if a little like a deconstructed form of Stonehenge.

During the 1970s the oil crises hit Austria especially hard, but the outpouring of work over the last 10-15 years justifies the heading for the last quarter of a century of 'Stagnation to Celebration'. The re-engagement with urban form, typified by Szyszkowitz and Kowalski's Kastner and Ohler shopping centre in Graz of 1994, and the ability to address new challenges, such as Riegler and Riewe's Graz airport, amply testify to the strength and skills of a younger generation. And of the political system which fosters serious architectural patronage.

Austria, a small country with big ambitions, and whose exclusive aristocracy seems to have provided a role model for society in general, will always have tensions. Its architecture is destined to display them, but it perhaps achieves its most evocative level when it almost succeeds in hiding them: in the ambiguous achievement of pretending there are no contradictions while simultaneously offering a more optimistic future. The fine detailing of Gustav Peichl and Roland Rainer's Akademiehof of 1992-6 might achieve this nirvana, but with only one photograph to go on, it is impossible to be sure. Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

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