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Theatrical ambitions

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Covering + Exposing: The Architecture of Coop Himmelb(l)au By Frank Werner. Birkhauser, 2000. 208pp. £38

Coop Himmelb(l)au now has its own internal history. Long gone is the rebellious, spirit-of-'68 stance, to be replaced by something far more complex and fragile.

The architectural duo who run the practice started more than 30 years ago as part of a milieu of Austrian Archigram-wannabes which included Hans Hollein. They were fascinated by the possibility of non-architecture, or rather, of an architecture that could blow hot and cold, and which might be rough and dangerous. They dreamed of electronic clothes, rooms made out of light beams, ice blocks, fabric clouds, and blades of steel that literally burned. Hollein and the others went to pot with Post-Modernism, whereas Coop Himmelb(l)au stuck to its passions.

With its love of rock music and cinema, Coop Himmelb(l)au has always had its theatrical side. Even the partners' names, Wolf D Prix and Helmut Swiczinsky, sound like assumed stage identities. Then there is the title of the practice. The use of the term 'Coop' screams out that it should not be seen as a commercialized architect. No way! And what about those brackets in Himmelb(l)au which make the 'l' insecure ? With the 'l' the name reads as 'sky blue', and without it, as 'sky building'. But surely there is also an intended play on the German word for heaven (with those dreamy clouds the practice is so fond of ).

For all its notoriety, Coop Himmelb(l)au has not built much over the years - which also means that it has not built any rubbish.

There is a strength to its work that comes from a consistent belief in what it does. First was that melting glass attic office on a typical Viennese block in Falkestrasse. Then came the museum extension in Groningen which placed screens of riotous interior decor on the outside, at different scales, looking as if a series of paint bombs had just been let off.

Probably the most convincing of its buildings is the UFA Cinema Centre in Dresden, not so much because it resembles a shard of crystal stuck in the ground, but for the diaphanous side elevation which glows beautifully at night. The cinema sums up the essence of Coop Himmelb(l)au's approach; it is joyous, light, dynamic, airy, spacious, a happy mediation between Hans Scharoun and Frank Gehry.

Frank Werner has produced a thoughtful, if at times stolid, monograph, which raises a number of interesting points. He realizes that the main criticism of Coop Himmelb(l)au's position comes from Manfredo Tafuri's attack made way back in the 1970s on all self-consciously avant-garde architects. Tafuri argued that the bravura formal games of the avant-garde could not disguise that their architecture was only selfreferential; they did nothing at all to address social or political realities.

Werner deals with the problem by linking Coop Himmelb(l)au to the current debate about political engagement. On one side he places Koolhaas and the Dutch realists, who claim that critically minded architects need to appropriate the tools of capitalist building development, and deform them from within. Against this, Werner sets the American political purists such as Greg Lynn, who reject engagement with the forces of capital, but then only withdraw into private digital fantasies.

Coop Himmelb(l)au definitely seems to be on the side of engagement, but the problem for Werner is that it has also always bypassed architectural theory to produce sensations and ideas that can be readily grasped by anyone. As a result, Werner only ties himself up in knots when he tries to bring in Gilles Deleuze's concept of 'smooth space' in celebrating Coop Himmelb(l)au.

Deleuze saw 'smooth space' as a kind of territory for human and architectural actions that lay between the two conditions of what he termed 'striated' space: the ultimate vertical striation of the trees in the forest, and the ultimate horizontal striation of the ploughed field. But for Deleuze, his role as a philosopher was to devise abstract concepts and not detailed readings, and in 'smooth space' he was expressing a notion which might potentially help devise a kind of phenomenology of contemporary social spaces.

To what extent Coop Himmelb(l)au can be said to be grappling with 'smooth space' more than any other architect is highly debatable - but the quality of its work is unmistakable.

Dr Murray Fraser teaches at Oxford Brookes University

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