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Peter Cook: suitably refreshed after international events in Frankfurt and Barcelona.

Gradually a small crowd trickled into the very square-shaped room that Oswald Mathias Ungers bequeathed to the DAM-Frankfurt's Deutsches Architektur Museum which, despite its grand title, has now become quite a friendly almost 'local' venue. The only oddity was that these 90 or so who braved a murky October Saturday morning had tumbled out of planes from Phoenix, Zurich, Melbourne, New York, Madrid, Berlin and several of us from London. All of us had taught (1) or studied in a curious place just down the street, yet this reunion of the stadelschule architecture class was not really cohesive. Moreover, 30 years were separating Zurich contingent from the current crop of Indians and Chinese who study with Ben van Berkel and Johan Bettum.

We watched among others the presentation of uber-rational blocks in Zurich or Berlin by Max Dudler, or gentle, discursive responses to New Zealand's suburbia by Christopher Kelly; crazy gymnastics-in-inflatables by Tomas Saraceno or the sheer sophistication of hospital buildings in Buenos Aires by Claudio Vekstein. Reasonable enough for the graduates of a big school; yet this place has a mere dozen people in a typical year.

Something had jelled in the 1960s and 1970s at the point when most of the little 'academy' schools were being rationalised out of existence. For a lovely, iconoclastic, brutalist architect called Gunter Bock held the professorship and invented a conference called 'Arte-tecta'. He made the first big show of a young unknown called Hadid, and coerced Koolhaas, Krier, Isozaki and several such to wave their arms about on the floor above. Within a few years we were pulling Cedric Price over on a regular basis. while Lebbeus Woods or Daniel Libeskind would spend hours on juries. The school became one of those mythological places, where Enric Miralles was happy to take over the professorship and, after Enrie's tragic demise, van Berkel could willingly inherit it.




Yet this succession of influences(2) did not have to be totally coherent indeed its detachment from the big scenes of London, New York or Tokyo enabled Miralles to indulge a secret penchant for the Scandinavian influence and to drag over simultaneously people like a Danish constructor-architect and a Catalan theorist. Yet it was often the quizzical, grumpy, hitherto inarticulate Schwabian or the fazed Holsteiner who emerged as the significant talent in the class. Curious then, that a few years down the road, so many of the reputations have been gained by the non-Germans who passed through the school.

Not for the first time I am at a loss to explain fully why a German architectural cloud has the effect of descending upon talented or sparky kids; nurturing their potential for self-effacement, a certain withdrawal from internationalism, a certain 'heaviness' of detail and of presentational skill. So on that day the Argentinians--in quirky English and disjointed syntax--could sail through on a cloud of sheer talent, enthusiasm and dare.

I had only just come back from the World Architecture Festival in Barcelona where a similar mix of nationalities could be found in far greater numbers also presenting their work but under a very different scrutiny. For Paul Finch, the fearless editor of this journal, had devised a cunning plan whereby architects of considerable reputation allowed themselves to be questioned, 'juried' in fact: just like in school and then, on the same day given a prize (or more often not given a prize). Now architects are a nervous but arrogant lot and those with reputations covet their position. They don't like to be publicly quizzed. But something prompted hundreds of them to go through with it. No inherited family here. No feeling of shared experience. Veiled envy overlaid by curiosity in the big event, curiosity alone in the small event.

Both left me with a healthy dissatisfaction with normal procedures: the secret competition juries, the kiss-and-tell lectures to audiences whose size depends upon the fashionableness of the speaker and those events that exist as a quick bit of brain-feeding before the real business of the evening--the booze and the schmooze--gets going. Whether big fish in big pond, small pond, small fish in big or whatever, Frankfurt and Barcelona were refreshingly different--even when some of the personalities were delightfully familiar. They proved, if you simply looked at the stuff, that there's an awful lot of talent around. Strange slivers of buildings crawling up creeks and valleys. A myriad of lines of arguement or tricks of light. Concrete in every type of constructable logic. Justification in every shade of Modernism, localism, escapism, provocation, self-satisfaction. With Functionalism still used to underscore whim.

The greatest surprise was the work of a recent-ish Stadelschule graduate called Gabi Schillig, who has emerged from the van Berkel/Bettum class able to bring a charm and magic to the comprehension of form via parametric modelling, draped material and the moving body--spatial constructs that Daniel Libeskind and (choreographer) William Forsythe might have proposed but not realised in the 1980s. Without having to know Vekstein befirehand, I have no doubt that she sensed an affinity with his draped facades and ramps. Without guile, Saraceno glided gently away from his architectural shackles up into the sky above them.

(1.) Peter Cook was Architecture Professor at the Stadelschule from 1984 to 1990 and continued to be a part-time professor during the Miralles regime and until 2002.

(2.) Gunter Back regularly invited P. Cook Christine Hawley. Stanislaus Von Moos, Adolfo Natalini and Dalibor Vesely as a 'flying circus' from 1979 to 1984. Cook continued this and augmented it to include Zaha, Cedric Price. Diller & Scofidio, Will Alsop. Leon Vam Schaik. Sverre Fehn, and so on. Miralles augmented it further to include Beatriz Colomina and Mark wigley who continue in visit as well as becoming Cedric's close pupil in Cigar Lore.
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Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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