Architecture: Modern sights for European eyes: Architecture is a big subject, but BBC 2 squeezes it successfully into miniature TV spots with Vaclav Havel and others talking about buildings that shaped their lives

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The Independent Culture
VACLAV HAVEL's father was an architect, so was his grandfather; so it is not surprising that the dissident playwright who became president of Czechoslovakia should be fascinated by modern architecture. Havel is one of 10 guest critics who explore their favourite 20th-century buildings in the first pan-European series of BBC 2's Building Sights.

These 10-minute programmes have in the past proved to be little gems: last week's repeat of Sir Norman Foster's choice of a Boeing 747 - certainly big enough to be a building - was inspired.

The series starts on Sunday with the Greek-born artist, architect and musician Iannis Xenakis, who worked with Le Corbusier between 1947 and 1960. He returns to Le Couvent Sainte-Marie-de-La-Tourette, the remarkable Dominican monastery near Lyons, France, that he worked on with Le Corbusier in the late Fifties. Xenakis finds the experience a disturbing one. 'I feel like a ghost returning to some castle,' he says. 'I don't like to return to the past, its painful. It's 30 years since I was last here.'

Havel, in a later programme, chooses another disturbing design, the 1930 Manes Building in Prague, designed by the functionalist Otakar Novotny. In the Seventies and Eighties the building was used by the Communist secret police to spy on Havel's movements and identify visitors to his house. In 1979, he was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for opposing the Communist regime.

Yet Havel reminds viewers that this white, cubist building was designed as the headquarters of the Artists' Union and dates from the highpoint of the democratic - and highly inventive - Czechoslovakian republic. 'I have,' he says, 'been looking at the Manes Building since my childhood from the window of the house where I live.' Enemy and friend, the Manes Building has mapped and mirrored Havel's extraordinary life.

Other highlights in the series, produced by Clare Paterson and Ruth Rosenthal, include visits to Antonio Gaudi's astonishing church of Colonia Guell at Santa Coloma, near Barcelona, by the Spanish engineer Santiago Calatrava; the riotous Hundertwasser Haus, Vienna, a bizarre block of council flats, with the German mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender; and the vast development site that is today's Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, with Daniel Libeskind, the Polish-born architect currently working on the design of the city's Jewish Museum, which promises to be one of the most startlingly original buildings of this century.

Libeskind describes Potsdamer Platz as a 'sacred place' and takes viewers through the history of what was once Berlin's Piccadilly Circus, explaining the grand plans of such hugely influential architects as Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Erich Mendelsohn and Albert Speer.

Destroyed at the end of the Second World War, Potsdamer Platz was divided by the Berlin Wall, while great new buildings such as the Philharmonie (1963) by Hans Scharoun and the National Gallery (1968) by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe clustered around it. Now - although Libeskind did not know this at the time of filming - Potsdamer Platz is to be rebuilt by some of today's most inventive architects, including Renzo Piano, designer of the World Cup football stadium at Bari, Italy, and the new Kansai airport built on a man-made island off Japan.

Building Sights Europe is clever and convincing use of television. Even the most image-weary couch potato, channel changer in hand, should be able to survive 10 minutes of intelligent filming and commentary. Architecture is a big subject, but this series squeezes it into the confines of the small screen and the tightest of scheduling without reducing its scope and importance.

'Building Sights Europe' starts on BBC 2 at 9pm on Sunday 27 September and runs for 10 weeks.

(Photographs omitted)