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Academic exercise

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, complete with architecture models and drawings, is now open. But what is it trying to say? Kenneth Powell takes a look The same question is asked every year: what function does the architecture room at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition actually serve?

The same question could be asked of the Summer Exhibition itself. Years of mostly negative critical comment have changed its character. By electing distinguished foreign artists as 'honorary academicians' and persuading them to submit works, by showcasing work by better-known members (Allen Jones this year) and by press-ganging some supposedly leading-edge artists (Alison Wilding, Gary Hume) as members, the RA has smartened up its image and made it more difficult for outsiders and amateurs to make it past the hanging committee.

The architect RAs - there are currently 20, with Piers Gough as the latest recruit - have long included many of the biggest names in the profession.

Each one has the right to submit five works for display in the Summer Exhibition - Lords Foster and Rogers are among those who have exercised the privilege to the full this year. Norman Foster, along with Will Alsop and Michael Manser, chose the (nearly 100) exhibits in the 2002 architecture room. Assuming that the audience they are addressing is a broad one - with architecture as probably a marginal interest and limited skills at reading drawings - they have made a respectable and accessible selection.

Last year's show was a mess - and badly displayed, too. This year, models are shown at eye-level rather than floor-level - like paintings in the other galleries - and they include some stunning exhibits.

It is not hard to understand why Foster and Rogers remain the dominant figures on the British scene, though this year it is the divergences, rather than the points of comparison, between the work of these ex-partners which emerge most clearly. Foster's two academies, in Bexley and Brent, and his masterplan for the expansion of Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, are models of unbending orthogonal rigour, masterfully planned.

Richard Rogers Partnership, in contrast, shows its strikingly sculptural Madrid tower, a thrilling visual installation of the Antwerp law courts and a terrific house planned for a site in the Hamptons, New York - no wonder that RRP has been notching up some notable competition wins recently.

Will Alsop continues to tantalise us with some prints supposedly depicting his winning submission for Goldsmiths College:

we are none the wiser as to the likely appearance of the new building. His 'family house for Bavaria' is presented in a fine multi-coloured model (above): what sort of wonderful lifestyle is this extraordinary design catering for?

It is doubtless thanks to Alsop that former collaborator Massimiliano Fuksas' Rome Congress Centre is on display. Alsop was a witness at the inquiry (outcome still awaited) into the Heron Tower and two models of this notable KPF project are included in the show.

The Summer Exhibition is a great place for checking out might-have-beens - such as the rejected schemes for the Turner Centre, Margate, by Ted Cullinan and Eric Parry, Future Systems' unsuccessful submission for the Natural History Museum extension, and m 3architects' proposed 'tri-tower' for Spitalfields.

I was baffled by Clara Kraft's 'Living in a suitcase' installation, but enjoyed three fine pencil drawings by Quinlan Terry's son Francis - carrying on the time-honoured Erith & Terry tradition. The other measured drawings in the show struck me as rather pointless. As much could be said for the various doodles by Leonard Manasseh RA - but then he is a veteran, with a notable career behind him. It seems odd that Ian Ritchie has nothing to show but a series of etchings of details from past works - you can buy them for a mere £150 each. And equally strange that Gordon Benson has only a few black-and-white photographs to represent his National Gallery of Ireland, the most talked-about project in Dublin for years.

The architecture room is a place for insiders. The works are not captioned, only listed in the catalogue - and then with no supporting information. It is often unclear whether they are completed buildings, projects in the pipeline, binned schemes or purely hypothetical exercises. No information is provided on the exhibitors, other than their addresses. There is surely a case for an annual British architecture show, or perhaps a biennale, in which the best of current work by everyone from Norman Foster to recent graduates is up for selection and is properly documented and explained. The RA is in a strong position to organise such a show, especially when the Museum of Mankind extension is completed. Enjoy the exhibition - but do not expect to learn too much.

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