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Ahead of the game

REVIEW

Imagination: Ideas and Evolution Introduction by Stephen Bayley. Phaidon, 2001. £39.95

Since the beginning of the last century, a strand of architecture has toyed with new communications media - audio, photography and film in the pre-Second World War era and, subsequently, television and digital media.

The first seminal and haunting image which integrated the megaphone, the front page and the propaganda newsreel, was the Vesnin brothers' Pravda building in 1924.

From this, there is a direct line to the 1960s fun palaces of Archigram and Cedric Price, and their more literal expression in Piano and Rogers' Centre Pompidou. Look at the competition design for the Pompidou, covered in images and projections. But here is the rub:

the architects could never embrace the choreography of changing content and action;

instead they made a fetish of the handrails.

Enter Gary Withers and Imagination, recognising that hardware, although important, is secondary to the experience - that it is the circus and not the tent that matters. This book presents a tour d'horizon of this brilliant company's work in the past 25 years.

Imagination has broken new ground, both creatively and as a design business, where it has invented a new model for the creative professions. It is an ideas company and it can deliver. It supports its clients' experience in myriad ways - events, parties, launches, trade stands, interiors, films, brochures, performances, light shows, pavilions and travelling exhibitions.

The company sticks close to its clients, earning repeat fees and forming long-term relationships through a range of services that continually and measurably add value to a business or brand. It has developed creative teams to provide these services inhouse and it has become an exemplar in all these fields. It can bring the invention of its own architects, lighting designers, writers, and film-makers to its clients' tables. Others, like its engineers, or its steel fabricators and haulage contractors, have worked with Imagination from the outset.

Imagination's creativity has as much affinity with the theatrical genius of a Peter Brooke, a Robert Lapage, or a Cirque du Soleil as it does with graphic and product design and the world of advertising. It is also a company of great performers, many of whom come and go, stay friends and, more importantly, cross media boundaries.

The most successful architectural firms support one ego at the top of the pyramid;

Imagination has always been the reverse.

And this is reflected in its earnings per employee - especially to be envied in a period when architects' earning power and influence has (with noble exceptions) dramatically decreased.

It is no accident that the contribution of the late Ron Herron, a founder of Archigram and Imagination, was much more than the inspired conversion of the company's Store Street headquarters; he stayed for a number of years. It made the ideas of Archigram realisable. In their search for permanence and absolutes, architects drool over the staircase, the fabric roof and the toilets, but it is the way that these support the circus beneath the tented roof that is crucial.

The Imagination building is an everchanging theatre for its clients' activities, launches, and events. Throughout the book, the building pops up in yet another guise or disguise. And it is the same with the Lloyd's Building, which looks so much better with Imagination's lighting, and when transformed for Lloyd's tricentenary celebrations (see picture).

It is exciting to read of the next evolution, Imagination City, which, like the Imagination building, will physically express the company's beliefs. Teamwork, however, will not be between individual designers from different disciplines but between the R&D departments of whole companies.

Withers has been made an honorary fellow of the RIBA but Imagination should be a Gold Medallist. That it probably won't be is a comment on the architectural profession's tunnel-vision - its lack of imagination, you might say.

Stephen Greenberg is director of Metaphor

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