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Architecture of assembly

Review: London's Town Halls At the RIBA Heinz Gallery, 21 Portman Square, London W1 until 24 July

Town halls are one of those building types whose development weaves in and out of the general sweep of architectural history. At times they plumb the lowest depths of architectural production, but there are moments when their particular conditions act as a functional counterpoint to the whims of design fashion, and they embody the architectural values of the time.

London's Town Halls at the Heinz Gallery neatly demonstrates this thesis. From the 1855 Act, which started the unfinished business of devising an ideal process of local government in the capital, up to Hillingdon and Kensington of the 1970s, it charts the unsynchronised peaks and troughs in architecture and civic democracy.

rmjm's Hillingdon (with borough architect Thurston Williams) and Sir Basil Spence's Kensington mark one of the troughs. Hillingdon dresses bureaucracy and Burolandschaft in a suburban idiom whose elephantine scale makes it grotesque, and whose concealing artifice creates an unconscious irony not far from Post-Modernism. Kensington, like so much of Spence's work, is a brave attempt to find a new idiom for an old building type, undermined by its progenitor's chronic lack of talent.

For a few decades earlier this century there was a period when architecture and civic democracy seemed to be in parallel. Sir Alfred Brumwell Thomas may have designed buildings as pompous as his name, but the town hall at Woolwich - still a major military town in 1906 - could perhaps be more pompous than most. Lanchester and Lodge produced some almost elegant eclectic essays, notably at Deptford.

But the point where the function of the town hall and available architectural means reached their closest affinity was between the wars. Albert J Thomas's St Pancras town hall has a neat, clear plan whose Beaux-Arts rationality fits well with the need for a public hall, a council chamber, a mayor's parlour, and offices for serried ranks of general, housing and cemetery clerks.

In the 1930s Reginald Uren at Hornsey and, even better, Clifford Culpin at Greenwich, showed that the same functional clarity could be achieved in rather less bland and more humane architecture. Uren brought in a gentle Swedish Neo-Classicism, while Culpin designed the best British version of Dudok's Hilversum town hall. The Neo-Classicism of others of the time is more insipid: the illustrated Beckenham is hard to tell from those at Hertford or Norwich which lie beyond the slightly elastic metropolitan boundary which the exhibition draws.

It was probably local government reforms after the war, as much as changing architectural fashion, which led to the unsatisfactory character of so many town halls of the last 50 years. When numbers expand, rate clerks are replaced by social workers and town clerks become 'chief executives' with the right to impose a summary death penalty (admittedly only after the sinister War Powers Act is invoked), it is quite hard to devise an adequate architectural language - especially out of the rag bag of non- referential idealism which made up the Welfare Statist, English version of Modernism.

So the stage is set for the magic of Lord Foster in the new London Assembly building. After all, these issues are nothing compared to the enormities posed by the Reichstag. Understandably, given the fluid state of the project, it is not featured, but no such excuse can be made for another glaring absentee - Richard Reid's brave attempt at Epping Forest in the late 1980s to show that even under Thatcher the relationship between architecture and civic democracy was not entirely dead.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

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