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BOOK

REVIEW - As Built: Caruso St John Architects a+t, 2005. 200pp. £26

Monographs on contemporary architects should be approached with caution, given practices' skills in self-promotion, but this one is a startling exception.

It reveals a highly consistent position in Caruso St John's architecture, tied to a very London group of architects headed by Tony Fretton and including Sergison Bates and Houlton Taylor - a group whose concern for the 'making' of buildings relates back to the Smithsons and the drama of the ordinary, described here as Caruso St John's 'positive search for a banality'.

And the practice is refreshingly honest about its sources: it is the work of Lewerentz that surfaces again and again in the brick, concrete and wood and sparing use of paint. A strong theoretical position comes across, mainly in three acute essays by Adam Caruso with their critique of 'the tyranny of the new' and their lament that architecture is now too often a global product based on brand recognition rather than built on a tradition.

Perret declared in 1928 that: 'Nowadays, people try to astonish; the word 'new' is becoming synonymous with 'eccentric'.' Caruso echoes this, saying: 'There is no compelling evidence as to why architecture should reject more than 400 years of working within a liberal arts context, ' and the book clearly demonstrates that Caruso St John's concerns for continuity and tectonic construction exceed the notion of simply being built and venture into the richer world of formal and material presence.

The influence of Fretton's Lisson Gallery isn't mentioned here, but that of Florian Beigel's 1985 Half Moon Theatre in London's East End takes centre stage with its brutal honesty in blockwork. Caruso says of Lewerentz's use of brick that 'Paradoxically, the material intensity of St Peter's is almost too much to bear.' So Caruso St John's work is founded on the use of raw materials but brings in the contemporary use of cladding, or 'lining', which tempers surfaces to create an 'atmosphere' - seen to such beautiful effect in the Walsall Art Gallery of 2000.

Surely the most outstanding new cultural building outside of London since the war, the gallery is an 'ugly-beautiful' building: slightly squat, heavy and enigmatic, it transcends its location to become a kind of modern-day Palazzo della Signoria. Clad externally in a grey terracotta, whose courses diminish as they rise up the building, it plays a very Swiss game of surface; yet once indoors this is a building of immense poetry. Douglas fir linings sit alongside concrete surfaces that used the same boards for shuttering, creating 'phenomenological and perceptive complexity' (such verbiage occurs from time to time here - in contradiction to the clarity of the built work).

The monograph explores this and other buildings with mainly full-page, beguiling photographs, combined with immaculate detail drawings that are sublime in their own right, culminating in the recent Brick House in London, that provides a consummate visual analysis of an architecture.

If this house is brutal, oppressive, almost claustrophobic in its insistent use of brick and concrete - then it is also pure, rigorous and highly atmospheric.

Such honesty in materials does indeed have a material intensity that is almost too much to bear: a photograph of a table and chairs in a roof-lit corner of an earlier mews house, surrounded by as-found painted brick walls and concrete floors, recalls the grim warehouse where Bob Hoskins hung up local gang members in The Long Good Friday rather than a living space. The internalisation of space is seen again and again - the use of large, frameless, silicone-bonded, flush-glazing panels that never quite touch the ground, precluding the open-plan blurring of inside and outside.

This monograph shows Caruso St John as a practice that makes tough interior environments for dwellings, yet subtle, poetic spaces in larger public buildings, such as the use of billowing clouds made from a smooth satin stainless steel, with a oxide layer to create different light and colours, above the refurbished Barbican concert hall; again both subtle and beautiful. Truth can be ruthless and can leave no hiding place, but it undoubtedly has a power and beauty too.

This is a simply excellent monograph presenting a very strong body of work from an important practice's first 15 years; it is worth buying for the immaculate working drawings alone.

John Pardey is an architect in Hampshire

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