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Brought to light

review

Hiroshi Sugimoto: The Architecture of Time At the Fruitmarket Gallery, 45 Market Street, Edinburgh, until 21 September

Sir Basil Spence: Visions in Light At the RIAS Gallery, 15 Rutland Square, Edinburgh, until 13 September

Eric Parry Architects: An Eye for the Whole At the Matthew Architecture Gallery, 20 Chambers Street, Edinburgh, until 18 October

Hiroshi Sugimoto has transformed some of the most iconic buildings of the last century.

He takes glass, concrete and steel and reduces them to light and shadow. Monochrome, they quiver uncertainly, just out of focus, in his Architectures series.

Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building sloughs off its carapace of Modernist certainty, becoming something vague, equivocal and provisional. Even the frontality of its position in Sugimoto's composition cannot prevent it looking like just another shadow among shadows, like an out-take from the backdrop of Metropolis.

The great buildings of our time are little more than fodder for Sugimoto's imagination.

He is not interested in the prosaic accuracy demanded by documentation, but in the ways in which photography can transcend and undermine its subject. His elliptical view of Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum turns it into four curves overlain by another building's shadow, its own formal qualities appropriated for Sugimoto's ends.

And in his case, the ends do justify the means. Despite their deliberate blurring, his architecture photographs are absolutely resolved and persuasive reinterpretations of an established aesthetic which seem to suggest that nothing man-made can ever be truly immortal. For Sugimoto, Herzog & de Meuron's signal box could be a tomb; it is difficult to look at these images without thinking about September 11 and how it reestablished uncertainty as a continuous hiss in the background of many lives.

Sugimoto's wooden cabinet camera, used for exposures up to two hours in duration, is not just a mechanism for achieving painterly effects. With his series of interior views of 1920s and 1930s cinemas, the effects are as precise as a Donald Judd sculpture - and with a similar sense of the reductive beauties of minimalism.

In these images, shot while a film is being shown, the screen turns an inviolate white.

Time has passed, but what is left is its imprint, its trace made permanent. Sugimoto takes the mechanistic process of photography and uses it as a tool for peeling back surfaces, even of some of the most confident and emblematic monuments of Modernism.

Light is Sugimoto's ultimate medium, and it was also the defining element in the architecture of Sir Basil Spence, the subject of a small but valuable exhibition at the RIAS. As a student at Edinburgh College of Art, Spence seriously considered pursuing a career as an artist. In the superb series of architectural drawings which form the backbone to this display, his ability to understand the sculptural potential of architectural form is exceptional.

He consciously used light as a means of modelling space, but also channelled and directed it almost as a kind of iconography.

It could be the brash light of unashamed commercialism, as in his 1933 design for Causewayside Garage in Edinburgh, or the redemptive light of spiritual hope, as at Coventry Cathedral, begun in the early 1950s. It could even be an interrogative light, prising every detail out of the facade of the Maltese church Spence drew in 1974.

What Spence's drawings also affirm - from his precise student drawings, through his dramatic renditions of the 1930s, to his more gestural sketches of the 1960s - is his place as one of the great architectural artists of his time in Britain.He was unquestionably the right man to design that great emblem of post-war rebuilding, Coventry Cathedral; he understood artists and how to get the best from collaborating with them. At Coventry, he helped bring the likes of John Piper, Graham Sutherland and Jacob Epstein on board. Appropriately enough, Epstein's impressive bust of Spence has been borrowed from the RIBA for the Edinburgh display.

Eric Parry is another architect who has worked extensively with artists.His low-budget studio spaces for Antony Gormley and Tom Phillips in Peckham, created out of redundant buildings, show a complex understanding of their particular technical needs.

It is this sensitivity to use, rather than the easy branding offered by a showy house style, that marks out Eric Parry Architects' approach.

Its designs for a new court at Pembroke College, Cambridge - a highly demanding physical and historical context in which to work - use an intermeshed grid-based frontage to achieve an effective balance between functionality and aesthetic co-operation with the surrounding buildings.

Sometimes EPA is maybe too reticent, as with its London office building, Royex House. Here you could be forgiven for being underwhelmed by what appears to be a generic block in a 1960s style, until you notice the enlivening effects of subtle alterations to the window rhythm, something akin to the geometric playfulness employed in the sculpture of that seminal op-art figure, Victor Vasarely. But this is rather rarefied stuff, and such subtlety can be all too easily submerged.

The Edinburgh exhibition coincides with the publication of a monograph on EPA (AJ 23.5.02). Time for it to let off some real fireworks now?

Neil Cameron writes on art and architecture

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