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Conjuror's tricks

Off the Shelf: dRMM Practice and Unit Projects At the Architectural Association, 36 Bedford Square, London WC1 until 14 December Anyone who has had the unquantifiable pleasures of visiting the Architects Registration Board in the past year will have noticed the strange arrangement of familiar objects around which that body conducts its business. Here a 'column' is laid on its side to become a reception desk, a corrugated, polycarbonate cladding sheet becomes an internal partition, and architects submit to the rigours of consumer interests. It is not quite Giulio Romano's Palazzo del Te, but it does make room for speculation.

Such ironies in the tension between literal and metaphorical are integral to dRMM's architecture and take specific forms in its exhibition, 'Off the Shelf ' at the Architectural Association. The term 'off the shelf ' is both a metaphor which describes the practice's propensity for materials from standard builder's catalogues, and a literal description of the display, laid out on rolling track-fixed library shelves. Even the exhibition title can be driven in a pair of opposite directions to wildly contradictory conclusions, and the various projects oscillate between knowing literalness and conscious surrealism.

One piece of furniture shows how dRMM can fashion a poetry from this strategy: a Zshaped chair with a thoughtful footrest, made from copper water pipes. It is a functional (and not uncomfortable) object, but the copper pipes raise very different expectations from the act of sitting, which are only dispelled by the practicality of the chair. It has something of a conjuror's trick.

And even more of a conjuror's trick is how dRMM manages to prevent the design strategy falling into self-referential clichÚ.

The Moshi Moshi sushi bar in Brighton takes its place among the fashionable oriental-themed eateries of Adjaye and Chipperfield, but those translucent screens are grp rather than rice paper; again, it is the collision of incongruous references which coaxes the design away from banality.

Another interplay comes between sly wit and over-seriousness. Again, one of the pieces of furniture encapsulates the condition - this time a stainless steel 'bathroom unit', really a bath and basin combined.

The most far-reaching application of these ideas, though, are the modifications to Kingsdale School in Dulwich. Playful inventions in form and material - a pod-like auditorium within an ETFE-roofed atrium - bring a new dimension to the monocular Modernist heroics of Leslie Martin's original design. Modernism, in form and social programme, dRMM seems to be saying, is something whose pretensions can be toyed with, flipped in the air and reconstituted; but never wholly ignored.

There is, of course, a strong Modernist legacy in dRMM's strategy of treating manufacturers' catalogues as sources of objets trouvÚs, whatever its protestations about being not-Modernist. Neither does it lack pretentiousness: the exhibition did not, for me, make the connection it seeks between theory and practice or between the work of dRMM and its AA students. But it has skilfully inserted a series of mirrors and prisms into the quotidian world, in a refreshing and challenging fashion.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher at South Bank University

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