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EXHIBITION

REVIEW

Compendium: The Work of the University of Cambridge Department of Architecture At the RIBA, London W1, until 18 February

I hadn't expected to see Cambridge School of Architecture celebrate its reprieve by parading the names of its graduates before the public so blatantly. Showing a hitherto hidden capacity for surprise, that is exactly what it does in this little display.

To experience this pleasure, visitors first have to run the RIBA's own name-chucking gauntlet in its entrance, where the presidents square up to gold medallists in finest stone carving. Then the first-floor landing presents a bizarre piece of Egyptian Revivalism, with the President's Medals exhibition plastering the gallery's outer wall. It's as if the profession's theocracy wants to conceal the Vesalian heresy behind a more orthodox creed.

In appropriating the strategy of memorials from Thiepval to Vietnam by plastering all four gallery walls with the names of everyone who has been through the school, the organisers have given them every assistance.

If the exhibition itself is physically concealed, once reached it also does a fine job of concealing a reason why the school should prosper.

Like their echoes in Debrett and the alumni lists of leading public schools, there's nothing especially wrong with the names themselves. Among them are film stars and retired vicars as well as a smattering of genuinely important architects and, I must confess, a few good friends. But, with respect to James Mason, clergy with architectural leanings, Richard MacCormac and Cedric Price, it's not their names that matter, but their work.

If the school deserves to survive, it is because it generates serious thinking, which its graduates continue to develop for half a century or more.

The exhibition's design gives no reassurance. A dash of Koolhaas merges with initial strategies from Lutyens and Grey Wornum, as some names are honoured with expanded paragraphs on their careers, which turns the alphabetical list into an atrophied parody of the running commentary in SMLXL. But randomly chosen and not informative, they are insufficient to explain to anyone what fires the school.

Nor does the exhibition manage to convey the output of the school, which, from Lolita to the British Library is shockingly under-represented.

Each wall has a notional theme stencilled on to it - Cities, Representation, Environmental Design, and Risk, Conflict & Disaster - but there is little that expands any of these categories.

In fairness, the catalogue - with pieces by Sandy Wilson, Anthony Vidler, Peter Carolin et al - does have more substance, and gives glimpses of projects by 42 practices with a Cambridge connection.

But what there is on buildings in the show is limited to a handful of models, casually selected and not revealing.

One is a section of the British Library; another looks like an urban studio project of last year. My favourite is a longforgotten proposal to extend the school itself, the names of whose designers could stand as its epitaph: Mole Architects.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and consultant to the RA architecture programme

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