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For the greater good?


Neighbourhoods by Design At RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1, until 15 June Is there anything that the judicious arrangement of coloured render, terracotta tiles, broken roof lines and a steel staircase cannot fix? No, if one believes the implicit message of Neighbourhoods by Design, an exhibition of London Region work at the RIBA.

In various combinations these features are ubiquitous - new entrance foyers for housing blocks (Shillam + Smith), a juice bar (Sanya Polescuk), and a community resource centre (Ron Smith Architects) are just some of the examples. And if after the confusions of the 1980s and 1990s, it might seem that a London style, or at least an idiom, has begun to crystallise, the varied but often socially driven agenda of these projects might underpin it and give it real force. So underlying the issue of whether or not there is a 'London style' is another question: is London benefiting from the collective endeavours of its architects?

These formal characteristics certainly seem flexible enough to cope with varied programmes. In other words, they allow for that dialogue between form and function that lies at the root of all historical styles. But where they seem to fall down is in scale: in themselves they evoke no inherent scale or hierarchy of composition. Consequently their capacity for representation is heavily circumscribed, and any impressions they convey tend to depend on function.

In some cases this hardly matters. It is one of the indelible facts of modern life that any combination of pink, blue and yellow denotes a social function, often to do with children or young people. But such meanings stick at first base, so what we have is a kind of curious proto-style where certain visual features seem to have associations embedded within social beliefs and an intention to engage with that society, although the forms do not - yet, at least - actually embody those meanings.

But some of the examples in the exhibition suggest that might happen. Wright and Wright's Women's Library, with its austerely linear forms, and Ash Sakula's more diaphanous Hothouse on London Fields, both look consummate.

What is apparent is that, either through opportunity or inclination, architects are better at small-scale, localised improvements than grand visions. With a few exceptions - Foster's Great Court and Patel Taylor's luscious Thames Barrier Park - the large projects are less interesting. Assael Architecture is very keen to tell us that Lord Falconer opened its housing scheme on the former Marylebone railway depot, and even to give the names of sponsors, while RHWL's art team does not do its Sadler's Wells scheme justice in its display.

But there are also some pleasant surprises. I would have given very long odds on Norman and Dawbarn, for instance, last heard of designing universities in the Caribbean, getting its act together, but it offers a nice school building in Tower Hamlets.

This is one of the most interesting of RIBA's modest Gallery II exhibitions. I am not sure how true a snapshot of architectural endeavour in London it is, but it makes a convincing stab. And it opens territory for speculation, both about the role of architects and the nature of work they are doing.

Jeremy Melvin teaches at South Bank University, London

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