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Foreign objects

FOA's new exhibition reveals an on-going process of theoretical investigation. Jeremy Melvin admires the work but wonders what the future holds

Set in three zones within London's Institute of Contemporary Art, Foreign Office Architects' (FOA) exhibition 'Breeding Architecture' seems devised to reinforce the faith of true believers, encourage heretics to repent, and convert the unbelievers.

It didn't take FOA long to prove that it was not just another struggling young practice.

Within a couple of years, Alejandro ZaeroPolo and Farshid Moussavi had won the Yokohama Ferry Terminal, forcing Jacques Herzog to notice them and demonstrating that they could think on the scale of their onetime mentor, Rem Koolhaas.

In part a stroke of luck, it was also an extremely rare example of a project where they could fully develop their interest and capabilities. It had size and scope for formal inventiveness. Unhindered by the imposition of context, it allowed FOA to generate a design from programme and to show that somewhere between Koolhaas' incisive cynicism and Herzog's powerful formalism, there was another game in town.

Maybe it does not satisfy conventional expectations of 'beauty' from every angle.

Perhaps its uniqueness does rule it out from being a generic proposition. But in terms of a complete vision of an urban environment, of generating relationships between form, movement and function, of references that Harold Bloom would call 'the anxiety of influence' (where young artists just swerve away from exact imitation of their masters), it is compelling.

Now, at the ICA, true believers can delve deeply into the practice's inner workings in the pair of elegant upper galleries given over to FOA's 'operating system' - interviews with clients, results of 'community consultation' in the Lower Lea Valley, and the process of construction. Casual visitors to the exhibition might be overwhelmed by the surface patterns, such as the tessellating tiles from the Barcelona waterfront park on the walls and floor of the corridor, along which they have to pass to reach the bar.

It is in the lower gallery that heretics might find cause to repent.Here are 20 or so projects up to the BBC Music Centre, laid out in an evolutionary chain that may owe something to Charles Jencks but does convey FOA's interest in phylogenesis - the potential of a few elements to combine in self-generating and often non-repeating patterns.

One of the most evocative is the Bundle Tower, and not just because it was first proposed for the World Trade Center, but because its snaking, interlocking tubes simply beg to become the tallest building in the world. In some designs, the ground appears to liquefy, only to reform into comforting enclosure;

roofs fragment and open, only to reassert themselves in constantly shifting planes.

Spaces expand, momentarily offering the possibility of specific activities, only to close again as one opportunity segues into another. These designs have the filmic qualities of Koolhaas yet depend on forms that are as powerful, if less mute, than any of Herzog's.

Architecture, in FOA's hands, might reassert its haptic values, yet still embrace the tribulations of Post-Modernity, the lack of certainties and the turbulent intellectual foundations which spring from it. Advanced mathematics offers a way of recombining the familiar, as here and there within these rich forms a beacon or landmark appears: it might be the traditional form of the cathedral in an unbuilt scheme for Seoul, or what could be a reference to the work of Alejandro de la Soto in the Torrieja Theatre. In their interweaving with tradition, these forms become more disciplined than those of gesturalists like Gehry or Calatrava; however oblique, a concrete purpose always lurks within the formal gymnastics. Often it seems to be the ground itself that dances to the designers' intentions.

This takes us to the dangerous intellectual territory between analogy and actuality.

For as yet it is unclear whether FOA is just an extraordinarily consummate appropriator of visual metaphors or if its forms really do 'go through' from symbol to reality. Is it mirroring a new formal realm and can it genuinely achieve it?

'FOA: Breeding Architecture' continues at the ICA until 29 February

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