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In the mind's eye

review

Realms of Impossibility: Air / Realms of Impossibility: Ground / Realms of Impossibility: Water By C J Lim.Wiley-Academy, 2002. Each volume £14.99

The hand shoots up, the eyes are bright, the keenness unmistakable. We can all recall a fellow student or two whose deftness and devotion were hard to bear on a hungover morning, but who were singlemindedly set fair for the Best Portfolio prize. Nothing wrong in a well-tuned line, of course, yet as the Russian spymaster reminded his glum chum in Frankenheimer's Manchurian Candidate, 'Always with a little humour, my dear Zilkov!'

Zeal and zip on this scale seem often to survive into later life. In the case of this triad of volumes from the mouse of C J Lim - visiting professor at the 'Mac', unit master at the Bartlett, and a flourishing footnote in architectural research - the assault on several of your senses at once can initially prove daunting, even unwelcome. Faced with fevered productions such as this, the great temptation is to reach down the Banister Fletcher or cuddle up with Auguste Choissy. These are not pages to be savoured in repose.

Call it coincidence or design, recent 'think pieces' on architecture and urbanism tend to arrive in user-unfriendly packaging, calling for muscle power in the case of Koolhaas (S, M, L, XL) or some deft wrist work to tackle Lim's three, very floppy and slithery paperbacks. Aside from the attention-grabbing affectation of a totally lower-case universe, the blocks of italicised text set solid and frequent instructions to rotate or upend the book, there remains the strong impression that here is a CD, DVD or whatever languishing as the printed page, imprisoned between covers and earthbound while some of its contents strive to soar. Not for the first time, format is fighting function.

The author's avowed intent, as well as his subtitle, is a 'celebration of unlikely things in a likely world', a quest which takes him across terrain already well travelled by other literary and graphic pilgrims. All the usual suspects are here: a sprinkling of Hadid; lashings of mysterious lines; and some of NASA's choicest hardware; not forgetting the obligatory 'fascinating facts' - enough to silence any precocious schoolboy nephew.

But what does it add up to, or is indeed any ultimate sum of the parts intended? In perusing all this disparate material, some of Lim's readers may feel that the pages have been composed with a view to the author being thought of as more than 'just windswept and interesting' (to borrow Billy Connolly's immortal phrase). Certainly the juxtapositions and chance meetings of architecture, cinema and literature in these pages do give pause for thought, but they are all too often mired in muddy graphics and clever-clever typography.

Yet the volumes are not without tantalising conceits and fancies, downloaded from the author's wide reading and fevered imagination. Several of the items involve a cast surely more comfortable in the pages of Wallpaper* - specifically, a well-presented Eurocouple called Marianne and Peter, whose edgy hobbies include 'border hunting', in which one half of their hotel double bed lies in France and the other in Switzerland, thus prompting musings on the nature of boundary conditions (much as a pair of half pints might straddle the Yorkshire/Lancashire border, but not immediately provoke topological concerns).

It is reassuring then, in this context, to see the author pay his dues to earlier urban visionaries. The influence of Archigram is acknowledged, as are the film-makers who have provided much of the imagery to form what the author describes as 'cities of our mind's eye'. References and cross-references resound.

But just as Archigram managed magically to create a fully formed - and surprisingly cheerful - future, armed only with Rapidographs and Letratone (remember that? ), or Italo Calvino shape with words alone an imaginary urbanism in his masterpiece, Invisible Cities, so we are faced in this trilogy with the triumph of technique over content.

Neil Parkyn is a London-based architect and town planner who heads the consultancy Huntingdon Associates

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