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Ingenious developments

farmax: Excursions on Density - mvrdv 010 Publishers, 1998. 736pp. £23.50. (Distributor Art Data 0181 747 1061)

When the Dutch publishing house 010 brought out Rem Koolhaas' massive tome s,m,l,xl (aj 8.2.96), it looked like a one-off format. Pictures (many of them with the grainy texture of stills from films), artistically collaged snapshots, fragmentary and allusive texts, deep insights and scale dislocations seemed to be held together only by Koolhaas' eye - hardly a recipe for repetition.

farmax challenges that assumption. Produced by the young Dutch architects Winy Maas, Jacob van Rijs and Nathalie de Vries (hence the acronym which covers the name of their firm too), with more than a little help from their students, it uses the same techniques. At the very least, this takes the reader out of the frame of mind with which one approaches, say, Frampton or Colquhoun. At its worst it is intensely frustrating; at its best, it is a wonderful exploration of ingenious ideas.

Fortunately there is more of the latter than the former, and the ratio increases towards the end. far is floor area ratio (what we would call plot ratio), max is obvious. The authors clearly have a Koolhaasian liking for the rich, complex and heterogeneous; this book is an investigation of how to achieve that, with a touch of the advantages which may accrue. What holds together the diverse series of projects they present is that they all investigate either a location which already has achieved farmax, such as Kowloon walled city in Hong Kong, or Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, on the Pearl River delta; or they explore ways of increasing density within existing European urban structures.

One is a fascinating study for developing the inner court of an Amsterdam city block: extrapolating the court upwards and then shaving it to conform to sitelines from surrounding streets, to echo 'the configuration of the classical buildings with invisible 'Mont St Michels' that have an even more Gothic air than the originals', and to English eyes like so many Minster Courts. Using what used to be called sloap (space left over after planning) around motorways is a recurrent theme. The only departure from studies for increasing density is a celebration of Lelystad, an unsuccessful new town on a Dutch polder, which identifies potential in the empty spaces and cheap buildings.

'Negotiations in a housing silo' looks at ways of mixing uses and classes in a block for 165 dwellings and business units on a jetty in the Ij channel in Amsterdam. Eschewing monoculture or 'apartheid' (where vertical divisions are rigid), it takes a standard deviation curve, and tries to find the best fit, by piling different functions on top of each other if necessary. An abstract, mathematical formulation impinges on physical forms and social organisation with a surprisingly heterogeneous effect. That impression is borne out in at least a couple of mvrdv's completed schemes which the authors include: a housing scheme of 100 apartments for elderly people in Amsterdam-Osdorp with a series of improbably long cantilevers, and offices for the vpro public broadcasting company in Hilversum.

This approach is an ingenious play between logic, abstraction, social contingency and that touch of insanity that prevents Holland from being Germany and makes life bearable on such inauspicious ground. Let's work with what we have, what we know, and what we can find out, the authors seem to be saying, and then test those factors to the limit. Site lines really do create a potential building envelope or, as in the Hilversum project, sun paths define ways of splitting a slab block. Using a demonically pursued rationalism on another 'rational' approach to making buildings creates a kind of nether space which could never be reached through entirely rational or entirely imaginative means. And it also has the advantage of belonging to an ongoing discourse, even if its borrowings are wilfully perverse.

And here the purpose of the book's format comes into focus. Despite its deliberate opacity in various details, it is skilfully constructed to create an overall effect. Like all good books, it tells a story, and it is a story which could be told no other way.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

Papers given at a symposium in October 1996 at the former Institute of Advanced Architectural Studies at the University of York are the basis of Context: New Buildings in Historic Settings (Butterworth-Heinemann, 1998. 184pp. £35).

Questions of philosophy and policy are considered alongside case-studies by practitioners. The latter include Ted Cullinan on 'Contributing to Historic Settings without Kow-towing', Spencer de Grey on Foster and Partners' work at Nimes, the Royal Academy and the British Museum, and Richard MacCormac on several of mjp's collegiate schemes. Paul Velluet of English Heritage supplies a checklist of 91 examples of good practice between 1961 and 1998.

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