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Man the banquettes

2001: An Architectural Odyssey At the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1 until 18 August

When the RIBA trumpets an 'extraordinary renaissance of public building in Britain today', who can question it? With all its press offices, future studies departments and restyled cafes, it must be right; and as Marco Goldschmied claimed, with its 'newly restyled' Florence Hall 66 Portland Place is in the vanguard of the rebirth of public space. Perhaps someone will tell the library.

Such were my thoughts as, savouring the delicacies of the new RIBA caterers, I lolled on the leather banquettes designed by James Soane - no relation, but as a partner of Conran, well connected nonetheless - and tried to understand the point of '2001: An Architectural Odyssey'. It comprises a dozen projects under five headings, almost all of them familiar, most of them Lottery funded, some of them good - though a dozen more could be found to bear out the claim of a rebirth of public building.

But on being asked to admire the exhibition's moveability, I did wonder why it is staying in the gallery until August. More seriously, whoever did the graphic design of the display panels did not understand how they would be shown. Text-heavy, and with far too much at the bottom, close to the floor, they resemble pages from a magazine rather than an exhibition display.

I dwell on these things rather than the projects themselves because this exhibition heralds the RIBA's big public initiative. As Goldschmied implied, it co-ordinates with the fully activated use of 66 Portland Place and the idea that the public might take to architecture, if architects take it to the public.

Here it starts to become interesting. It is very welcome that the RIBA should inform debate about the public realm, and reassuring that there are appropriate projects. The utterly praiseworthy Sustrans cycle route system, courtesy of John Grimshaw, alongside his cousin Nick's equally praiseworthy Eden Centre, might kickstart discussion of the diverse nature of the public realm, from education to travel.

Similarly, the collection of Gateshead projects - Ellis Williams' conversion of the Baltic flour mill into an arts centre (pictured), Wilkinson Eyre's bridge and Foster's Music Centre - augurs well for what is perhaps England's finest small-scale city centre. Less successful as exhibition themes, perhaps because of their architectural qualities, is the pairing of Libeskind's Imperial War Museum North and Stanton Williams' Millennium Seedbank as 'Living futures, Living pasts'.

What should be the key to the whole exhibition, the British Museum Great Court and Glen Howells' Market Place theatre in Armagh as 'Space in the City', also fails to convince. Put brutally, the former is by no means Foster's greatest work, while Howells' delicate urban infill does something entirely - and nicely - different.

If the RIBA is serious about integrating its programmes into a seamless whole, it should capitalise on the opportunity this exhibition makes for discussion. One display panel alludes to the promised right to roam as a major expansion of the public realm, but the government has now abrogated that right - for justifiable reasons, but thereby illustrating a paradox, irresolvable under present dispensations.

Inevitably the government will be forced to devise an entirely new approach to urban and rural land uses and rights, balancing access, leisure, food production and re-use.

If '2001: An Architectural Odyssey' marks a new willingness on the part of the RIBA to engage constructively in this debate, its shortcomings as a show will seem irrelevant.

I might even overlook those new banquettes.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

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