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Nothing new

review - Innovation Edited by Alan J Brookes and Dominique Poole. Spon Press, 2003. 192pp. £36

Innovation is a book that sets itself the task of exploring the ideas that drive architectural solutions. It does this in preference to appraising the end results and is, accordingly, relatively devoid of the more usual type of architectural criticism. It somewhat narrows its potential audience by saying: 'It is assumed that the reader will already be familiar with most of the projects described'which, in view of the variety of the projects included, presupposes a particularly well-informed readership.

The book emerged from Dominique Poole's PhD thesis and an Illinois Institute of Technology conference in 1999. It consists of 12 brief chapters on, or by, different practitioners from well-known architectural and engineering practices.

One might expect the short introduction by Poole and coeditor Alan Brookes to be a well-informed prelude to the chapters which follow. Unfortunately the book's credibility is undermined soon after it begins by such jaw-dropping insights as: 'Our belief is that technology actively exists within the present building industry.'

The contributors include a number of leading figures in building innovation during the past 30 years. What they have to say is generally interesting and they contribute some memorable anecdotes. Nevertheless, they were apparently unaware of each other's contributions. You therefore read on numerous occasions how the computer has made new forms possible, or is bringing in a new range of possibilities, or is revolutionising the way designers work.While each chapter reads well independently, such repetition becomes irritating; having got used to it, I was still surprised to find Alan Brookes repeating the same story on page 96 that he had told on page five.

On other occasions a contributor, presumably unwittingly, contradicts what another has just said. In chapter two, Mike Davies expresses his 'fear that the driving ideas of sustainability will be less powerful in six or seven years'and that 'there is a certain amount of fashion associated with sustainability'. A few pages later, David Kirkland claims: 'It is clear that the most important issue facing the profession currently (and perhaps the most important issue for centuries) is sustainability.'

Presumably just as unintentionally, immediately after Poole's essay on Richard Horden, which describes his fascination with boat building, space research and aircraft design, Brookes starts his chapter titled 'Production processes, sources and the use of materials'with a quotation from Eva Jiricna.This includes her observation that 'architects being so keen to impress very often look for inspiration to other associated professions - for example, boat building, space research and exploration, the aircraft industry - but very often for only one reason: to stand out from the crowd'.

Some chapters are particularly worth reading, such as those by Mike Cook and Tony Hunt; others far less so. Mike Davies'account of innovation at the Richard Rogers Partnership reads as rather self-congratulatory, which with a little helpful editing could have been avoided.

Overall, Innovation is singularly uninnovative.So many books on architecture and design at present are the result of a desire to publish, driven by the Research Assessment Exercise and its system of ratings.One of the most expedient ways appears to be to gather together a group of relatively short essays on a theme and add an introduction.

This book probably emerged from such a process, but it doesn't seem to have benefited from an editor having read the whole thing through. This failure may not be much noticed, though, as I suspect that reading the whole thing through will be something few people choose to do.

Alex Wright is an architect in Bath

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