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Predictable prophets

review [Future] City At the riba Architecture Gallery, 66 Portland Place, London W1 until 15 January

It's commendable that the riba is taking the future of cities seriously - or so I thought until I saw the exhibition in Gallery 1, which is so unsure as to what might happen that its title calls for brackets. [Future] City even introduces itself with an apology: 'We can't quite see what is there,' runs the rubric.

That might have been worthwhile if this little exercise had helped to conceive new ways of investigating, representing and devising strategies for the future of cities. Instead, the 15 proposals for sites around the Thames in London, on which Mark Davy's triptych of paintings comment, are a catalogue of the received wisdoms which have held sway ever since Georg Simmel's perceptions re-entered readings of the Post-Modern city.

Variations on the old Surrealist game of 'exquisite corpse' are yet again employed by several exhibitors, but unfortunately without the wit of the original Surrealists. And just as decimating words or phrases with hyphens, brackets and slashes, to invoke irony and veil meaning, is a fashionable pursuit, so exquisite corpse is an easy substitute for hard work and personal responsibility.

Most worrying is that such a game can claim an impeccable lineage. Ever since Mozart sprawled across a billiards table and idly rolled a ball around, this sort of structured randomness has been taken as a possible basis for artistic creation. The point, however, is to transcend the banalities of the relationships it sets up, not to reinforce them. Pierre Boulez' Le Marteau sans Maitre shows how this can occur. Each performance of the piece is different but, working in music where the medium really is the message and the process the product, Boulez has an advantage.

This is the heart of the problem. Because architecture can often be considered in isolation from the circumstances of its production, some awkward questions arise. For when we see an architectural project we impose our own values on it, which need not have anything to do with the process of its making. Obsessing with the process might be no more than an underhand plot for architects to retain control of 'meaning' in their work by a subtle invocation of the old bugbear of 'authenticity': authenticity derives from a more or less irrelevant process.

A transcript of a telephone conversation between Gary Clough and a Lambeth planning officer is the exhibition's leitmotif, weaving its way through the cursorily displayed projects. The transcript is interesting not because it shows the planner to be decent and intelligent (of course they often are), but because it confirms that the exhibition is the product of the unspoken freemasonry which binds so many architects together - i.e. that planners can be held up to ridicule.

So the projects which are most interesting are those which stand alone, and here there are some worthwhile suggestions. Steve Donald probes underground London; students from Canterbury School of Architecture actually engage with sites and programmes. The Environment Agency's team suggests widening the river with a series of amphitheatre-like steps, 51% has some intriguing ways of cleansing water, and Lorenzo Apicella devises a mobile footbridge for the Royal Docks. Hardly original, but at least they offer substance. And if they were not weighed down by the baggage of the exhibition, they might be rather good. At least their futures have something in common with mine - and they are not enclosed by parentheses.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

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