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Radical simplicity

David Chipperfield: Architectural Works 1990-2002 Ediciones Polígrafa, 2003. 343pp. £59

One notable side-effect of the current fad for no-holds-barred expressionism is that David Chipperfield, undisputed master of 'polite' architecture, has inadvertently become rather radical. To flick though this monograph is to feast on buildings of an austerity that is infinitely more arresting than any number of deconstructed jellyfish or upturned fishing boats. Strong, strident and perfectly judged, Chipperfield's buildings smack of a self-confidence so complete that it sees no need to shout; he is an architect who has never felt the need to cram too many ideas into any one design. Who, in short, has no reason to doubt a continuing flow of work.

It's a strategy that has paid off. Given that, famously, he has had relatively few commissions in the UK, many readers will be astonished at the sheer volume of projects in the book. Chipperfield must, surely, find it immensely satisfying to present such a significant body of work to his ungrateful countrymen, but there's no sense of triumphalism. In an interview with Rik Nys, he seems acutely aware of the implicit paradox in reconciling modesty to the intrinsically self-aggrandising practice of publishing a monograph. But he gives it his best shot nonetheless.

His strategy is to err on the side of detachment. There is no attempt to impose a narrative, or even section headings on the body of work, or to trace the evolution of particular themes. Projects are simply presented, with characteristic elegance and matter-offact precision, in alphabetical order.

As an organisational device, this proves to be as effective as any. It avoids the pitfalls of the ubiquitous chronology, which, with architecture, is almost always unsatisfactory. Where, for example, does one locate the Henley-onThames River and Rowing Museum - designed in 1989, built in 1996 and opened in 1998? Convention dictates that buildings are categorised according to their completion dates. But prioritising the building process over the gestation period is not necessarily the most accurate means of tracing the evolution of ideas and, in any case, fails to account for the many Chipperfield projects that, sadly, have never seen the light of day. On balance, there is a certain logic to adopting a strategy that does not pretend to have narrative coherence at all.

The obvious alternative would have been to group the projects by building type, and the inclusion of a series of insightful essays by Jonathan Keates, entitled 'Houses', 'Museums', 'Public Projects' and 'Shops', suggests that the book may, at some point, have been conceived in this way. But this, again, would have resulted in some unfortunate contortions. Where, for example, would one place the Toyota Auto building in Kyoto (198990), a mixed-use development designed and presented as though it were a private house (car showroom in the ground-floor 'garage', restaurant in the 'dining room', and so on)?

And what about the beautifully crafted vases, bowls and tables turned out by the Chipperfield office? Would these have been relegated to a sad little afterthought chapter entitled 'Miscellaneous'?

In the event, the tiniest commissions fare rather well. You can't help but wonder whether the editorial team began to have second thoughts when it emerged that, alphabetically speaking, the entire Chipperfield oeuvre kicks off with the Air Frame furniture range. Equally, you can't help but enjoy some of the more unlikely juxtapositions that occur.

The San Michele Cemetery in Venice (19982013), which involves the creation of a new island, is immediately followed by a simple ceramics range for Slegten and Toegeman (1996) and then a monumental social housing project in Madrid (1999-2004).

The 'easy-to-navigate' format flounders when you realise that the best-loved buildings, like the best loved pop songs, are not always known by their official title. There is really no need to know that the Henley Rowing Museum is actually called the River and Rowing Museum at Henley-on-Thames unless you are trying to locate it under H. Then again, if you had known that all along, you might never have taken time to appreciate Chipperfield's beautiful thumbnail sketches of the recently completed house in Galicia, Corrubedo.

In fact, the true value of the wilfully straightforward organisational structure is that it encourages random browsing - undoubtedly the most rewarding way to appreciate such an astounding and varied body of work. In publishing, as in architecture, Chipperfield has thrived on the adage that the simplest devices are often the most radical and generally the best.

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