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Silence, irony and sober realism

Review: EXHIBITIONS: The Presence of Construction - Caruso St John: The Walsall Art Gallery At the Architectural Association, 36 Bedford Square, London WC1 until 14 February

Entering the aa gallery to visit this exhibition was to discover an oasis of calm. Six large photographs, five books of drawings, a model, and a line of galvanised steel tables comprise almost its entirety. It may have been the morning after a riotous opening party, but I doubt it. Something about Caruso St John generates a tendency to silence.

Partly that is a product of respect. For years the practice occupied that limbo of professional and peer regard while lacking commercial or client recognition, until it won the competition for the subject of this exhibition, the Walsall Art Gallery. During that period it refined its approach to architecture to an almost Zen-like state of nothingness, where everything is used for its essential qualities rather than its associations. But nothingness is not vacuity; as Sir Peter Maxwell Davies said recently, the silence of Antarctica helped him to hear sounds he had never heard before. Caruso St John's architecture translates this sensation into the physical world; paring down the formal objects to a minimum allows, by some trope, individuals to confront the architecture of their souls.

This introspection is one facet of the practice's work. It lies behind the decision to show the building as it exists, in Helene Binet's construction photographs, and through drawings issued to the contractor. There is no artifice here, no Balmondian structural gymnastics, no Hayes Davidson montages or projections of what it might look like when complete. Instead we are invited to use our (professional) ability to extrapolate from drawings and a sample of the terracotta tiles which will clad the exterior. We are shown nothing whatsoever of the gallery's collection, presumably in case that diverts us from the purely architectural exercise which the exhibition invites.

Related to this gritty realism is another theme. Recognising and representing 'the existing and the known' (runs the introductory rubric to one of the books of drawings) is a way 'artistic production can critically engage with an existing situation and contribute to . . . cultural discourse.' Architecture, alone among the arts, has to engage with the familiar and popular; others can do so by choice. So it must be deliberate that the book contains, among other things, the wc details.

Irony is a very useful device in such fraught territory. It allows a multiplicity of viewpoints and situations. The Concise oed gives one meaning of irony as 'use of a language that has inner meaning for a privileged audience and an outer meaning for the persons addressed'. Caruso St John generates plenty of inner meaning for a privileged (ie, professional) audience. Those with a facility to read architectural drawings - most visitors, given its location - might enjoy spotting references to Adolf Loos and Louis Kahn, to name the most obvious.

But the exhibition lacks any concept of outer meaning or external observer. It eschews the possibility of using other modes to represent the 'existing and the known', and hence, perhaps, to penetrate closer to their essence. Without the possibility of stepping outside the cage of architectural thought and the questionable modality of architectural drawings and photographs as representative techniques, it is very hard to make any contribution to 'progressive cultural discourse'. It is architecture for architecture's sake: half an ironic construction which, without the other half, is about as useful as one half of a torn five-pound note.

It may be that force majeure will provide that other half. The process of construction is inevitably bringing external factors to bear on the gallery, as will the hanging of the exhibits. At that point, and beyond the control of Caruso St John, the gallery might really engage with some form of progressive discourse; before that can happen, it needs to be released from its architect's clutches.

Jeremy Melvin is an architectural writer and teacher

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