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Slaves of fashion

review Catalogue: Project Orange Architecture & Design Black Dog Publishing, 2003. 128pp. £16.95

Are you an habituÚ of Clerkenwell's St John's bar on a Friday night?

Do you attend launch parties for trendy architectural books or fashionable exhibitions?

No such gathering could consider itself remotely complete without the presence of at least one of the agents of Project Orange, James Soane and Christopher Ash.

Having made themselves fixtures wherever taste is formed, they have launched a Catalogue. It is one of those publications - AHMM's Manual and Nigel Coates' Ecstacity are other examples - which inadvertently tax the conventions of architectural publishing when the intention is to produce a practice brochure. As on Ecstacity, the blurb kindly tells us that we do not have to read it as we would, say, War and Peace, by starting at page one and making our way linearly to page 1,407, but 'you flick, you rest where your eye is drawn'. (Much like reading an IKEA catalogue, then? ) But where Manual recalls the sort of publication you need to home-service your Citroen DS or Aston Martin DB5, Catalogue just conveys a directionless compilation of fragments.

Imposing a division into sections like 'bathrooms', 'bedrooms', 'living/reception' and 'office/workspace', rather than into individual projects, the catalogue format is no more than a way of covering up the thinness of the work. There are some nice pieces of stone and slices of wood, a few attractive fireplaces and an especially good line in narcissistic bathrooms, but it never represents the project in its entirety, or what role the individual elements are intended to play beyond that depicted in the photograph.

Sometimes imposing a rigid publishing format causes the ideas to burst out through the seams, but not here - possibly because there are no ideas beyond the immediate and superficial. Drawings are relegated to their own section. Indeed, the projects are largely domestic remodellings, each done more or less well, and conceived, as it were, to grace the free property magazines which jam mail boxes in affluent postal districts.

A short text prefaces each section, presumably introducing the reader, or should we say skimmer, to the way Project Orange thinks about bathrooms, living spaces or bedrooms. The one on 'Eating and Drinking' is both typical and instructive. CafÚs and bars, it perceptively informs us, are 'no longer simply a place to meet, to eat and to drink. The designer must personalise the space, flavour it like food with carefully chosen and measured ingredients.'

How novel this is, is debatable, but it does remind us that Soane cut his teeth at the feet of Terence Conran, whose ability to distinguish the aesthetic of a shellfish platter from that of a wooden table, and make money from both, is uncanny. And as the text surges forth to propose 'Bollywood meets Suburbia' as an epithet for a project called 'Delhi Deli', or 'austerity glamour' for the Imperial War Museum cafÚ, we become immured in a linguistic web of clichÚ, which readily finds its counterpart in the timbers, metals and slates found in the projects themselves.

Uniform lighting, generic fixtures and the Marie Celeste-like atmosphere of the interiors depicted in the photographs reinforce the impression of clichÚ. Tellingly, just as drawings are confined to their own section, so exteriors are described in one ingenuously labelled 'Outdoors'. Almost all are the sort of sides or corners that arise when remodelling houses on restricted sites.

So far Project Orange is no more than a careful assembler of other peoples' products in line with pre-existing ideas for lifestyles that advertisers would recognise. There is skill in it, but little substance or originality.

No underlying principles emerge, no programme beyond that of turning architecture into a plaything of fashion, and hoping to receive a few strokes in return. That such a publication exists at all suggests architecture will continue, in strange vapidity, until criticism is awakened from its slumbers.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

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