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Split personality

&\also - hawkins\brown Black Dog Publishing, 2003. £24.95

There was a time when most self-respecting firms of architects would think twice about producing a book about themselves. Now it seems every high-profile practice has to produce some portentous self-referential tome and the latest is from hawkins\brown. Note that reverse slash by the way - it is apparently significant and connotes a radicalism for which the common-or-garden forward slash is not quite sufficient.

But the conceit doesn't stop there.

hawkins\brown evidently sees itself as so leftfield that it's not even in the stadium but on the streets outside. According to Roger Hawkins and Russell Brown, 'architects ooze arrogance' - but better watch out because 'arrogance annoys us'. These guys are well 'ard, mate.

'We're misfits, ' they say, 'in an anal world.'

Much of it reads like the ideas were thrown together over a few pints of Stella in the pub. Every so often there are pages with oversized type emblazoned with 1980s-style slogans that are so cringe-inducing they make the bon mots on Katharine Hamnett Tshirts seem like sayings of the Delphic oracle.

Here's their bash at environmental awareness: 'The World Is One Big Housing Estate And No-One's Collecting The Rubbish'. Or, with reference to the supposedly incendiary nature of their work: 'Turn The Pages Wearing One Glove, Preferably Asbestos'. They even lay claim to being architectural Viagra:

'This Book May Not Help You Fall In Love But May Boost Your Libido A Little'.

But it gets worse. Many of the images are overlain with unbelievable columns of what can best be described as a bizarre attempt at rap: 'we are not architects; / a job title is a red herring; / something to hide behind; / like a grey suit; '. Or their take on creative conflict:

'hawkins\brown is tidy messy; / two opposite ideas; / held in the head at the same time; / yet it still functions; / god bless friction; '. Mockney rapper Mike Skinner of The Streets - who, incidentally, they credit in their pretentious 'timeline', which matches world events with developments in their career - has a lot to answer for.

But if you can somehow get beyond these ridiculous attempts to emphasise streetlevel relevance and credibility, the images and longer commentaries show that the self-conscious format of this book is unworthy of a firm of undoubted talent. Many of its most successful projects show that it is capable of great sensitivity, thought and responsiveness to particular clients, sites and social circumstances.

Its work is rarely, if at all, showy or meretricious. The Newham Playarc and Playbarn is an ingenious formal solution, which is ultimately a brilliant extrapolation of the structure of a Nissen hut. Its work at Hackney Community College doesn't try to compete with the form of the original Edwardian building but treats it with restraint and respect. Its development of a series of listed buildings at Hope (Sufferance) Wharf in Rotherhithe is more interventionist, but it is visually enriching without being pushy.

The formal variety of the work shows a capacity to adapt to particular project requirements and solutions, and what really comes across is a commitment to the potential users of a given building rather than to their own creative egos. In a culture where parachuted 'signature' buildings increasingly dominate perceptions about architectural value, hawkins\brown remains a practice explicitly committed to the importance of genius loci. Sadly, its attempt through this book to radicalise its role traduces many of the qualities its buildings represent.

Neil Cameron writes on art and architecture

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