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Twenty years have passed since the RIBA held its first exhibition of the 40 most promising architects under 40 years of age.

A source of great excitement for its contemporaries, the 1985 40 Under 40 exhibition was a badly needed confidence boost to the architectural profession at a time when being a young architect was a particularly tough undertaking. As jury member and RIBA president Michael Manser then put it: 'What is noticeable is how few new buildings there are. This generation has become a slightly lost generation. The opportunities for new buildings have been smaller in their time for two reasons: the circumstances of the economy and obsessive conservation.' By 1988, when the second 40 Under 40 exhibition took place, there were certainly more 'real' buildings in evidence, but the event had lost some of the sparkle it had the first time round.

The fact that a handful of practices made the grade both times contributed to a certain feeling of déjà vu. Critic Colin Davies remarked that 'one gets the impression that the assessors didn't get on too well together', and, as if to prove this, Michael Hopkins rather uncharitably let it be known that he knew absolutely nothing about the architecture of his fellow assessor Robert Stern and had to look him up in the RIBA bookshop downstairs during the coffee break. In the soul-searching that followed this second event, there was much debate about the best way for 40 Under 40 to proceed. Should past winners be disqualified from ever entering again? And how many years should there be between exhibitions?

Two? Three? Five? Even 10?

In the event, these dilemmas weren't quite as pressing as they seemed. It has taken a total of 17 years, and some extremely generous sponsorship from Corus, to get 40 Under 40 off the ground again. This lapse of time has created a 40 Under 40 'lost generation' - architects who are currently in their forties and were either in college, or just out of it, the last time round. By the same token, some of the more established names on this year's list would probably have made the grade - and appreciated the publicity much more - had there been a 40 Under 40 exhibition at any period during the last 10 years.

But the 17-year wait has definitely had its plus points.

The stellar careers of many of the past winners have bestowed legendary status on the 40 Under 40 phenomenon. The jury this time had the added excitement of having an entire generation of architects to choose from (even the oldest people who were eligible to enter this year would have been at college - some were even still at school - back in 1988). And the opportunities for young architects have mushroomed during the intervening period. An increasingly design-savvy public has bred a new generation of private clients. Government-backed initiatives such as Schools for the Future and the Heritage Lottery Fund have created numerous opportunities for young talent. And big-name practices are now entrusting major projects to talented young employees. Faith is being rewarded. The 40 Under 40 architects of the past may be at the peak of their careers, but this year's winners are hot on their heels.

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