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Youthful authority

review

New Architects 2: A Guide to Britain's Best Young Architectural Practices Compiled by the Architecture Foundation.Merrell, 2001. 160pp. £25

This lavish and impeccably presented volume offers much more than its title suggests, for it also gives a welcome hint of what the future of mainstream British architecture might be. It also says much about the state of contemporary patronage for the 60-odd fledgling practices selected for this directory.

Following a well-established Modernist tradition, most of the illustrated projects are domestic in scale, for enlightened, sophisticated clients; not surprisingly, a significant number reorder or extend existing buildings.

Most encouragingly, New Architects 2 is refreshing in the astonishing maturity and authority of the work it features, belying the fact that less than a decade ago, most of these designers were still at architecture school. Furthermore, without exception, the projects are impeccably detailed, delighting in tectonic display and the craft of building, so reinstating that long-standing British tradition.

The general picture offered, then, from this 'snapshot' of emerging practices, is not only one of a varied palette of materials and an obsessive concern for their assembly, but also of sound pragmatic design. Those in search of weighty theoretical underpinnings or 'manifesto' buildings will be disappointed, while only two practices cross traditional boundaries into the realms of landscape and installation art.

Refreshingly, for a profession perceived as profoundly metropolitan, 17 of the practices represented in the book come from outside London. Of these, seven are from the 'Celtic fringe', with two practices representing the tiny architectural community of Northern Ireland. This apparent reversal of a longstanding 'centrist' mentality among young talented architects in Britain, augurs well for the future of provincial architecture.

But such a development is not altogether surprising: of the five best schools of architecture in Britain (as judged by a recent Times survey), only one was London-based.

Moreover, many of these 'new architects' teach in our schools of architecture, some on a full-time basis, thereby re-establishing that necessary congruity between exemplary practice and pedagogy.

Published under the auspices of the Architecture Foundation, New Architects 2 also offers a showcase for the best in current architectural photography; the stunning visual images, in colour, are seductive and immediately accessible.

Sadly, that is not the case with the platitudinous and excessively prolix essays preceding the directory of architects. Why do sponsors and publishers alike insist on their inclusion in what is essentially a catalogue? As for the directory itself, it represents a model of clarity: a brief statement from individual practices is supported by three illustrated built projects, and by a 'critique' of their oeuvre from an established pundit.

So who should read New Architects 2? At one level, it represents a much more stimulating and reliable guide for prospective clients than any regional advisory service provided by the RIBA. For architectural students it offers a remarkably compact 'crib' to develop their architectural vocabularies, not to mention an encouraging snapshot of what might be achieved early in their ensuing careers. For developers and institutional clients, it provides a clear alternative to the banality of 'design and build'.

But at another level, it gives the cultural historian a concise insight into the state of British architecture, now that an identifiable mainstream (so well encapsulated in this publication) has finally exorcised the ghosts of Po-Mo, historicism, vernacular revivalism and the rest.

Peter Fawcett is professor of architecture at the University of Nottingham

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