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Ends, Middles, Beginnings: Edward Cullinan Architects By Jonathan Hale.Black Dog Publishing, 2005. £29.95

There is a telling photograph midway through this book, with Cullinan's Cambridge Divinity School on the left and Stirling's History Library on the right.

Stirling's building, in its image and reputation, says surly, fanatic, dangerous. Cullinan's, some 30 years later in date, says nice, reasonable, safe.

Jonathan Hale's final section reviews the critical record on the practice and (at its founder's request, one suspects) tries to play down the niceness, but it is a fact, and this is the problem with writing about Cullinan and others who answer to the same description. While one hopes the Divinity School will cause no problems for its occupants, it is more fun reading about Stirling, warts and all.

Perhaps we are over-fond of architectural monsters, and encourage the stereotype, because we know that fanaticism is the way to produce great architecture, and damn the consequences for anyone who gets in the way.

Equally, we know that there is only so much room in the world for great architecture on these terms, and most of the time we should be grateful if buildings are good, like D W Winnicott's formulation of the 'goodenough mother'.

For the historian, there is a new look at some of the older material presented chronologically by Kenneth Powell in his Academy Editions monograph (1995), and a view of the continuing story, but this is not an attempt to position Cullinan in the British or international architectural scene. Instead, it is an illustrated record of Cullinan's work, arranged thematically and focused on projects from the mid 1990s onwards. Each of the five thematic sections is interspersed with photo essays on a selected project, and in some respects the visual material wins over the text, which seldom dips below the simple narrative of each project to explore the themes.

There are so many pieces of basic architectural wisdom to find here - about relating plan to programme; responding to sites; making ingenious use of materials; incorporating precedents without being swallowed in the process;and going green but not hairy - that this book will make excellent reading for those students whose tutors actually expect them to design buildings.

This would be a good book too for prospective clients to read in order to understand some of the issues that architecture can address.

I would have liked a more disciplined approach to the design of the spreads, so that related information in text, plans and photographs was grouped together. Instead of which it tends to get out of sync, and requires a closer reading than it may always receive. (In this respect, the volumes of Foster's oeuvre complète from the early 1990s, designed by Otl Aicher, remain a model. ) Hale, who was in the office for four years, offers a general theory of Cullinan based on Gottfried Semper, but doesn't push it too far. Few architects like to be pinned down by definitions and comparisons, but it is easier to say what Cullinan's architecture is not rather than what it is. Maybe that is a result of a genuine diversity, even though the themes can be traced all the way back to the beginning.

I often thought of Hans Scharoun while turning the pages. Like Scharoun, Cullinan usually manages to pick up energy from his programmes and let it shake up the forms, but also pull them into recognisable shapes. These are very obviously figural buildings - probably too much so for some tastes - and while this contributes a lot to their pleasure, the book leaves this largely unsaid.

Alan Powers is a London-based architectural historian

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