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Eric Lyons and Span At the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1, until 22 December Maybe it is appropriate that Eric Lyons has been given a modest exhibition, for he built mainly affordable houses in clumps which defiindividualise the separate dwelling. What other considerable 20th-century architect would share billing with the name of a developer?

Of course that points to the most remarkable feature of Lyons' career, but it doesn't make for glamour.

The RIBA show stays at on the walls, but climbs them to unusual height and packs in words and images in great density. The effect is a little like one of those collage-murals that ourished early in Lyons' career. For all the charm of this, I wish the subject had been given more space, keeping the stages more clearly distinct and making room for models.

Perhaps no contemporary models survive, but many of the schemes cry out to be shown in more tactile form.

They generally take odd-shaped sites and arrange dwellings in numbers neither large nor small in ingenious and exible groups. It is hard to get a grip on how the format developed, because changes are subtle and ceaseless.

Front gardens disappear early, to be replaced by curving communal spaces. Back gardens survive and collect little clusters of garages later on. Separating houses and cars is a principle;

dwellers become pedestrians for the last few minutes before going back indoors.

Lyons insisted that he was only interested in urban architecture, but the most striking feature of Span layouts is the attention paid to plants and terrain, how thoroughly seated in a unique place these repetitive houses are.

Landscaping isn't an adequate word for this: Lyons was also adamant that plants were not décor but essential constituents of an inclusive spatial concept.

They create or define spaces.

In fact the relation between buildings and natural setting is so sympathetic and so irregularly English that commentators have often invoked 18th-century landscape gardens as the inspiration. At least once, near Weybridge, a Span development sat on the edge of a William Kent country house landscape, the ancestor and its 20th-century incarnation next to each other.

Lyons began in Maxwell Fry's office in Walter Gropius' last year in England. He gained something important from Gropius' idea of the architect's role in society, and his vocabulary from the start derives from that kind of Modernism. But he often referred to Georgian speculative building, terraces based on pattern books that he admired for their ability to put repetition to humane use; his proudest boast was to have improved on this model.

From dignified beginnings in Fry's office, Lyons went on to cinema architecture, and then air raid shelters and 'shadow factories' (decoys for enemy bombers? ) during the war. His fruitful partnerships with developers seem to have begun in the most natural way: an architect-friend gradually turned into a developer and gave Lyons his head in providing plans.

Lyons shared his developer friend's missionary zeal about Modernist space and a wish to create the conditions for satisfying communal life. From the start, residents' societies were a key element in Span projects, to make sure that public spaces were cared for, that the principles driving the project were propagated, and that distracting personalisations of shared space were prevented.

As time went on the communal ethos appealed less to some residents; hedge barriers between properties appeared, as did PVC window frames.

But judging by Tim Crocker's recent photos, and compared to Le Corbusier's Pessac for example, Lyons' houses evidently still suit their residents.

The information-packed book published to coincide with the exhibition (RIBA Publications, £25) gives space to a whole range of larger projects carried out for local councils that are mostly omitted from the walls. Elain Harwood makes a case for these and regards them as neglected; they are certainly something different.

It has been persuasively argued that Lyons never hangs onto a visual signature or style.

So it may not be appropriate to say that I found I had a cut-off point as I circled the room, at the moment where lean-to porches with chunky roofs and tile-hung walls in neovernacular patterns began to appear. Eric Lyons had moved on while I stayed back, regretting the loss of the earlier purity. Perhaps the triumph of substance over style is not the whole Lyons story.

Robert Harbison is a professor at London Metropolitan University

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