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David Chipperfield: Idea e Realtà At the Palazzo della Ragione, Padua, until 19 February

If David Chipperfield has sometimes felt hard done by, his talent more appreciated abroad than here, he shouldn't, for coming to terms with other cultures has only enriched his architecture - as this new retrospective in Padua makes clear. It fills the huge hall of the Medieval Palazzo della Ragione, which once housed the city's courts: a grand but apt location because Chipperfield, whose career began with shops and galleries, is now involved with major civic schemes (including, in Barcelona and Salerno, two Cities of Justice).

For the quality of work on display, the elegance of the installation and the splendid setting, it's an exceptional show.

Chipperfield presents 35 projects on square panels which are linked together horizontally in groups of 10 and suspended at intervals in four gently zigzagging lines down the length of the hall; a spatial strategy that echoes one of the schemes in the exhibition, his Baijun Residential District in China, whose housing blocks are angled in a similar way. The panels are of canvas on wood, the matt finish eliminating any glare or reflections.

Photographs are consciously underplayed: the first panel for each scheme contains just a band of them with an explanatory text beneath, while adjacent ones give floor plans, sections and site plans. At times the amount of white space is certainly 'generous' but, with five continuous tiers of frescoes around its walls, the hall is already full of images, and this recurrent spareness in the installation helps you to focus.

Down the centre of the hall are models, some in plaster, the rest in a beautiful grey stone, pietra di Vicenza. The latter in particular remind you of Chipperfield's studied handling of materials; which, in the absence of material samples or full-scale detail mock-ups, only emerges in the photographs and text, where brick, stone, timber, glass and concrete (rose-tinted in the Villaverde housing) all make their presence felt.

As these models aren't collocated with their panels, they form a separate episode in the show - one which confirms that, despite a liking for the orthogonal and for concision, Chipperfield has resisted a 'signature' style. In this he's a 'global' architect who doesn't peddle a global product but has the intellectual curiosity to engage with varied contexts, built and cultural, and to abstract from local conditions.

So as well as, say, a response to the vernacular in projects as different as the Henley River & Rowing Museum and the Kaistrasse Studios in Düsseldorf harbour, there are surprises: the lobed, organic form of the central building at the City of Cultures in Milan, a streamlined quatrefoil. Contrast this with the latest version of the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield - a crystalline cluster of trapezoidal rooms - with which Chipperfield (rightly) must be pleased, for it appears on the cover of the catalogue.

Amid his practice's current projects that, given how dispersed they are, must be keeping BA in business, some seem especially significant: the two Cities of Justice and the Museum Island buildings in Berlin. In both Salerno and Barcelona there's an attempt to redefine the public face of the law by dismantling the usual overwhelming monolith into component parts - parallel blocks and courtyards at Salerno, a more irregular arrangement of solids and voids at Barcelona - while making a new slice of city with a strong sense of place.

In Berlin, where Chipperfield is collaborating with Julian Harrap on the 'soft restoration' of Stüler's war-damaged Neues Museum, he's pursuing an alternative to Scarpa's now routine dialectic of old and new. But in the shadow of Schinkel, whose Altes Museum inaugurated Museum Island, Chipperfield has two more buildings in prospect - a new entrance block and the Hinter dem Giesshaus gallery.

For these related Berlin projects, both museology and history (of the site and the city) have set the bar high.

Back in Padua, the Palazzo della Ragione has butcher's shops on its ground fl oor and is flanked by markets. When you leave the big hall, there are voices, smells and clutter, and the world of Chipperfield's show can seem perfected and Platonic by contrast, with all its best intentions intact. The photos in it, though relatively few, are all 'authorised versions' of the buildings, before the users or occupants get to work, which eventually, in the Cities of Justice, they will. A test both for Chipperfield's humanism and his architecture will come when they do: it would be great if a future retrospective featured them as buildings in use.

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