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Feast of models is full of potential

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Review: MARTIN UNGLESS Siah Armajani: Dictionary for Building At the Matthew Architecture Gallery, 20 Chambers Street, Edinburgh, until 6 February

Simon Beeson is a man with three chairs in his pocket. Like his mentor, one-time boss, and collaborator, Siah Armajani, he carries these as a workman carries his tools. I should explain that these are miniature chairs - a ready-to-hand, manipulable symbol for the seated human - and that Armajani too is often to be found apparently playing with them.

Beeson has curated, designed, and built (with Nicky Moss) the exhibition 'Dictionary for Building'. Armajani is a Minneapolis-based artist working in the public realm. As a conceptual artist in the 1960s he sought new forms for old ideas and was drawn to architecture by its social, political and ethical dimensions. In exploring this field he has discovered the power of utility: the possibility that function in an art work may release a forceful poetry through the viewer/user's direct physical engagement.

It would be wrong to describe his work as architectural - not because this is incorrect in a prosaic sense, but because it would upset him. Art and architecture are different; in his own words, 'they are neighbours'. Yet what good neighbours they are, sharing so many interests. Armajani is keen to expose the differences but there is much in his work which architects could benefit from experiencing.

Armajani draws upon archetypes of the American Mid-West, referring to traditional domestic and agricultural architecture. He works directly, in the Heideggerian sense, as a builder, fashioning models by which he can explore his ideas at a controllable scale. Like architecture, the larger products at an inhabitable scale are the work of a team; they are built by others, with specialist skills and knowledge of materials.

'Dictionary for Building' is installed by Beeson in the manner of his mentor. It announces itself on Chambers Street through the insertion of a small domestic-scale window into the austere facade of the Architecture Department. This glows with a yellow light, as if from a Mid-West farmhouse kitchen. (The same device is less successful inside, however; one barely notices it in the presence of the main exhibit.)

Spread like a Last Supper in the gallery is an installation which is at once bridge, picket-fence, home, garden and domestic furniture. This conveys many of Armajani's major themes directly, and - as in his work - there is utility in its components. One may sit to browse a catalogue, stand at a stone lectern to read another, or run one's eye across a feast of models (thinking machines, tools for understanding, not just small versions of things to be made larger).

The maquettes look like little stage sets, with their rooms, dolls' furniture, barns, houses and numerous bridges. They are all made from balsa and card, wrought together with lashings of glue. I would love to have seen an analogue for the glue itself in the inhabitable versions of these tiny worlds.

On the walls there are images of Armajani's studio and two large photographs of completed public works; but the exhibition does not give enough information about the end products or his working methods. The power of Armajani's art lies in the physical experience of it. While the installation hints at this, it lacks a description of the process through which the models become a constructed reality.

It may be that this exhibition will only be accessible to architects in any profound way. We have been trained, after all, to imagine a larger reality from representations of it. I am sure, however, that Armajani himself would argue that it is not imagining experience but experience itself that proves most meaningful.

The tiny chairs in Beeson's pocket were folding ones, and three such chairs are to be found in the installation. They are folded and, hung on timber pegs, displayed on a wall. Suspended there, full of potential, they wait to be used, like the ideas in this show. I hope it will encourage many to explore the work of Siah Armajani and to learn how to engage more profoundly with the phenomena of experience.

With Arts Council sponsorship, Simon Beeson hopes to research and exhibit a further two artists who work in the architectural arena. Good luck to him - our cities will benefit from architects being exposed to this sort of exhibition.

Martin Ungless is a partner in Ungless & Latimer Architects, Edinburgh. The Scottish Sculpture Trust is holding a symposium alongside the exhibition on Tuesday 3 February, 18.00 (0131 220 4788)

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