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Futile but in fashion

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technical & practice: JEREMY MELVIN Manifesto: Fifty Years of British Radicals At the riba, 66 Portland Place, London W1 until 28 August

Perhaps I've read too much Conrad and Dostoyevsky, but I do like my radicals to come floppy-hatted, draped in dark cloaks and bearing spherical bombs. At least they're less of a caricature than the model Manifesto presents. Packaged by the riba (whose only known radicalism is to award its Royal Gold Medal to a city), designed by Morag Myerscough (a Clerkenwell loft-living graphic designer), and including peers of the realm, intimates of Prince Charles and professors at University College London, this exhibition shows that the word 'radical' when applied to architecture is about as useful as the

word 'nice'.

Gathered together are Richard Rogers, Walter Segal, Muf, nato, Matrix, Peter Cook, Neil Spiller, Cedric Price, the Smithsons and Rod Hackney. It's not a group, to put it mildly, with any obvious affinities in architectural output, which the exhibition neatly sidesteps by ignoring design altogether. Each architect has one board with a few sentences proclaiming their radical status; there are no meaningful images - radicalism apparently lies not in form, space or appearance. Radicalism, then, is not to do with what every school of architecture holds is the essence of the subject. It for some reason belongs to contingencies, such as practice organisation, or, dare I say it, mode of production.

Why have the three curators - Iain Borden, Tom Dyckhoff and Alicia Pivaro - expended energy on such a futile exercise? The truth lies in a longstanding over-privileging of the notion of radicalism. Radical is synonymous with good, reactionary with bad. Borden makes a plea for radicalism to lie in the ability to be transfomative within a specific context, 'to make a difference [to] the concept, essence, quality of architecture and the city'. But isn't that an equally workable definition of 'good' (or even 'nice') architecture? To annex such a proposition and affix it to the radical bandwagon is merely to install a pseudo-respectable gateway between the discredited notions of good and bad.

By way of illustration, consider how certain politicians use terms like 'radical' and 'reforming' - as in 'radical, reforming agenda'. You have to have the perversity (and erudition) of Roger Scruton to make a case against what seem to be self-evident advantages. And nowhere does such a conceit segue more obviously into architecture than in the 'radical, reforming' work of Richard Rogers, peer of the realm.

At least he and Rod Hackney would agree on something, for Hackney sees radicalism in trying to do something about 'the deep scars that should have been removed long ago - housing, industrial dereliction, entrenched unemployment, pessimism, poverty.' But you don't need to be radical to sign up to such aims: Beveridge was a Liberal.

In admitting that nato used avant-garde tactics with conservative values, the curators implicitly question the whole project. There might be scope for radical politics, but any attempt to make architecture 'radical' is either hopelessly compromised, or so intensely internalised within architectural discussion that it negates Borden's definition. Let's move on. Let's deal with serious rather than fashionable issues - with forms and genres, the Realist/Formalist divide, meaning and communication. And, as for manifestos, let's leave them in the language which has never been surpassed for the purpose - Old Testament Hebrew.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

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