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Getting the balance right

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Equilibrium: The Work of Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners by Hugh Pearman. Phaidon, 2000. 272pp. £45

Nicholas Grimshaw made his name designing natty sheds. Some were factories, some office buildings, some sports halls, but all were simple, flexible boxes, made of metal, glass and plastic. They were so simple they could almost pretend not to be architecture at all. Only the well crafted details - an exposed roof truss here, an unusual balustrade there - betrayed a certain ambition, a desire to cut a dash and project an image.

Now, 20 years later, the Grimshaw practice has grown into respectable maturity and gets asked to do important public buildings like city office blocks, art galleries, railway stations and airports.

But, like the middle- aged man who suddenly finds he can afford the kind of sports car he dreamt of owning in his youth and actually goes out and buys one, Grimshaw retains his boyish enthusiasm and optimism. His buildings are as ambitious, inventive and stylish as they ever were. There is no sign of the tiredness and willingness to compromise that often afflicts practices whose payrolls have passed the 100 mark. But now there is more money to spend, and image has become at least as important as economy.

Many of the buildings illustrated in this monograph, which covers the period after the completion of the Waterloo International Rail Terminal in 1993, are so-called 'landmark buildings'a phrase Grimshaw claims he first heard as late as 1992. Take, for example, the RAC regional headquarters in Bristol, with its twin-masted tower and observation platform, or the European Institute of Health and Medical Sciences at Guildford with its zinc-clad ship's prow, or the proposed National Space Science Centre in Leicester, with its rocket tower, bandaged in transparent foil cushions like. . . well, like a sore thumb, albeit a clean and elegant one.

Symbolism and visual metaphor, never far beneath the surface of Grimshaw's early architecture, have now broken through and are flaunted unselfconciously. Often the metaphor is organic.

The rounded and tapered form of the big Berlin office block known as Ludwig Erhard Haus, for example, is compared to a lobster carapace (despite its ribbed structure), and the undulating arches and counter arches of the proposed bridges at Ijburg near Amsterdam are segmented like the spines of dinosaur skeletons.

These metaphors are used consciously as part of the design process, not applied later by critics.

The resulting forms have a futuristic, comic-book look about them, colourful and entertaining but slightly tongue in cheek.More satisfying are those designs in which invention serves a pressing practical purpose. For the Orange Call Centre at Darlington, for example, perhaps inspired by the canonical Cummings Engineering Factory of 1960 which lies empty and abandoned on a neighbouring site, Grimshaw returns to the simple shed form and produces a miracle of Miesian economy and refinement. Only in the extraordinary geodesic 'biomes' of the Eden Project, bubbling up like an alien infection in a disused Cornwall clay pit, does sci-fi imagery seem the natural outcome of practical invention.

Grimshaw's recent architecture is well served by this glossy but straightforward presentation.

Plans and sections are included for all 18 buildings and projects, as well as the usual beautiful photographs. Hugh Pearman provides lively project descriptions and an informative introduction. In addition, there is a rather predictable interview and the text of a lecture on the theme of sustainability. This is as close as Grimshaw gets to a 'philosophy'.Not for him the intellectual agonising of an architect like Daniel Libeskind. Grimshaw's proposal for the Victoria and Albert Museum extension was a simple glass cube used as a medium for lighting, projection and display.Libeskind's project he dismisses as 'basically an old fashioned monument-type building'.

Colin Davies teaches at the University of North London. An exhibition of the work of Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners 1993-2000 is at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1, from 15 September-8 October

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