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Halfway house

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review - Housey Housey: Pierre d'Avoine Architects At the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, until 27 November

Behind this exhibition is an entirely worthy, if somewhat self-evident, proposition:

that the housing on offer in the UK is woefully inadequate. In a modest way, Pierre d'Avoine Architects has helped to show different possibilities, specialising in discreet and unpretentious houses in the interstices of city and suburb. Bundling them together into a book called 23 Houses: A Pattern Book of Ideal Homes, and mounting an exhibition of them, seems a perfectly reasonable next step. So why does it leave me rather cold?

It might have something to do with feeling short-changed. Despite the title of the book, the exhibition only has seven examples, and the presentation of these is sparse, with incomplete plans and often inadequate 'doll's house' models (made by students from London Metropolitan University's School of Architecture). The only documentation is photocopied page proofs of the book.

These houses may be as cheap to build as they are beautiful to look at, which would really justify the premise, but it is impossible to tell from the display. Exhibit 175 is a 'model' consisting of an occasional table pilfered from your granny's entrance hall with one of her best tea-cups and saucers on it.

This house is called 'invisible'. There are no sections or photographs: perhaps, like a supposedly free internet site, you find you have to pay for the real meat, which in this case is the book. That may well be lovely; one can't really judge from photocopied page proofs.

Why is it that, whenever the RIBA tries to address domestic design - the most fundamental question of its existence - it always makes a mess of it? I have lost count of the number of exhibitions on the subject I have seen in Portland Place; almost without exception they reinforce the public sense that architects cannot address ordinary problems, while simultaneously scratching members' backs by reassuring them that, yes, they are all an endangered minority.

This one is no exception. There may be real inventiveness in these seven designs. I was left speechless by the admirably tight planning of staircase, kitchen and bin stores in no 109;

the octagonal 358 looked interesting, though better architects than d'Avoine have often concluded that octagons are best used for commemorative towers. But I do not know what a Playmobil Saladin and woolly Eyeore were doing in another, nor how Bob the Builder and Thunderbirds' Captain Tracy would have got along as housemates in 'Big House'.

The problem here is an old one. The minimal approach to information about these houses springs from their own aesthetic minimalism, which is all very well for those who can spell Wittgenstein, but when the aim is to appeal to the public, some dressing is needed. So that comes from the next drawer down in the architect's toybox, which is labelled 'popular culture': hence Saladin, Barbie and Bob.

The result is two parallel systems, which need wit and real insight to merge. But merged they must be, because if architecture is really to infuse mass housing, then it has to connect to popular culture, not just use it as an ironic mirror for minority obsessions.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher. Pierre d'Avoine and Clare Melhuish will give a lecture at the RIBA on 23 November, 18.30

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