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Home grown

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Coming Homes At the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1, until 11

January Ifone were to characterise the past century or so of architects' engagement with mass housing in epic terms, it would start with heroism and continue to the inevitable tragedy, before proceeding through farce to irony.With the exhibition 'Coming Homes' at the RIBA, rather as some people think Post-Modernity foreshadowed Modernism, we seem to have bypassed irony and gone straight to the post-ironic period.

It should be the summation of a century of experience, of lessons learnt, unsuccessful experiments abandoned and successful ones applied, and above all showing an emergence ofmature attitudes.And the period, as represented in the exhibition at least, does bear traces of all its predecessors - but rather than adding up to more than the sum of its parts, it conveys a series of erudite fragments barely holding their own against a sea of reaction.

In the ironic phase there would have been some critical self-awareness, a sense that the modalities of architectural practice might have been turned on themselves to advantage. Here, at least in the overall exhibition design, if not in the exhibits themselves, those modalities are alive and kicking in more or less unreconstructed form, unable to redefine themselves and unwilling to address the way others see them.

Consider the exhibition's installation.

Occupying Gallery One, it greets visitors with a wall whose (tinned) salmon-pink is uncannily like that of Bob the Builder's yard.

Inside, a load of broomstick handles hold up cardboard boxes in the shape of houses, among which the exhibits seem sparse and overwhelmed.

If not intentional, the effect might be appropriate. One panel proudly displays the results of CABE's survey which 'proves' that while many people want to live in a house or bungalow, no one wants to live in a tower block, and housebuilders' normative products vastly outnumber the best efforts of Peabody and Urban Splash. So here we have yet another depiction of the RIBA's siege mentality. Like a brotherhood of 19thcentury missionaries, it characterises itself as evangelising to the heathens, always in danger of ending up in the cooking pot, but ever awaiting that glorious enlightenment when everyone will want to follow the way of Corb.

Many problems spring from this version of its position. It is based on the false predicate that architects, prophets misunderstood in their own land, hold the key to happy housing, and this assumption sets an all-pervading aura which makes it hard to appreciate qualities of the individual exhibits, most of which are to some degree 'experimental'.

They include Wayne Hemingway's collaboration with Wimpey in Gateshead, Piercy Connor's ingenious, prefabricated microflat (pictured), and AHMM's Raines Dairy, one of the projects where Peabody is investigating what new production methods might achieve.

Glenn Howells' scheme for Urban Splash in Manchester looks ravishing, even after seeing how similar it is to one of the examples in the associated exhibition of London Region schemes in Gallery Two, the socially deprived Loughborough estate in south London. The point about each example, and others like Buschow Henley's Chatham Dock and Proctor Matthews' at the Greenwich Millennium Village, is that all are unique in programme, site or both, and while they might suggest particular improvements to elements of house building, do not provide blueprints for it.

A context that explained this would make the exhibition much more accessible to members of the public who, after all, do not need to be reminded that they eschew living in tower blocks (although the buyer of the £1.45 million penthouse apartment in one of the Barbican towers might disagree).

What emerges from this is the suggestion that architects are good at the experimental and the one-off.Volume housebuilders, as the rubric makes clear, build very cheaply but leave no room for innovation; but surely there is a better characterisation of the relationship than that between the infidel and the enlightened. And it is here that irony - at least as opposed to confrontation - might be useful.

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher at South Bank University

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