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Inspiring a kinder climate for design

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The Architecture Centre, Bristol, has had regular exhibitions since it opened in September 1996 but 'Four Stories' is the first to originate there. In last week's aj, reviewing 'The Displaced Grid' at the riba, Jeremy Melvin welcomed an exhibition that didn't make 'communication with the public' its primary aim; 'Four Stories' does. As the Architecture Centre's promotional leaflet explains, its mission is to increase people's understanding and enjoyment of the built environment, on the assumption that this will 'encourage public demand for good design'.

One of the travelling shows which the centre previously staged was in the 'How Did They Do That?' series, that continuing attempt to throw light on the complex process of realising a design. Surprisingly, perhaps, the Bristol audience found it hard going - too dense, with too much text, for other than a dedicated visitor. 'Four Stories', curated by Will Callaghan, tries another tack. On the reasonable premise that 'everybody loves models', it foregrounds their role in the development of four buildings: a new house in Wimbledon by Pawson Williams, the Yapi Kredi Bank operations centre in Istanbul by John McAslan & Partners, a student village for the University of Durham by Arup Associates, and the St Benno School in Dresden by Behnisch, Behnisch and Partner. (The Bristol Harbourside Centre that this last practice is working on will form a show in its own right later this year).

Accompanying the models in each instance are five slender information panels suspended at head height around the gallery; they look very sleek before the whitewashed rubblestone walls. The first of these panels supplies an image of the building, the second introduces the architect, while the other three contain a column of text and a column of illustrations - tiny sketches, mostly. What they can say about each scheme is obviously very limited and the text is at a basic level. 'Architects often design their own houses - it allows them to explore new ideas in a project'; 'The third model shows changes to the shape - known as the 'massing' - of the building.' The shy visitor is taken very gently by the hand.

In commenting on the nearby models, the texts do introduce some key considerations: for instance, a building's relationship to site and to landscape, energy efficiency, 'served' and 'servant' spaces, choice of materials, use of colour. But the need to simplify brings unanswered questions. One imagines (and the ar's October 1997 critique confirms) that the bright colour scheme at St Benno School was not just because - as the panel says - Behnisch wanted 'a landmark building'. Of Yapi Kredi we learn that, when the design was complete, 'it was passed to a Turkish architectural firm to build, [which] ensured that the design passed through the planning system and met with the architect's and engineer's original ideas'. Just like that? And post-competition changes in the brief for the Durham student village imply another untold story: the bald statement that 'the new design reflects the need to get many things into one structure for a low cost' is not fleshed out.

The two projects which best illustrate the use of models in developing a design are also intrinsically the most interesting: Terry Pawson's own house (AJ 30.10.97) and Behnisch's St Benno School. From the exhibits it is clear that, for both architects, models are working tools: they think and re-think with slivers of card. Even the larger-scale model of the dramatic glazed foyer at St Benno has a provisional air. Both these projects show real ingenuity in their response to problematic sites, in each case inhospitably narrow. Pawson shows that Modern architecture can enhance a conservation area; Behnisch makes an institution enticing.

Playing continously in the centre of the gallery is a video featuing the four architects. Apart from occasional remarks (for instance, John McAslan on 'the importance of creative engineering'), they tend to cover the same ground as the text panels, though presumably some people will find the material more accessible in this form. Forty copies of this tape have been made for distribution to schools of architecture.

If the professional visitor may be conscious of lacunae and a lack of substance, 'Four Stories' shouldn't be undervalued. It is a thoughtful, visually appealing attempt to engage a new audience for architecture. I hope it will travel and that feedback from it will guide future curators of such shows.

Quite how improved communication with the public creates a kinder climate for design - not just acceptance but creative commissioning - is seldom spelt out; there's a leap of faith entailed, or, at least, resignation to a slow uphill struggle. But, with a government whose attitude to education and the arts bodes so ill for architectural quality, and with media that reinforce that indifference, we need some leaps of faith.

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