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Life less ordinary

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REVIEW: Tony Fretton Architects: Retrospective 1986-2001 At the RIBA, 66 Portland Place, London W1 until 28 July

The retrospective aspect of this exhibition on Tony Fretton Architects is more a reference to the practice's ideas about architecture than an exhaustive catalogue of its output.

The show consists of 10 beautifully illustrated projects and buildings that represent steps in the search for a contemporary vernacular on the one hand and a more abstract extension of the Modernist project on the other.

Fretton's work is underpinned by the relationship between his architecture and context - the context being the physical, social and political forces that can be felt against his proposals.While his social sensibility is often difficult to extract from the reduced drawings, sketches and models, this rather intangible quality is revealed in his offbeat manipulation of the vernacular.

Early experiments with ordinary things:

door and frame, plug and light bulb fitting or bin and desk studies for Mute Records (1986) show how our experience of architecture is conditioned by our unconscious familiarity with objects, and how they can help architecture to communicate.

Here the vernacular takes on a distinctly gritty and urban character, absorbing patterns of use and meaning from the familiar, and later, in buildings such as the Lisson Gallery (1989), it expands into a more abstract architectural expression. The purist language of early 20th century Modernism is infiltrated with prosaic contextual elements - the industrial roof-light or shop-like vitrine - while internally Fretton uses the toughened glass handrail, now a ubiquitous staple of corporate architecture, as another letter of the contemporary vernacular.

This abstraction and quotation continues in many projects, and especially in the stunning competition entry for the Pro-Forma Hotel, a multi-purpose arts centre in Denmark. The building emerges as part of a proposed, but as yet unbuilt, masterplan of large office blocks beside a railway viaduct linking the new district across the sea to Copenhagen.

On first impression it engages directly with the glass-and-steel curtain wall architecture expected in such developments but quickly asserts other ambitions in its principal exhibition and performance area.

Sectional models show a dark balconied theatre space topped by two large eye-like roof lights - a robust armature for events, opening and closing its eyes for different occasions, its static quality acknowledging that the imagination of the users will go further than the most sophisticated physical flexibility.

The balance between abstraction and representation provides the measure for the work. The multiple vernaculars appropriated by Fretton are less regional than cultural.

The projects engage with different existing codes while always transforming them into a more personal and abstract language rooted in Modernism. Given this general reduction in the formal expression of the buildings, the work is surprisingly talkative, even lighthearted.

Recent discourse on the relationship between culture and architecture (led by Rem Koolhaas in particular) is full of doorstop books that conflate architecture with our fractured world, as if on its own it can no longer represent our aspirations.

Fretton's practice engages with culture in its broadest terms but interprets it with a very precise architectural language. It is the playful use of the raw elements of architecture and its history that offers the framework for a radical social practice.

Tom Emerson is in practice with 6a Architects and teaches at the AA

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