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'London Living City': more eco style than substance

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hellman

'London Living City' puts environmental issues firmly at the centre of the new mayoral agenda, opening at the riba just three weeks before the elections are due, and powered by solar panels mounted on the exterior of the building. But somewhat at odds with its own manifesto, it seems to fill a lot of space with relatively little content. The exhibition is dominated by text graphics and ranks of computer and video screens which suggest the visitor initiates an 'interactive' relationship with the issues, while providing little bait to entice them to do so.

Herbert Girardet, joint curator with designers Charlick + Nicholson, is a highly respected writer on environmental issues, which makes it more distressing that so much of the intellectual content should be carried through soundbytes without substantiating detail or reference to sources. For instance, in the 'Cities and Urbanisation' section we read that, 'By 2000 half the world's six billion people will be living in cities. ... There are now 35 cities worldwide with populations over five million. ... In the last 25 years, 33 per cent of the natural world has been annihilated, mainly due to the expansion and resource consumption of cities ...', etc. Such abstract statistical statements read like a 'fast and loose' of the environment, and seem to be an unavoidable corollary of the eco-tech position adopted. Again, the visitor learns that, 'Initiatives on sustainable urban development can build on international agreements such as Agenda 21, signed at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, and the Habitat Agenda, signed at un City Summit in Istanbul in 1996', but no information at all on their content is offered.

The exhibition embraces six major themes describing the areas in which the city must change away from the old 'Modernist vision' and towards the new model of the 'living organism': there's Transport and Movement; Energy, Living and Ecology; Resources and Waste; Information and Communication; and Architecture and Planning. Each includes examples of new and improved practice, although the physical exhibits are minimal. A handful of architectural models are displayed, including Bill Dunster's Beddington Zero Energy Development for the pioneering Peabody Trust; Hamzang and Yeang's City in the Sky competition scheme; and the bre Environmental Building in Watford by Feilden Clegg Bradley, a practice often associated with a more traditional, rope-sandal environmentalism. But when 'new build adds less than 1 per cent to the dwelling stock each year', the impact of architecture seems much diminished.

The exhibition seems intended primarily to spark debate around these issues through the medium of the Internet, fuelled by the videoed views of the mayoral candidates on sustainability, and it stands as an embodiment of commitment to computer technology as a way of exploring organisational models of increasing complexity, simulating natural forms. Perhaps it would have made more sense, then, as a Web presence than as a physical spatial phenomenon.

'London Living City' is showing at the riba Architecture Gallery, London, until 9 July 2000

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