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Man meets nature

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A Right to Difference: The Architecture of Jean Renaudie At the Architectural Association, 36 Bedford Square, London WC1, until 26 March

A Right to Difference: The Architecture of Jean Renaudie By IrÚnÚe Scalbert. AA Publications, 2004. 176pp. ú25

Who's heard of Jean Renaudie (1925-81)? I certainly hadn't. But after visiting the AA's exhibition, I'm now a convinced Renaudien.

In drawings and photographs, the show focuses on two schemes in particular:

Renaudie's renewal of Ivry-sur-Seine and his redevelopment of Givors near Lyon.

Aside from the quality of his realised work, Renaudie's importance to us today is in creating 'sustainable communities' - not the low-density sprawl officially promoted in this country under that designation, but low-rise, high-density places in which people spend fulfilling lives. Complete with shops, cafÚs and places of entertainment, all can be reached pleasurably on foot.

Renaudie saw topography as a challenge - an opportunity to create places with a strong identity. They are real communities from which we can learn.

Renaudie must have derived great pleasure from the death-knell of high-rise when, in 1972, the French government banned such buildings in town centres. (This civilised enactment is nowhere near our own statute book, it seems. ) At first glance, his work might be categorised as relating to the 'megastructure' movements of the early 1960s, but that would misrepresent it. Whereas man is reduced to a mechanisitic pawn dressed in space garb in the fantasies of Archigram, Renaudie is concerned with human beings 'made in the image of God' - dignified, not to be exploited.

Everything we are shown bears this out.

Renaudie's sensitivity both to man and nature - the latter used to create a new 'spirit of place' - expresses his wish to create an organic architecture that will be life-enhancing, and give delight not only to those who experience it daily but to visitors too. At Givors, for instance, a meandering path climbs up through cascades of foliage festooning the interlocking terraces of the housing. As in many a historic town, it culminates at a medieval castle, where pedestrians are rewarded with views of the rich tapestry they have just passed through and the countryside surrounding the town.

Renaudie's apartments, with their unusual variety of plans, clearly promote new experiences of living. Through the relationship of angled spaces, shaped windows giving unusual views, and natural light falling from different directions, everyday life is transformed as if by a magician, while pieces of furniture surely come into their own when emphasised as partly freestanding objects. I am reminded of Picasso, who advocated the crooked hanging of pictures;

he thought that with conventional regularity they become quickly disregarded.

For those who have the good fortune to live in Ivry or Givors, the experience must certainly be stimulating. But this exhibition and its accompanying book are the next best thing. They communicate the richness of these projects and let us see what made the master tick.

John Bancroft was a senior housing architect with the GLC

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