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Marketable properties

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Big Ideas, Small Buildings By Phyllis Richardson. Thames & Hudson, 2001. 224pp. £14.95

Except for a few perfunctory references in its brief introduction, this is a largely unanalysed grouping of small, contemporary, specialistdesigned structures. Divided into five chapters are 39 separate project articles:

'shelters for meditation'; 'objects in the landscape'; 'furnishing the city'; 'the functional sublime'; and 'anytime anywhere'.

But that is about as far as the conceptual effort goes and, as many of the structures would qualify for entry in several of these categories, even that is not really worth the complication. Softroom's Kielder Belvedere appears, not as an 'object in the landscape', but as a 'shelter for meditation'. The short text which accompanies the belevedere then does nothing to clarify why it should be regarded as any more or less conducive to meditation than the open ground surrounding it.

The selection is diverse, with works from Europe, America and Japan. However, the terms of that selection remain entirely hidden and, thus, one can only surmise that they may have some relation to Thames & Hudson's sales distribution network. There is also a curious absence of any dates for the completion of the works, despite a host of other information, including costs and practice addresses. It is an ahistorical look at the recent past, which isolates individual works from their specific circumstances, in favour of an exaggerated degree of consensus.

The text, although often stylish and informative is, disconcertingly, all written at the same optimistic pitch: an unerring confidence in each project's capacity to enrich the lives of communities in exactly the way the architect intended. This is a more or less acceptable formula for the work of someone such as Richard Horden - that is, the architect as the provider of specialised kit toward the refinement of leisure activities or exploration. There is, indeed, more of Horden's work included than any other architect's:

three separate articles present his portable observation tower, the alpine station and the silva spider and fisch haus cabins.

However, confronted with such works as the mobile pavilion sculptures of Hiroshi Nakao, including 'Gisant/Transi' - named after the sepulchral sculpture of decaying bodies popular in the 15th and 16th centuries - Richardson's words have little purchase on underlying complexity.

Perhaps the most convincing grouping is formed under the last heading, 'anytime anywhere'. This chapter combines the nomadic urban vision of the Suitcase House by Parisian architects GrÚgoire and Petetin;

recent permutations of the more familiar kit house, such as 'Su-Si' and 'Fred' by Leo and Kaufmann; and examples of Gilles Ebersolt's exploration and 'extreme sports' equipment.

Tellingly, the images of these creations all bear the marks of commerce and sponsorship. The main picture of kit house 'Su-Si' shows it in a winter building site, moments from being separated from the cradle of a mobile crane (see left). Its name, an oversized barcode and the website of the architects are plainly visible, incorporated as a graphic on its front elevation: an immediate transference from website to building site.

Photography of Gilles Ebersolt's 'La Ballule' (below) and Icos treetop observation module unashamedly incorporate the logo of powerful sponsors as design 'conquers' geography.

GrÚgoire and Petetin, representative of a younger generation of French conceptualists, construct a more subtle and economical stage for the link to commerce. Their artwork of the 'Maison-Valise' is as remarkable for its use of the human figure as for the design itself - a cut-and-paste tableau of the neo-nomad family, with fashion and accessory credits in the bottom-right corner.

These structures may or may not be capable of the 'anywhere' claim, but they have clearly been conceived with at least one particular destination in mind: the international architectural publishing market.

Robin Wilson writes on architecture, art and landscape

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