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Nostalgia for the future

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Libeskind at the Soane: Drawing A New Architecture At Sir John Soane's Museum, 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London WC2 until 10 March

This is a small exhibition carefully designed for the intimate space of the Soane Museum.

Libeskind worked closely on every detail of the show with the museum staff and the result is a delightful collaborative success. It consists of nine models of recent or current projects, together with 10 Micromega Drawings - silkscreen prints from 1979.

The prints are mounted in the gallery in 12 Lincoln's Inn Fields while the models are housed in the breakfast room of No 13, resting upon a mirror installed to fit Soane's table. This mirror is etched with text by Libeskind and reflects the lanterned canopy above, itself a domestic-scale version of one of Soane's Bank of England interiors. Thus Libeskind manages to integrate his work within the museum.

The specially commissioned miniature computer-generated models were laser-cut and metal-coated in Berlin. (All nine of them could be comfortably crated in two shoe boxes. ) In the context of the Soane Museum they appear as sculptural gems within an architectural gem. The installation marks the second time an exhibition has overspilled the gallery and infiltrated the house (the first was with Frank Gehry in 1999). It works a treat.

The romantic interior of the museum has often put me in mind of Joseph Cornell's small boxes with their quixotic interiors - nostalgic for a world removed from our modern times and yet somehow belonging to it. In this setting Libeskind's models, too, take on a nostalgic air, as if we are looking at miniature buildings from a different time and place - a sort of nostalgia for the future.

The Micromega Drawings are a rarely seen insight into Libeskind's architectural thought. They are like meticulously crafted and convoluted instructions from a surreal toy construction kit. Similar to the paintings of Bernard Cohen in the 1970s, these images are suggestive rather than definitive, but indicate, even in their abstract formal composition, an interest in (and facility for) construction detail. As such they come as quite a surprise.

They are tough drawings - preferable, perhaps, to the architecture that Libeskind has developed. The models here are exquisite and delicate but my feeling is that the buildings they represent are less refined, even awkward. This impression is aggravated if we turn our attention away from the models and toward the sections of some of the current projects illustrated in the catalogue.

Recently, at a conference at the University of Westminster, a participant said he considered the Jewish Museum Berlin a deeply thoughtful building.My own view is that, on the one hand, it is too thoughtful: it is too weighed down with literal ideas, with theory imported from beyond the confines of architecture, instead of being an enigmatic architectural object suggestive of the purpose for which it was commissioned. On the other hand, it is not thoughtful enough: the thoughts expressed are not thought out architecturally.

That Libeskind has a considered, articulate and abstracted view of architecture can be gleaned from his notes in the catalogue. It is at the point when theory infuses architecture, however, and in the nature of the connection between thought and architecture, that the problem arises.

Notwithstanding these reservations, it is important that architecture should be seen to embrace thought and culture and Libeskind is to be encouraged in his work. In particular, he must be commended for his search for the spiritual and his recognition of its importance for architecture. The Soane, too, should be congratulated for mounting these contemporary shows, establishing a programme of immense benefit to all engaged in architecture and its attendant culture.

Edward Winters teaches at the University of Westminster

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