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Opening the archive

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Exposed! Images from the RIBA Photographs Collection At the RIBA Architecture Gallery, 66 Portland Place, London W1 until 29 September

When Julius Shulman came to speak at the RIBA a few months ago, there was a sell-out crowd. His lecture was a lesson in the power of a photographer to define an era - in his case, the cool Modernism of post-war America - and a reminder that architecture and style are spread far more immediately by images in journals than by first-hand experience. It is the photographer's eye which usually colours our critical first look at a new building.

Exposed! presents a selection of new prints (88 to be exact) from the RIBA's colossal collection of 700,000 architectural photographs. A few of the images are familiar, from the wonderfully dramatic 1935 shot of a floodlit Battersea Power Station rising from the mist (looking like a set from Metropolis) to an incredible photograph of a chain works in Poplar - a haunting image of a lonely figure, a survivor among the relics of Britain's industry, taken almost three decades later by the same photographer, John Maltby.

Maltby is probably best known for his highly theatrical pictures of Odeon cinemas (a couple of which are featured here), but it is striking how both his actual images and their subjects seem to perfectly encapsulate an era. From the brilliantly-lit, Expressionist fantasies of the Odeons to the steaming power station (a monument to power itself ), they capture the zeitgeist with panache.

Robert Elwall, curator of the RIBA photographs collection, suggests that these images constitute an important social record and comment. Certainly, the best of them are, whether in the vision of the photographers or in the figures which stand, often isolated, against a background of cuttingedge architecture. There is, for instance, a superb shot of an idealistic London County Council primary school with a single, lonely, bored-looking schoolgirl; though a 1964 image of the wicker chairs and dodgy sofa in Habitat seems as dull as the shop is today.

Was this really a revolution in retail?

From about the end of the 1960s, however, the human figures and humanising touches begin to disappear. Brutalism, Neoand Post-Modernisms and High-Tech seem to play against a background of emptiness and silence.

Shulman's images came to define an era because they embraced fashion, style, and aspiration (these houses were so obviously the place to be seen), as well as recording architectural history. Too many of the more recent images in this show lack this humanity, or even the voyeuristic thrill of looking into (a meticulously constructed) private life.

The photographs of Henk Snoek, Alistair Hunter, and Morley von Sternberg are good, but their appeal is limited to those interested in the buildings. Maltby and Eric de MarÚ's images are of broader interest because they show much more.

All this, however, is hardly a criticism of the exhibition, which is well-selected and engrossing - it is more a comment on the increasingly fetishistic view of buildings as objects existing in a vacuum. You only need to pick up an exquisitely produced copy of A+U, or even The Architectural Review, to see the cult of the empty interior and the deserted street.

Of course, this is nothing new. The familiar image of Lubetkin's Highpoint II penthouse proves that such fetishism was central to Modernist image-making. Yet how much more interesting that shot would be if Berthold himself was lounging in the pony-skin chair.

Edwin Heathcote is an architect in London

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