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Our friends in the north

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'My good Yorkshire friends . . . ' began Ruskin to the wool merchants of Bradford when invited to pronounce on their proposed exchange in 1864. It would be tempting to report that the curators of Architectural Images of the North reply to his patronising slur with an implied 'Our good metropolitan friends'; what Charles Hind and Jason

McKinstry have done instead is to assemble a thought-provoking little exhibition - including Bradford Exchange competition entries by Philip Webb and Norman Shaw - drawn primarily from the riba's collection which Hind directs.

In fact the architecture of the north is better, bolder and more cohesive than that of the south (especially the south-east). Vanburgh - represented by proxy by Hawksmoor's stunning rendering of a preliminary design for Castle Howard, and Benjamin Ferrey's measured drawing of Morpeth town hall (attributed to Vanbrugh) - wrote of 'the tame sneaking south', and it shows.

Think of Newcastle, which arguably has the finest urban topography in England, enhanced by John Dobson's robust Neo-Classicism, seen here in the splendidly brooding Tynemouth memorial to Lord Collingwood, who took over command at Trafalgar after Nelson's death. Think too of Norman Shaw's great houses in Northumberland - Chesters and Cragside - which far outshine his southern ones. Both are in the exhibition: Chesters with a clever curved 'butterfly' plan; Cragside, a romantic mountainside setting where its client, armaments manufacturer William Armstrong, could retreat from the enormity of his business career.

Excepting Voysey's pair of twee houses in that twee-est of settings, the shore of Lake Windermere - and these are among his best - the north seems to have avoided the worst excesses of the Arts and Crafts movement. Its own excesses are either more muscular - Salvin's castle re-workings such as that at Alnwick - or combine muscularity with knowing elegance: Burlington's York Assembly Rooms, James Gibbs' designs for Lowther Hall, or the oeuvre of John Carr of York are persuasive examples, but Vanburgh remains supreme.

A deliberately vague title allows the exhibition to blur several issues. Some architects - Dobson and Carr, for example - were northerners and chose to remain so. Others, like Salvin and Waterhouse, were northern by birth, well-connected, and moved to London with the occasional professional excursion to the region of their origins. More, like Shaw, were London- based, with few regional connections but drawn north by clients attracted by their national reputations.

Here might be scope for further study, but the most pressing task must be to explain why quality tails off in the twentieth century - at least as far as the exhibition goes. Are cinemas by Harry Weedon and John Alexander really representative of the 1930s in the north, and Lubetkin's sorry experiences of Peterlee New Town the epitome of northern stubborness against 'foreign' ideas? And is it a gap in the drawings collection or personal taste which explains the absence of Sheffield's Park Hill housing: that 'image of the north', which for good or ill, best combines Modernism and the region's architectural character?

Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher

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