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Promotional practices John McAslan by Kenneth Powell. Thames & Hudson, 1999. 176pp. £28 John Lyall: Contexts and Catalysts by Kenneth Powell. l'Arca Edizioni, 1999. 100pp. £16

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John McAslan and John Lyall have several things in common: each was involved in a high-profile, now-defunct 1980s practice; each operates at the high-quality end of the public/commercial spectrum; each has recently had published a catalogue of his work to date. Neither of these two catalogues has been bulked up to any great extent with 'critical' essays, so it seems fair to assess each in terms of its usefulness as a record of its subject's achievements.

Lyall, being less flamboyant than his erstwhile partner Will Alsop, has had a lower profile since that practice split nine years ago. This new volume, covering his subsequent work, is unlikely to catapult him to similar fame. Its look will be familiar to anyone who frequents remainder book shops. At closer to A3 than to A4 in size (although few of the images even approach A4), and with extra-wide margins, the book manages to make the amount of work presented seem less substantial than it actually is.

Revelling in superficiality would be acceptable were the photographs and drawings themselves at all absorbing, but they are, at best, merely illustrative of rather mundane projects. The use of barely competent photographs from a multitude of sources undermines even the coffee-table credentials of the book, and, apart from one drawing for a competition entered with Kathryn Gustafson, the drawings lack the density or elegance required to survive scrutiny. The muddled result bears closer, though not more flattering, comparison with a loose-leaf commercial portfolio than with a catalogue raisonnee.

No such problems attend the John McAslan book. Here the pages are set out with the carefulness and elegance of one of his facades (see Christopher Place, above right). The book reflects the control of image apparent in all that McAslan releases, as well as his skill in working within self- imposed narrow limits. The practice thrives through maximising the possibilities of working for banks and speculative developers, selling recognisably modern architecture to wary clients.

The book is entirely mainstream in its late-90s architectural context, employing 'modern' layout and typography without ever risking illegibility; it is just as strait-laced and polite as McAslan's architecture, which, despite using modern materials and techniques, never offends the conservative. The buildings are developed from the tamer compositional conventions of Modernism, those of clarity and economy rather than uncertainty and flexibility. The production is thoroughly glossy, with use of colour photographs efficiently restricted to built projects - the effect is that of a celebration of the concrete, of real, built things.

Kenneth Powell's introduction to the McAslan book is genuinely revealing about the architect's inspiration, although the breadth of interest in what inspires McAslan must be quite limited; at least Powell refrains from trying to grant him much historical standing. The final section of the book is a thorough catalogue of the practice's work, with brief descriptive notes.

Lyall seems doomed to be remembered as the James Gowan of his generation rather than the Michael Wilford. McAslan on the other hand has apparently taken to sole practice as a natural state and now intends to create a European rival to som or kpf, purveying an acceptably modern international style to big business. The Powell book shows that he has as good a chance as anyone, and as a portrait of a thoroughly commercial practice it is more interesting and revealing than it has any reason to be.

Both of these books can easily be seen as promotional literature, indirect mail to the culturally interested chief executive or to the ambitious young architect wondering where to expend his talent for a few years. It is very clear which of the two subjects is more in control of his image and his resources - and more likely to reap the commercial rewards.

Gerry McLean is an architect in London

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