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Retrospective vision of the future

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Future Systems At the ICA, The Mall, London SW1 until 24 May

The first thing you see on entering this exhibition is an extraordinary rainbow-coloured phallus called Green Bird, a model of a proposed giant skyscraper on the site of Battersea Power Station. It's called Green Bird because it was inspired by Bird in Space, the famous Brancusi sculpture, and because, like many Future Systems projects, it is said to have been designed on ecologically sound principles. But skyscrapers are not sculpture, they are mostly engineering, and what works for a metre-high object crafted in polished bronze will not work for a 100-storey building. So instead of balancing precariously on a point as if about to take flight, this bird is flared at its base, as if it has swelled up out of the body of the land. A Brancusi sculpture is not the first thing you think of.

It is this continual oscillation between art and engineering, between nature and technology, between inspirational forms and constructional realities, that makes the work of Future Systems so hard to criticise rationally. In the early days of the practice, when its output was restricted to 'visionary' schemes, it was easier, paradoxically, to believe in the essential practicality of the designs. At that time the High-Tech style - all those exposed steel frames painted in primary colours - was at its height and Future Systems seemed to offer a more satisfying alternative: not made-over Victorian engineering, but the genuine transfer of high technologies from the aerospace industry to the building industry.

This usually meant semi-monocoque structures in place of exposed steel frames and aluminium cladding panels. But now that Future Systems has begun to build, the industry has developed its own technologies - computerised building-management systems, fluid-dynamic analysis, fast-track construction programmes, prefabricated service pods - and they don't look anything like aeroplanes or space ships. It is now apparent that, in Future Systems projects, technology was always the servant of form. To put it another way, it was architecture, not just engineering.

One noticeable effect of the change from visionary schemes to real projects with real budgets is that smooth, double-curved, streamlined forms tend to get flattened out into two-dimensional profiles or extruded sections. For example, in Wild at Heart, the little Notting Hill flower shop, the characteristic teardrop form is merely etched onto the glass facade, and the House for JK and DH in Canonbury comes out as only a slightly more sophisticated version of ordinary cross-wall construction.

But then there is the Media Centre for Lord's cricket ground, which is unquestionably the real thing: a semi-monocoque structure of sheet aluminium, just like a boat or an aeroplane, balanced on two concrete legs. That such a building should have been commissioned by an institution that still restricts the entry of women into its premises is little short of a miracle. At first this egg on legs seems like a deliberate provocation, but then you think of the technology of cricket, its global reach, its slow-motion replays, its protective clothing, even the organic plan-form of the field itself, and it doesn't seem so inappropriate.

But still it remains primarily an expressive form rather than an economical solution. The boast that this is the first static object to employ a true semi-monocoque structure merely demands the question: if it isn't going to move at high speed, why does it take a high-speed form? Jet aeroplanes have to be streamlined, otherwise they don't work properly. This restriction doesn't apply to buildings. The justification for the form is therefore artistic rather than technological.

And this is an architecture of forms, rather than spaces. The basic compositional model is to make each functional element of the building into an object - an organism, a piece of sculpture, or both. In the domestic buildings, such as the earth-sheltered house in Pembrokeshire, or Jan Kaplicky and Amanda Levete's own converted London home, bathrooms become 'pods', sofas turn into kidney-shaped play pits, and staircases are installed like nautical gangways. Typically, the exhibition itself ignores the high rectangular space of the ica gallery and is resolved into just three big objects: a pair of bright yellow teardrop-shaped tables on which to display the models, and a snaking, waist-high structure around the perimeter on which to display the drawings. Circulation is restricted to the narrow (too narrow) spaces left over.

'The future is so close, you can touch it,' says Martin Pawley, inspired to lyricism by Future Systems' projects. Well, they are not just projects any longer, they are real buildings, and the future is with us. But, of course, it's a retrospective future, the future we once dreamt of, and already it's looking a little dated. Colin Davies teaches at the University of North London

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