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Show that warrants serious thought

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The Displaced Grid At the riba Architecture Centre, 66 Portland Place, London W1 until 28 March

For so long we have been conditioned to believe that the only purpose of an architectural exhibition is to communicate with the public. High attendance is the only measure of success, simplicity the aim, and banality the result. Nowhere has been more guilty of this than the riba Architecture Centre, which makes 'The Displaced Grid' an especially good antidote to such sterile ambitions. Its images are often obscure or untidy and its models sometimes shabby. But there is more substance in them than any amount of professional model-making or computer graphics could impart.

The exhibition comprises work by 13 architects from the Contemporary Art Collection of the Centre Region in Orleans, France (FRAC Centre). Some inclusions, like Bernard Tschumi's designs for La Villette and Madelon Vriesondorp's paintings which illustrated Rem Koolhaas's Delirious New York, are internationally significant. Others are by designers who are reasonably well-known (Odile Decq and Benoit Cornette, Diller and Scofidio), or yet to achieve widespread recognition (Nasrine Seraji).

Yona Friedman's Spatial City, of the late 1950s, is a French corollary to Team X - and it makes a nice contrast with Peter Cook's 1960s glam Instant City alongside it. But such affinities are few and not especially relevant. The importance of the Instant and Spatial cities is not in terms of each other, and together they hardly give a view of European urbanism in the period between 1958 and 1968. Very often the lack of a coherent overview or curatorial eye would be a disadvantage. Superficially, it registers in the grating of so many fashionable names thrown together, and an impression that the grid might be misplaced, rather than displaced. But there is enough content in the individual exhibits to become immersed.

The overall theme of the frac Centre collection is 'research'. This is a notoriously hard concept to define in architecture; it is easy to agree, and easier to demonstrate, that it has little to do with the simple certainties which certain 'research specialists' peddle, but far harder to make any positive suggestions. This exhibition comes close.

In one sense it does so through the unfinished nature of many of the exhibits. Friedman's model of Spatial City is polystyrene and twine; Peter Eisenman's massing model for the Guardiola House is simple cardboard, with rather messy edges. Clearly not made to impress clients, there is a feeling of work in progress - that these items are thinking tools in a process. This feeling is reinforced by drawings that help to construct a narrative about the projects.

Vriesendorp's paintings are similarly unmemorable for their technical skill, but are sometimes extraordinary nonetheless. In Flagrant Delit, the Chrysler and Empire State buildings are pictured in a post-coital trance alongside a used condom on a bed, which partly hides a rug in the pattern of Manhattan's street plan. A hybrid of the Statue of Liberty and Venus de Milo observes them through a window, while the rca building shines a disapproving spotlight from the door. Overloaded to the point of unsubtlety with surrealist reference though it is, it does hint at a completely new way of looking at architecture, which Delirious New York explores.

Another example, perhaps closer to conventions of architectural research, is David Emmerich's lightweight structures. Related to Friedman's city projects - they were both in the Groupe d'Etudes d'Architecture Mobile - Emmerich's devices use a simple combination of wooden rods and metal chains, in compression and tension respectively, to create extraordinary self-tensioning, lightweight frames. If Koolhaas introduces a new mindset, here are some practical advances.

But while each inclusion has inherent interest, and some are fascinating, one can't be entirely oblivious to the exhibition's overall layout. The grouping of 1950s urbanism at one end and 1980s avant-garde at the other is logical but unsubtle. Of more consequence, though, is the apparent lack of rationale to the selection. Why this particular baker's dozen? The accompanying publication (on A3 newsprint) lists the entire collection, which merely intensifies the question.

That publication is also marred by carelessness: Itsuko Hasegawa is referred to as both 'he' and 'she', for instance. Yet when an exhibition actually provokes serious thought about architecture, and shows that it is an intellectual discipline, its failings can perhaps be overlooked. Jeremy Melvin is an architectural writer and teacher

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