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The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition opens next week. The AJ/Bovis award for the best exhibit in the architecture room was won by Smout Allen, with high commendations going to Stanton Williams and Stephenson Bell, while CJ Lim won the award for the best submission by a first-time exhibitor Given that the recently elected president of the Royal Academy (RA) is one of Britain's leading architects (Nicholas Grimshaw), it is surprising that the architecture room in the Summer Exhibition is one of the smallest spaces in the entire show and is buried at the end of the visitor route as if it were an afterthought. Presumably Grimshaw has had other, more pressing, matters to deal with since his election.

Although the exhibits - around 140 drawings and models - are closely packed, warehouse fashion, the architecture room does, nonetheless, have a degree of intensity, thanks to the efforts of academicians Richard MacCormac and Peter Cook. The starting point is, as ever, the inalienable right of architect RAs to show up to six pieces of work, though it is rare for that right to be fully exercised. Indeed, on this occasion some of the architect members are poorly represented, Ted Cullinan and Piers Gough in particular. Ian Ritchie shows a project (the Leipzig Messehalle) that is far from new, plus some more of the minimalist etchings that have featured in previous shows, and Richard Rogers displays some fairly familiar projects (well, familiar to anyone who reads the AJ). There is one print from Michael Hopkins (whose practice is currently on strong form, with two outstanding new London buildings). Eva Jiricna shows images of stairs.

Even Norman Foster fails to surprise, though the schemes on show are of considerable interest. Foster and Partners' addition to the Free University of Berlin contains echoes of his early work, including the Climatroffice project that he developed with Buckminster Fuller, and is represented by a fine model, plus some of Foster's own sketches.

It is left to Will Alsop, however, to produce something that will arrest the attention of the typical, non-architectural Summer Exhibition punter, with his large and colourful model of Urban Splash housing for east Manchester. The model is surrounded by water, though the goldfish that Alsop specified were ruled out by the academy (presumably on animal welfare grounds). Surely grabbing the attention of the typical visitor, who may have no special knowledge of architecture but is arts-minded, should be one of the aspirations of the architect exhibitors?

Some of the exhibits are, frankly, a little dreary and one suspects that the profession needs to be encouraged to submit more entries - it really is an open field and there are plenty of first-time exhibitors.

Of other big names, John McAslan shines with two models (made by Marc LeStrange) of the project for the reconstruction of King's Cross railway station. If built, this will be McAslan's finest project to date, highlighting the depressing banality of the utilitarian shed tacked on to nearby St Pancras - surely one of the greatest lost opportunities of recent times. And, as much as I admire the work of both, neither Zaha Hadid nor Future Systems shine in this show - again, one wonders whether they had the time or inclination to do more than turn out some items from the office store. One of the more interesting exhibits (and winner of an AJ/Bovis high commendation) from a big-name firm is Stanton Williams' series of study models for its scheme at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, which is accompanied by a lovely, colourful model of the selected option. On a similar note there is also a nice little model - bright pink as if made of icing - of a London office project by Allford Hall Monaghan Morris.

Models inevitably dominate the show. Not all of them are large and showy. Roger Stephenson, architect and jeweller, has been a frequent Summer Exhibition contributor and his exquisite tiny model of a church in Norway was also highly commended. Equally precise in its detail is the fine model by Kohn Pedersen Fox of its submission to the recent London School of Economics competition for the reconstruction of 24 Kingsway in London. This displays a sharp contrast in presentational method and architectural approach to the model of Peter Cook's proposal for the same competition. Another big American practice now firmly rooted in London, HOK, makes its debut with two schemes, one of them the major project for replacing Victor Heal's neo-Georgian New Change complex just east of St Paul's. The model suggests that HOK's London studio has developed a fluent manner of its own, and the resulting groundscraper could be sensational. Eric Parry's model (made by Andrew Ingham - good to see model-makers credited) of a loadbearing wall is a fine thing, though one wonders how far Parry's architecture will drift towards EUR-style rationalism. There are models in every manner here. Simon Conder's Pinions Barn scheme, with a model by Gillian Whittle, is spare and minimal. Niall McLaughlin's Preston Pavilion (model maker: Olivia Gorden) is a wondrously complex affair, laden with cables and pylons bearing solar collectors and wind turbines - the antithesis of the woody school of 'green' architecture.

Leaving aside a huge painting by Will Alsop and some delightful collages by veteran academician Leonard Manasseh (both outshine some of the work seen in other galleries and both are for sale), few of the 2D works make much impact in the crowded context. Quinlan Terry is back with a drawing (by Martyn Winney) of a Palladian mansion designed for Dallas, Texas. The drawing is admirably skilful - regardless of issues of style - but lacks the verve of the fine drawings by Francis Terry (son and now partner of the leading Classicist) seen last year. Peter Hull is, like Terry junior, another draughtsman who would merit an exhibition of his own. Formerly an architect with MacCormac Jamieson Prichard, he continues to work with the practice as an illustrator. There are drawings here of MacCormac schemes for Oxford and Victoria Street in London. More remarkable, however, is the capriccio Anatomy of London - Secrets showing Terry Farrell's MI6 headquarters at Vauxhall in ruins after what appears to be a nuclear or 9/11-style attack. Laurie Chetwood's drawing for a house in the Andes is equally fantastic, but it is apparently a serious proposal; it appears that the man who built the Butterfly House is capable of anything. CJ Lim, often reckoned to be a star in the making, picked up the award for the best submission by a first-time exhibitor for his mould-breaking three boards, combining collage and pencil drawings, of his proposal for a 2012 Olympic landmark for Paris. Denton Corker Marshall's pencil renderings of the Stonehenge visitor centre equally underline the degree to which drawing is resurgent.

As well as offering a cross-section of the current architectural scene, the Summer Exhibition is an important showcase for new talent. The judges for the AJ/Bovis Awards were impressed both by the sheer beauty of Bartlett-trained Mark Smout and Laura Allen's lightbox models of their Panorama Project designed for the Norfolk coast and for the clarity of thought that they represented, and awarded the project the principal award. There was little disagreement either on the quality of Design Engine Architects' presentation of a competitionwinning design for a Shakespeare theatre in Poland. In terms of the dynamic relationship with its historic context and its bold use of pictorial imagery and graphics, the scheme is outstanding. But is it being realised? One of the permanent frustrations of the Summer Exhibition is a lack of information about the work on show. There is no indication as to whether a project is speculative, has been or is being built or has been abandoned. [See AJ 20.1.05 for the full story, Ed. ] Peter Barber has exhibited at the Academy on several previous occasions. His approach to dense, low-rise urban housing presents a challenge to the blank historicism of the Poundbury school. The Tanner Street Gateway project (designed with Jestico + Whiles) hints at the potential emergence of a practical new urban vernacular. Architectural Association graduate Christoph Klemmt has not shown at the RA before, but his Cut project for portable and convertible seaside housing (with Maro Riga) makes for a promising debut.

Klemmt also makes a second appearance, as a member of the M3 Architects team, for a high-rise, mixed-use project in Birmingham.

I know nothing of Graham Hickson-Smith, another first-timer, but his model of The Heart of Slough (the title is attention-grabbing in itself) shows a very well-considered proposal for a medium-rise commercial building represented in an excellent model.

Finally, two acts of homage. The first consists of some fine drawings by the late Ralph Erskine, who was an Honorary RA. Secondly, a set of superb photographs of a museum in Japan by Honorary RA Ieoh Ming Pei. For anyone who associates Pei's name with monumental public gestures, such as the Louvre Pyramid, or glass office towers, this will come as something of a revelation for its use of traditional materials and subtle evocation of history. All in all, a remarkably varied show worth seeing and the selectors were right to cram in so much. Next year, however, one hopes that architecture will regain its rightful place at the heart of the Summer Exhibition.

The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition runs from 7 June to 15 August

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