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Small is beautiful

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All American: Innovation in American Architecture By Brian Carter and Annette Lecuyer. Thames and Hudson, 2002. 256pp. £24.95

Modernism, claim the authors, began with Albert Kahn's industrial buildings for Ford in Detroit, and was subsequently brought to Europe and given an artistic gloss. It was then transported back by Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, and the many architects who emigrated in the 1930s.

But that dynamism has since been lost to America's abiding throw-away consumerism, to the strip and shopping mall.

Now a few architects, mostly 40-somethings, are reinventing a distinctive style. This is a manifesto for their work.

The new American Modernism is rooted in digital technology, as Frank Gehry has shown triumphantly. But the younger architects have taken their experience of CAD and CAM to manufacturers and contractors, and assimilated design with construction techniques and components. The result is a series of carefully crafted and beautiful buildings, virtually all of them small.

They represent two diverse strands: one that is very craft-based and green, another that is very conceptual and veers towards exhibition design. A link is the use of light - controlled as part of a natural ventilation scheme, or used artificially to make displays in the most urban contexts. Is this a purely American experience, or is this where architecture is heading for small practices in the 21st century? That is the interest of this book.

The difficulty is that its small, square format attempts to force each of the 20 practices into a straitjacket. Each is given a short text, and a series of barely related long captions, in a page layout that is usually split in four. Add a dash of Louis Kahn concrete or Alvar Aalto curving timberwork to each, and their individuality crumbles.

That the practices are organised by area is good for New York. Its forceful identity comes out in the Architecture Research Office's US Armed Forces Recruiting Station in Times Square; in Leslie Gill's loft housing;

and in ShoP's artistic projects. But these architects' work extends from Michigan to Japan, and the Boston architects do not build in Boston at all!

The Mid-West with its craft tradition and the South-West's intense heat stand out from the pages rather better. Yet Dan Hoffman's extensive work at Cranbrook comes into the latter, as he has relocated to Phoenix, and makes an odd contrast with Wendell Burnette's desert houses of concrete, diffused light and shady courtyards on the pages before.

Every section has its quota of dreamy private houses, and a worthy, crunchy school.

Yet where schemes are illustrated by concept drawings, as often in California, the essence of materials, construction and detailing that these architects do so well is lost. Digital technology is a means, not an end.

A final section stresses the increasing pluralism of architecture, its extension from buildings and furniture into film, theatre, events and to landscape. But one gets a better sense of this through looking at the individual projects, where one is constantly reminded that each is an individual piece of research - and most of these architects combine practice with teaching. Indeed, the Building Design Workshop is a changing mix of staff and students from the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning in Michigan.

In any other country, these buildings would be a worthy achievement, but in the US they represent only the tiniest fraction of commissioning capital. The satisfying thing is that the tradition of great materials and detailing that stood out in even the largest firms, like SOM, back in the 1960s, still exists, and that there is a place for the small and beautiful, and even for the green. But these projects need a more inspiring presentation for this reader to head west.

Elain Harwood is a historian with English Heritage

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