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Talented pragmatists

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Collaborations: The Architecture of ABK Edited by Kenneth Powell. August/Birkhäuser, 2002. 176pp. £26

Styles in architecture, as in popular music, now come round ever more rapidly. In music we see cover versions and remixes by DJs, rather than the composer or original performer. In architecture, we see retro-modern, and a revival of interest in one of Paul Koralek's former employers, Marcel Breuer.

So, 40 years on from its conception, ABK's Berkeley Library at Trinity College Dublin once more looks fresh and contemporary (see above). All that has changed is the photographer. Substitute Hélène Binet for John Donat and this building would sit alongside Gigon/Guyer, Peter Zumthor and Herzog & de Meuron.

This is not said glibly; rather, it reveals something of the unusual character and ethos of ABK. Judging by the mixed quality of the visual records of its projects, it is clear that the partners have never fetishised their own archive. The building as live performance, rather than a highly controlled and manufactured representation, has always been ABK's litmus test. The 'materiality' and 'textures' and 'light' of the Berkeley Library, to borrow from current obsessions, have to be experienced, as does its presence on a historic campus.

ABK is hard to pin down: three talented architects working together and on each other's designs, who eschew 'architect's ego' and therefore happen to be nice guys (hence the title of this monograph - Collaborations). This is both their strength and their weakness. It allows them to respond pragmatically to problem solving, rather than a one-style-fits-all approach, but it makes their work hard to encapsulate - it is easy to misread them as eclectics.

So much so, that Jeremy Melvin, Elain Harwood, Kenneth Powell, Frank McDonald and Paul Finch together do not crack it. And their task is not helped by the graphic format, which crams their essays into slender colourcoded bands running simultaneously across the top and bottom of the page. (More like a magazine than a book, more thematic than chronological in its structure, it is clearly an attempt to eschew the usual formats. ) So I went back to the 1991 monograph published by Academy Editions, for one voice (Peter Blundell-Jones), a traditional approach, and a simple linear overview of the work.

Here are two suggestions for a deeper and necessary appraisal of ABK's work in the future. The first is to consider its position as 'Modernist', which is primarily social and ideological. This cannot be understood by analysing the look of the architecture, but the kinds of problems it addresses, the changing structures of everyday life, and how it responds to them in a very broad range of briefs; architecture as a lens through which we comprehend and transform the world around us.

The second is that world outside ABK's studio and how the partners interacted with it - its politics, its technology, its burning issues, and its fashions. A time-line illustrating their projects, alongside the events they were embroiled in, and the architecture of their peers, would shed light not just on their own output but on that epoch. No doubt the authors would argue that is what the monograph is attempting, but they neither situate nor explore the work as profoundly as they might.

Stephen Greenberg is director of Metaphor

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