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Tipping future talent

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Young British Architectsby Jeremy Melvin. Birkhauser, 2000. 128pp. £29.95

Jeremy Melvin's new book brings together 14 of Britain's emerging architectural practices. The selection contains many of the London-based firms one would expect, but four practices outside the capital are also included:

Stephen Hodder, Shed KM, Richard Murphy and Bauman Lyons. Of those chosen, none could have been more pleased than Eric Parry - if for no other reason than, at 48, it's reassuring to still be labelled 'young'.

As with any anthology, part of the interest revolves around who wasn't included, as much as who was.

Melvin tactfully explains that his selection was not based on which practices were better than others, as this would have been 'too selfreferential of existing norms'.

Instead the choices were made partly on the basis of 'depth'. I doubt, though, if several prominent young architects would find much comfort in the thought that their exclusion was not based on being less good - just shallower.

However, all the practices represented do offer both an interesting collection of work and a considered approach to the process of architecture. From Birds Portchmouth Russum to Weston Williamson, and Caruso St John to FAT, there appears through the illustrations a vitality in the work. This helps imbue the book with a sense of optimism about British architecture and design.

Leaving aside Melvin's introductory essay, the format is not far removed from a series of practice profiles. Each architect is allocated a little under a page of text that provides an outline of their approach, followed by a number of illustrations.

Typically only a couple of illustrations of a project are shown with just a single sentence of explanation.

One ambitious and rather inscrutable aim which the author sets himself is to show how architecture may become a 'strategy for projecting the future'. While he does provide an interesting commentary on the relation of architects to their working environment, Melvin falls short in conveying quite how architecture could fulfil such a role. The theoretical content of the book is just not sufficient to support such aims. Even the intriguing title of the introduction, 'Footfalls into the Next Century - Preparations for an Architectural Renaissance', promises more than it delivers in describing either the preparations, or this particular renaissance.

Nevertheless, the author does convincingly describe the context which these practices shared during their initial years. He makes various observations on the educational, political and economic influences on their careers, and conveys these persuasively.

Given the emphasis placed on the inter-relation between architecture and the political environment, it seems slightly strange that the book chose to use 'Britishness' to define its catchment area, when the direction of the prevailing political culture is arguably towards a more devolved identity. Perhaps there is another volume to follow, entitled Young London Architects, in which Melvin can expand on the subjects he raises, using a more geographically specific selection. It could even help convince the new mayor of architecture's strategic importance in projecting the future.

Alex Wright is an architect in Bath

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