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Value judgements

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review - Architecture in Scotland 2002-2004 At The Lighthouse, 11 Mitchell Lane, Glasgow, until 22 October

Learning through playing. Serious fun.

'Architecture in Scotland 2002-2004' is attempting just that. This is not an exhibition of orthogonal drawings on the wall, or even models. Rather it is an interactive experience, apparently aimed at everyone, to raise the debate and engage with a simple question: in architecture, what do we value?

From the work on show, contemporary Scottish architecture need not be concerned with its inherent value: it is highly polished, serious, committed, assured. Images of 44 projects, from all corners of the country, rural and urban, appear on two large screens, supplemented by comparative information.

Around these screens are timber packingboxes, set out for a game of architectural trumps. The lovingly prepared trump cards feature all 44 projects, and the values ascribed to them - for instance, 'Building footprint', 'Cost/sq m (£)', 'Design time ratio (%)', and so on. Which is the trump? Is it better if the cost is higher or the area greater?

The tone of games and play is immediately established on entering the exhibition space: one is confronted with Lego models.

But overall the show is a serious affair - its palette is very limited. In itself this reflects the exhibited work, which one might almost think was by a single hand. The open packing boxes display examples of materials currently used by the featured practices, and it's a common palette - cool, sharply-dressed, predominantly grey and blue. It is an architecture of arrogant modesty, sensitive to context, history and, specifically, place.

The images are unashamedly fetishist: the architecture is everything, in its simple and pure line, material deference, and dedication to detail. But the spaces, though delightful, are disturbingly uninhabited.

What these images convey about the architecture is perhaps at odds with the intent to engage the casual visitor. The exhibition is isolated, four floors up, and one wonders: who will really sit down and play? In some ways the value debate does become overly convoluted.

There almost seems to be too much going on but the exhibition does succeed in its primary aim, in raising a perennial and complex issue - enigmatically conveyed in the last object in the room, a large empty gabion cage. One is drawn to this object, as one has learnt to expect to look, and question, a little deeper. Although no answer is forthcoming, there are hints: the homogeneous quality of the exhibition, the packing cases, the familiar palette of materials, all suggest that architecture is about commodity - that it can be packaged, moved on, interchanged.

And this feels like satire, for it is clear from the exhibited work that uniqueness to place and context is a fundamental concern of all those included, as are individual practices' devotion to quality and desire for excellence, regardless of modest opportunity.

Underneath the apparent emphasis on the value issue, there's a feeling that 'we' - the architectural community - are privy to some greater knowledge: that the true value of architecture is revealed in the comfortable embrace of time, in the use and reuse of spaces, and furthermore, in the unquantifiable value of spatial joy, of architecture's capacity to raise one's emotion. Such values are not measured by balance sheets or cost/sq metre.

Where practices did not submit cost information, the associated icon 'N/A' seems to confirm that broader understanding of architectural value. Whether this accords with the public's understanding, in the light of hospitals threatened with closure and the cost of the Scottish Parliament, remains to be seen. This exhibition, if brought to ground level, might expand the issue in the public's mind - and also in the minds of some of 'us'.

Michael Angus teaches at the University of Strathclyde

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