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Brits get gritty: the gritty but fertile underbelly of London life underpins this exhibition of young architects living and working in the metropolis.

The best places for viewing the works of a young generation of London-based architects may be the city's canals, judging from the exhibition Gritty Brits, currently showing at the Heinz Architectural Center at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Art. Organised by curator Raymund Ryan, Gritty Brits uses these waterways in a series of contextual photos by David Grandorge as a multi-layered theme to link the designs of six young London-based firms. Many exhibited projects are near or on the canals, in characteristically rough and post-industrial, yet also multi-cultural and renascent areas. The oddly-shaped sites, discarded warehouses and moribund housing projects are where younger architects find their clients and their framework for reinterpreting London.

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Firms include Adjaye/Associates, Caruso St John, FAT (Fashion Architecture Taste), Niall McLaughlin, muf, and Sergison Bates. All of them live and work in the city. David Adjaye's Dirty House for artists Tim Noble and Sue Webster in Shoreditch exemplifies works that install refinement into rough streets in transition. The iconic residential cube has a matte surface, to resist graffiti and prostitutes Adjaye says, but the cornice floats on light, hinting at luxuriously spare and curiously mess-free studios inside. Similarly, Caruso St John's Brick House in Notting Hill (AR March 2006) and Sergison Bates's Studio House in Hackney use blunt materiality to establish a dialogue between rough urbanism and elegant spatial manipulation.

These works are also in the shadow of both the successes and failures of Modernism. While Ryan's catalogue essay speaks of the architects' admiration for Denys Lasdun and the Smithsons, a number of exhibited projects aim to ameliorate the shortcomings of lesser figures. FAT's Tanner Point Housing, for instance, reconstitutes a dilapidated 15-storey Modernist housing project. Redesigned floor plans accommodate extended families of new immigrants and additive, figural, coloured balconies (chosen by the tenants) reflect traditional cultures. Crenellations and baroque gables cap the neo-Venturian effect.

Muf's My Dream Today: Your Dream Tomorrow/Horse's Tail in Tilbury, Essex softens a modern public housing complex with a designed landscape that resuscitates a tradition of pony riding for children. Sergison Bates, meanwhile, show through a series of textured and humane projects that a revised Modernism can still be a suitable language for public housing.

The issue of sustainability arises most forcefully in Niall McLaughlin's work, such as the ARC Centre for Excellence in the Built Environment in Hull, Yorkshire. A moveable lean-to exhibition pavilion for the northern port city includes locally manufactured mobile homes. A small 'thicket' of solar cells and wind turbines on high poles recalls and updates notions of British High-Tech for a technological but post-industrial era.

These works are invariably more complex than a physically concise exhibition can explain, though Ryan's and Iain Sinclair's catalogue essays are rich supplements. Significantly, Ryan reminds his readers that these firms are all experiencing enhanced visibility and larger international commissions. The seemingly underused canals have in fact given birth to a larger architectural movement.

Gritty Brits is the Heinz Architectural Center, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh until 3 June. www.cmoa.org
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Title Annotation:reviews
Author:Rosenblum, Charles L.
Publication:The Architectural Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:May 1, 2007
Words:504
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