Architecture: The look and learn of design and build

Neo this, titanium that, hypersurface the other: as a new exhibition of Alvar Aalto opens, keep up with Rob Bevan's Aa to Z

A Alvar Aalto - some people will do anything to get on the first page of the phonebook - is a presiding genius of 20th-century architecture.

The centenary of his birth last year has seen a wider interest in his influential work, which married modernism with a sensitivity to the light and natural forms of his native Finland. Rare is the architect's home that doesn't have at least an Aalto stool or some glassware. Colin St John Wilson went the whole hog, spending 30 years creating a homage to Aalto on the Euston Road: the British Library.

Aalto called his boat Nemo Propheta in Patria - "No one a prophet in his own country". A refrain architects never tire of.

B Brownfield is the new black for architects. The conundrum of where a projected 3.8 million new households are to be accommodated has been taxing architects and planners for some time. High density, mixed use, compact cities rather than zoned metropolitan sprawls are now universally seen as a Good Thing. The Government has set a target for 60 per cent of new homes to be built on brownfields - land built on before. Sites are limited, though, and some look distinctly green; airfields, agricultural showgrounds etc. A wave of sustainable new towns is mooted, with Cambridgeshire's Silicon Fen a likely location for one.

C David Chipperfield and Nigel Coates are two very different personifications of Aalto's non-prophet dictum; until recently both had received far more recognition abroad than at home. Coates, whose work with the practice Branson Coates is a titanic clash of the baroque and the organic, cracked it recently with his National Museum of Popular Music, a drum-kit of a building in Sheffield.

Coates is still seen as something of an enfant terrible even after reaching his half century - which must be wearing but he looks well on it.

Despite his prize-winning Rowing Museum in Henley, the more restrained Chipperfield is still having to made do with rebuilding the Neues Museum in Berlin, creating a new island cemetery in Venice, and swish boutique hotels in Manhattan and Miami. It's a hard life.

D is for Dutch. With the courage of its convictions, the Netherlands is once again a hotbed of the architectural avant-garde with practices such as Mecanoo, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture, MVRDV and UN Studio (crazy names, crazy guys) showing the way forward. Half-buried buildings with twisted ramps, cantilevers and collage facades make it difficult to decide where a building begins and ends.

Dutchman Erick van Egeraat has won the job of remodelling the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford and the Photographers Gallery in London. The future is Orange.

E As a huge consumer of energy and materials, architecture has finally realised that it has to get to grips with ecological issues. The responses range from clunky New-Age turf-roofed and timber agglomerations - the architectural equivalent of Hobbit turd - to clever-clever all-glass buildings which create enormous heat gain and heat loss problems for themselves which they then neatly solve with technical wizardry.

This is progress. The architecture of the everyday which makes unexpected use of the bits of kit you can buy off the shelf in Wickes is all the rage; the architectural equivalent of downshifting.

F is for FAT, a collective of jokey young Clerkenwell funksters (Fashion Architecture Taste) who have a serious message. Using art, video and architecture they are challenging the commodification of architecture and aesthetic norms with installations and art happenings; bus stops masquerading as thatched cottages and an ad agency which manages to incorporate a diving board, an oversized toy fort and a bust of Lenin.

FAT's all-female equivalent Muf got chucked of their Millennium Dome zone for asking too many difficult questions. The antithesis, then, of Sir Norman Foster who, despite the odd corker, is increasingly the purveyor of corporate sartorial correctness. FAT is the smiley patch on Fosters's Brooks Brothers suit.

G has to be for the Bilbao Guggenheim and its architect Frank Gehry. The titanium wonder is credited with reviving the flagging fortunes of the Basque port. Be alert. Now that an architectural icon is seen as a quick fix for economic misfortune, every little arts centre in Truro or new library in Redcar will be heralded Truro's Guggenheim, Redcar's Guggenheim etc.

Gehry, one of the most successful exponents of Deconstructivism (why have one straight wall when 10 curvy ones will do?) now numbers a more modest cancer care centre in Scotland among his projects.

H Until recently H would have been for hi-tech, a particularly English addiction to nuts and bolts which Norman Foster and Richard Rogers in particular have exported around the world.

A new plurality of approaches has chipped away at its hegemony. Try instead H for Jacques Herzog of brilliant Swiss practice Herzog and de Meuron, architects for the new Tate at Bankside and rising stars of the international architectural superleague.

Or H for hypersurface - an approach which seeks to blur architecture into the digital babble of the information age. We should also try H for Housing; the world's most important architectural issue and the least resolved.

I is for Japan. Yes it is. Itsuko Hasegawa, Arata Isozaki, Toyo Ito and Kazuhiro Ishii are among the recent generation of confident Japanese architects who reflect a further shift in the fulcrum of architectural culture from the west to the Pacific Rim.

Technology red in tooth and claw

is the central article of faith for some astonishing achievements, but a thickening counter-strand looks to more

contemplative or Zen-like Japanese forms. Tadao Ando's Church of the Light in Osaka and Church on the Water in Hokkaido are sublime manifestations of the latter.

J Stand still long enough and Charles Jencks, American academic and architectural taxonomist extraordinare, will have you classified, stuffed and mounted in his gallery of movements, trends and isms. Every new section and sub- section of post-modernism, post-structuralism or decon is dissected even as it emerges from its chrysalis.

Fond of oxymorons such as "violated perfection", "machine eroticism" and "positive nihilism", J is also for Eva Jiricna, the perfectionist Czech-born architect and one of the few women to have achieved international fame and success under her own name. Architecture is still a deeply sexist profession.

K Jan Kaplicky, former partner of compatriot Jiricna, forms one half of Future Systems with his personal and professional partner Amanda Levete.

A near frenzy of excitement greeted perhaps their first fully realised project, the media centre at Lord's cricket ground. Boat-building technology has been hauled in land to create the smooth socket for its glassy all- seeing eye. It is a demonstration of their belief that architecture should stop playing about with bricks and mortar and start examining the production methods of cars and yachts.

L is for Lottery, the fuel on which the motor of adventurous British architecture is running. Now Dale Winton's largesse is being redirected towards revenue rather than the grand projects which have caught the public eye, will all things architectural fade once more into the background of the public's consciousness? Not if Daniel Libeskind can help it. The German architect is working on the Imperial War Museum of the North in Manchester and a reprise of his Berlin Holocaust Museum next door. The V&A also looks set to build his vertiginous spiral.

M is for minimalism - the 1990s antidote to the kitsch post-modern excesses of the 1980s. Architects John Pawson and Claudio Silvestrin are among those carving out luxurious austerity for those rich enough to pretend they own nothing.

With Anouska Hempel's eponymous hotel (the ultimate in stealth-wealth) minimalism shot its load and became an empty style as far as far as interiors magazines were con

cerned. It remains of perennial interest, however, to many an anal retentive architect who relishes the discipline.

N is the shock of the Neo. Without the grand narrative of modernism to guide it, contemporary architecture is uncertain about the future, forever looking over its shoulder for inspiration. Reissue and repackage with a contemporary twist: neo-modernist; neo-constructivist; neo-baroque;neo- Liberty; neo-Gothic; neo-rationalist. Charles Jencks will soon declare neo-neo-modernism's precise moment of birth. This all suggests that there is nothing neo under the sun.

O Olympics and opera houses are opportunities for cities to flex their architectural muscles. Atlanta failed to reach its peak and Manchester never got out of the blocks, but Barcelona jump-started the regeneration of the whole city with the Games. Next year Sydney promises something similar. Recent operatic star turns include Sir Michael Hopkins and Partners' Glyndebourne, Christian de Potzamparc's Cite de la Musique in Paris, and Yacov Rechter's Tel Aviv opera house. It ain't over until the fat lady puts her shot.

P is for procurement. Not vice, but the methods by which buildings are commissioned, designed and paid for is a hot topic for architects. Despite waving the Cool Britannia banner in architecture's direction, the Government is continuing Tory policies of screwing down the cost of public buildings at the expense of quality through Private Finance Initiatives, Design and Build (where the designer relinquishes any control over the building process) and management structures which deliberately exclude architects from their traditional role as project coordinator.

Q Que Va! Along with the Pacific Rim and the Netherlands, Spain is where it's at.

It wasn't an architect but Barcelona which won this year's prestigious Gold Medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects for its design- led renaissance. Spaniard Enric Miralles is designing the new Scottish parliament; Architects MBM are regenerating Newham, east London, and no doubt Raphael Moneo will be designing a new museum near you after a string of hits from Seville to Stockholm.

It is working the other way too with Sir Norman Foster busy in Valencia recently and Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners' art gallery in Galicia. And then there is Bilbao.

R has to be for Richard Rogers, now elevated to Lord Rogers of Riverside for services to Architecture (and New Labour). He led the team which put together the Government's Urban Task Force mammoth report which promises to save our cities by design. The international high priest of hi-tech has become an unlikely saviour of the community and the compact city. That said, his practice will still knock out proposals for out-of-town offices and shopping if you ask nicely enough.

With his business partner Marco Goldschmied now RIBA president, and his daugher-in-law director of the influential Architecture Foundation, Rogers is the architectural establishment personified.

S is for Alvaro Siza (pronounced like the salad), would-be sculptor and Portugal's premier architect. Alvaro Siza is responsible for a string of astonishingly beautiful buildings in his home country (so much for Aalto's gripe). His latest offering, the Museum of Modern Art in Porto, which opened last month, is another exercise in crisp white cubism.It remains to be seen, however, whether the cool approach taken by Siza, which is perfect for a hot country, will translate internationally, especially to the colder regions of the world. His less successful work in Berlin suggests otherwise. Still, a name to watch.

S is also for Skyscraper; high-rise homes are back.

T Technology has been the lodestar of 20th century architecture and looks set to remain so in the 21st century, as architects take information technology to heart. Gehry's Guggenheim, for instance, would just not have been viable a few years ago before computer-aided design and computer- guided laser cutters made organic

curves and complex cladding economically possible. Many architects never touch a drawing board any more.

U is for Ushida Findlay, the Anglo-Japanese outfit responsible for some extraordinary pod houses in Tokyo such as the "Soft and Hairy House" and the "Truss Wall House". Their more Presbyterian housing development in Glasgow is nearing completion.

U is also for Urban Design. Architects are finally realising that this doesn't just mean designing lots of buildings but extends to transport and patterns of living. The turf war for control of urban design between architects, planners and landscape architects continues.

V Vitra, the forward-thinking furniture manufacturer, has turned its headquarters near Basel on the German-Swiss border into a radical architectural zoo. Buildings by Nicholas Grimshaw, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Tadao Ando all feature. Basel, home town of Herzog and De Meuron, is also the proud owner of buildings by them, Renzo Piano, and Mario Botta. Vitra and Basel have become a mandatory staging post on any grand tour of contemporary architecture.

W is for West Coast of America, facing Japan across the Pacific Rim. It has long been an architectural wonderland, especially LA. Spectacular houses by John Lautner, Pierre Koenig and Charles and Ray Eames have been joined in recent years by some of the best in contemporary building - Richard Meier's Getty Museum, Gehry (again), as well as smaller progressive architects such as Morphosis, RoTo Jersey Devil and Antoine Predock.

X XL as in S,M, L,XL, as in small, medium, large, extra large, is the 1995 book by Dutch architect and theory guru Rem Koolhaas which has become the Bible for many young architects.

A former journalist and scriptwriter, Koolhaas's writings are as influential as his buildings which range from the exquisite small house to the XL, such as the Eurolille megastructure in northern France. He is fascinated by the chaotic growth of China's Pearl River Delta metropolis. Uncertainty, whether of scale or the future, is the key.

Y is for Year of Architecture and Design. Glasgow is halfway through its marathon programme of exhibitions and projects which aims as much to educate its own citizens about their strong architectural tradition as to show the potential of architecture as a force for good.

"Alvar Aalto in Seven Buildings" is one of dozens of shows encompassing food, sport and product design as well as architecture. Other projects include the Homes for the Future housing demonstration project and the recently opened Lighthouse architecture centre.

Z is for Zaha Hadid, growling architectural diva, living legend and scourge of the

middle-brow. The London-based Iraqi architect is yet to build in her adopted country but is finally getting the chance to translate her dramatic neo-constructivist paintings into reality with a series of meaty commissions including contemporary art museums in Rome and Cincinnati.

She slices, cantilevers, bends and excavates to make her apparently unbuildable schemes buildable. Right angles - who needs 'em? Her first work in the UK will be the Mind Zone in the Dome. Mad for it.

'Alvar Aalto in Seven Buildings', Gallery of Modern Art, Royal Exchange Square, Glasgow (0141 229 1996), 30 July to 10 October; 'Living', an exhibition of work by Rem Koolhaas, is at the ICA, The Mall, SW1 (0171 930 3647) until 19 September

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