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Accentuate the negative

Warped Space: Art, Architecture & Anxiety in Modern Culture By Anthony Vidler.MIT Press, 2000. 301pp. £22.50

Over the years, Anthony Vidler has offered a sustained critique of the simplistic Modernist notion that space is a purely positive concept.He redresses the balance by worrying away at the negative associations of space and the psychogeography of urban life.

Vidler's aim is to translate psychoanalysis into architectural theory, in particular Freud's notion of the uncanny as representing the repressed elements which destabilise our psychological notion of home, and Jacques Lacan's analysis of the mirror stage, that troubling point at which children first learn of their own separate, subjective consciousness.

In Warped Space, Vidler brings on board the two current buzz topics in American architectural academia: the resurrection of the Marxist critical theory ofManfredo Tafuri, and the desperate need to posit a convincing theory about digitalisation and cyberspace.

It is an ambitious project, to say the least, and while it doesn't come off we are treated en route to a dazzling display of erudition that ranges across philosophy, psychology, literary theory and art criticism.

The book is particularly strong in its presentation of the history of intellectual ideas.Vidler traces the first interest in psychological explanations to nineteenth-century German aestheticians such as Heinrich Wolfflin, whose interpretations were expressed in terms of the physical form of buildings.

Wolfflin famously characterised the Renaissance as relaxed and serene, and the Baroque as frantic and anxious. Others, such as August Schmarsow, challenged this view, preferring to link psychology to internal space rather than form.

But the key phase, according to Vidler, came from another group of German intellectuals at the turn of the century, the great sociologists of the city, such as Georg Simmel. They argued that the psychological concepts of alienation, displacement and fear were in fact more representative of the myriad dark, fractured spaces of the modern metropolis.

Tafuri and his colleagues also put the German sociologists at the head of the Modernist tradition, followed closely by the cultural analyses of Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt School of critical theory. The same pattern is repeated here, and hence it is no surprise when Vidler even reprises Tafuri's seminal quote that the purpose of bourgeois art and architecture in the modern world was to ward off the shock and anguish incurred by rapid social change.

Where Vidler adds to the story is through his detailed knowledge of Austrian and French psychoanalytic theory, from Freud to Lacan.Vidler places emphasis on what became known as 'the horror of the void' - a condition first attributed to the French philosopher Blaise Pascal.He looks at various ways in which modern psychospatial illnesses such as agoraphobia and claustrophobia were defined and diagnosed, along with the deeper explanations about the repressed unconsciousness that psychoanalysts put upon them.

All this is impressive, so why does the book fall short? It is because the second part, consisting of specific critiques of contemporary artists and architects such as Rachel Whiteread, Morphosis and Daniel Libeskind, fails to develop the debate.

Vidler never deals with the recurring criticism of psychoanalysis, which is that all it can ever do is describe symptoms, not explain causes.He seems to believe that a psychoanalytic account of, say, the voids in the Jewish Museum in Berlin (see picture) is the way to reveal the building's meaning. The problem is that key works of art and architecture contain so many other levels of meaning that a purely psychoanalytical reading is far too partial.

There is a further inconsistency in Vidler's method, in that his theory is rooted in the psychology of the ordinary and quotidian, whereas he seems hell-bent on writing about avant-garde artists and buildings. It might well have served his ends better if he had used the analysis as a springboard for scratching away at common building types like schools or hospitals.

These weaknesses are then compounded by the fact that, when Vidler does finally get round to talking about digital culture and cyberspace, he clearly doesn't much like what he finds. He describes it as creating non-space and non-time, and the feeling one gets is of someone reluctantly talking about a subject from the outside. It is a shame, since it detracts from what is otherwise a highly stimulating book.

Dr Murray Fraser teaches at Oxford Brookes University

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