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Architecture and the self

technical & practice - A round-up of books which explore the role of technology and the free citizen in urban regeneration

Lonely Citizens: Report of the Working Party on Active Citizenship Editor Ben Rogers. IPPR, 2005. 55pp. £9.95

This is one of those steady stream of Institute of Public Policy Research documents that are intelligently put together, focus on a key theme of public discourse, provide a series of policy suggestions that you just know will be taken up by local and national government in a year's time, but which ultimately drive you mad. Its research is more focusgroup prejudice than analysis, and therefore its purpose is to implement solutions to problems that it has not really understood.

There is so much to discuss on this issue, and while the authors may content themselves with the hoary old chestnut that they are stimulating debate, they would have done better to provoke it in a more structured sense.

It starts with a question: examining 'what 'active citizenship' means' with supplementary questions, 'what does it add to our individual lives?' and 'what could be done to promote it?' Straight away, we are very much aware that this is not a really open-ended discussion. It has already been decided that active citizenship (whatever that might mean) adds something (we simply don't know how much) and that we should promote it (we just need to find the best way. ) The notion that anyone might ask 'active in what sphere' or 'active to what end' is ignored. For Rogers et al, 'activity' is necessary in its own terms. It should be 'fit for purpose and in particular asks no more from citizens than is necessary'. But maybe it is the lack of challenging content that has put people off active political engagement in the first place.

The book ends with suggestions for yet another tier of state intervention in the form of a Citizen's Participation Agency, a body that will be set up to actively encourage us to become active. With proposals like this, we certainly need active citizens - but I think we need them primarily to argue against the authoritarian trajectory of such paternalistic liberalism.

Japan Culture of Wood: Buildings, Objects, Techniques By Christoph Henrichsen. Birkhauser 2004.247pp..65

This is a beautifully presented book by a self-confessed wood obsessive. While there might be therapeutic treatment available these days for this condition, Professor Henrichsen has sought release by documenting all Japanese woodworking professions and techniques, from carved utensils to jointed bridges, from 17th century box makers to modern musical instrument craftsmanship.

Even without a specialist interest, the documentary style of presentation, with clearly demarcated themes, is fascinating to dip into. As Japan's modern machine economy develops, much of this labourintensive craftsmanship will undoubtedly suffer. This, then, is a valiant exercise in recording a moment in history.

Riding the Rapids: Urban Life in an Age of Complexity By Charles Landry. Building Futures. RIBA, 2004. 112pp. £11.95

I have to declare an interest. I was one of the select 20 or so people interviewed by Charles Landry for this book, but since I don't recognise myself in any of it, I feel justified in reviewing it without fear or favour.

The title refers to looming dangers ahead in the development of cities and examines, in classic future-scenario planning terms, the drivers for change. It looks at a range of potential problems to posit how we can overcome or 'navigate' them.

Landry's liberal left - or what is now referred to as environmental-justice-type predilections - disturb the freethinking pretence of this book, and even though it is well-written and thought-provoking, it clearly has a pre-set agenda. Landry is keen to 'trigger and inspire behavioural change'.

Localism is portrayed as an unalloyed good, enhancing democracy and increasing participation. But is democracy better served by a more parochial system of governance? Is participation such a good thing: after all participation in what, to achieve what, by what means? As in Rogers' book, basic questions are simply not posed. And because of this evasion, other consequences that spring from the analysis are either not explored or they are given a positive spin.

For instance, on the issue of local accessibility and identity, Landry writes: 'If visitors start to appear in too great numbers, they can drown and drain the lifeblood of local identity.' Landry sees such localism as a way to 'avoid handing organisations like the BNP more power'. So is it only me who can see the dangerous, but politically correct, whiff of Enoch Powell here?

In terms of risk-aversion, which he recognises as constraining positive development, he suggests that the solution is 'to create a conceptual shift? to rename risk policies 'risk and opportunity policies' to ensure that exploring innovation is an intrinsic activity'.

Come off it. Risk aversion has such deep roots in society that it doesn't matter what you call it.

Moreover, risk aversion will become even more firmly entrenched if it is left unchallenged.

In short, it seems that a successful urban future will materialise if we slow down our hectic pace of life, retrench around new identities, reduce car use because of its cause of increased obesity (no scientific justification needed apparently), produce energy locally, reuse and recycle waste, consume ethically and rely on the mythic power of intangibles like identity, culture and happiness.

Part of the deal, therefore, is to make tangible these intangibles, through consumer action rather than through the market (regardless that these are two-sides of the same coin).

Because of the tendency to see issues in terms of cultural rather than political terms, Landry is drawn to technical solutions. In the short space of time since he wrote Creative Cities, which looked at how cities should rebrand to avoid decline, he now advises cities to manage their inevitable decline gracefully.

Undoubtedly, this book will stand until the next 'theory' comes along. The fact that Landry's solutions avoid confronting real meaningful political arguments in favour of individualised participatory instinct, is why I found this book so fascinating, infuriating and worrying.

Lighting the Landscape: Art Design Technologies By Roger Narboni. Birkhauser, 2004.225pp..76

This is a book that opens up the imagination to colour, light and drama in the landscape through the use of various artistic or functional lighting interventions. The photography is crisp, with beautifully sharp images on every page. I was particularly struck by the Icelandic 'Ephemeral intervention' using laser light along the rugged topography.

The text is concise, allowing the images to speak for themselves. Some phrases do not exactly resonate; we are told that marsh and bog zones are found 'on rock shields of periplains in periglacial latitudes' but even this section on marshy landscapes builds into an enthusiastically poetic word picture.

The fact that 'luminaires' seems to have been spelled 'luminaries' throughout shouldn't put you off. This is a flickable book of ideas architects could well use to persuade a client to a get a lighting engineer on board.

Me++ The Cyborg Self and the Networked City By William J Mitchell. MIT Press, 2004. 269pp.£18.95 (hardback), £9.95 (paperback)

I sometimes tire of the fetishisation of technology, of the idea that as computers become more prolific with more ubiquitous functionality, so we need to believe that we have gone through a revolutionary transition from one social organisation to another.

What about the invention of the car 100 years ago?

Surely that meant the world could be described, as Mitchell says, with reference to mobile network technology, as 'no longer provided by a contiguous home turf'?

However, whether car or internet, there are practical implications for architects and planners that need to be considered. As our modes of communication change, so our infrastructure provision alters as well as the way that office and living environments are ordered. With reference to the network society that has been talked about for years, it is fair to criticise the self-evident fact that modern houses are still not built with integral wireless technology, offices are still conceived without computerised building management systems, and cities limp along without state of the art plug-in networked intelligence. 'Now, ' says Mitchell, 'nothing need be without processing power, and nothing need be left unlinked.'

The starting point for Mitchell, therefore, is that since we now communicate almost instinctively by mobile phone, text or email - which has changed the way that we establish and maintain social networks - where is the consequent theorising of how we build in these changed circumstances?

So far, so good. Even though Mitchell uses sci-fi flourishes such as 'our very limbs had become fleshy antenna supports' when talking about mobile phones, he is actually looking at practical consequences that are thrown up as much by the pace of change by its methods.

But the over-inflated transformatory claims around IT spoil an otherwise straightforward explanation about how communal engagement has changed. Mitchell is so sure that we live in different times that sentences such as 'sewer networks have become geographic extensions of my alimentary canal' are used without irony.

As such, this conflation of material provides a certain mystical otherworldliness to an otherwise fascinating book.

It is sad that, even though he is talking about the most inventive, exciting sector of wireless technology - a sector with tremendous transformative potential - Mitchell is bogged down in the morass of self-doubt and paranoia which affects so many other areas of politics today. In the end, this is very much a post 9/11 book governed by fears of association, networked terror and the idea that 'we have never been human'.

With this world view, instead of being seen as a potential liberation, global networks become 'opportunities to create threats'. As Mitchell says, 'the characteristic fear of our time is no longer the barbarian beyond the gates? but of foreign bodies networked into our midst.' Personally, I think that before setting out on his next book, Mitchell should reject the parochial prejudices of the Social Forum and instead watch Adam Curtis' magnificent TV exposÚ of the myth of the terror network as a handy reality check.

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